On the eve of final arguments in the civil trial of former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong, the plaintiff’s lawyer summed up what the case is all about.
“The main argument is that she was defamed,” Bryan Baynham told the Georgia Straight, referring to his client, Laura Robinson.
Robinson is the journalist who first reported on Furlong’s previously undisclosed history as a Christian missionary in northern B.C., and the alleged abuses he committed against First Nations children he taught at a school in Burns Lake.
Giving a preview of some of the facts he will be citing on Friday (June 26) in his closing argument in B.C. Supreme Court, Baynham said that Furlong claimed Robinson went to the RCMP to file a complaint of sexual abuse against him on behalf of a First Nations woman, “and she didn’t”.
The lawyer also recalled that Furlong “said she tried to extort money and she didn’t”.
“You can’t say that about anybody,” Baynham said in an interview outside the courtroom today (June 25). “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a reporter or a person walking down the street or the prime minister.”
According to Baynham, Furlong “went way beyond what he was entitled to do and say”.
Cross-examining Furlong on June 23, Baynham referred back to Furlong’s “Enough is Enough” statement of October 29, 2013, wherein he announced that he is discontinuing his suit against the Straight, which published Robinson’s piece titled “John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake” in 2012.
In that statement, Furlong said: “In forty years of living, working and public service in B.C., there had never been a complaint about me. Never a criminal charge, nor a reason for one. Laura Robinson then made one.”
Pointing Furlong to those words in the statement that is part of the voluminous evidence in the trial, Baynham asked if he saw them.
“Yes, I do,” Furlong replied.
Baynham then went on to read a transcript of an interview given by Furlong to Global TV the day before his “Enough is Enough” statement. In that interview, Furlong told news anchor Chris Gailus: “And what’s odd about it is that this activist [Robinson] in fact filed a complaint, not the student. She filed it, she went to the RCMP and made the complaint….”
Furlong told Baynham: “That’s what I believed.”
Baynham proceeded to cite Furlong’s interview with Maclean’s magazine on October 29, 2013. Referring to the sexual abuse complaint filed against him in July 2012 by a First Nations woman who was among his former students in Burns Lake, Furlong told the publication: “It was a ridiculous charge. It was a lie. And it was placed before the RCMP by Laura Robinson.”
Furlong again told Baynham in court: “That’s what I believed.”
Robinson is also suing Furlong for his statement on September 27, 2012, the day her article was published in the Straight. Referring to allegations against him, Furlong stated: “I was advised for that for a payment it could be made to go away.” In the same paragraph where he made this claim, Furlong also said that “this feels very much like a personal vendetta” of “this reporter”.
In court during the trial, Furlong repeatedly denied linking Robinson to an extortion attempt.
“I never ever, not once in any article, ever accused Ms. Robinson,” Furlong said.
As he did with his defamation suit against the Straight, Furlong eventually discontinued legal action against Robinson for the article she wrote. Her story contained allegations of emotional and physical abuse, but not sexual abuse.
In his opening statement on June 15, Baynham had this to say: “By dropping the suit, Mr. Furlong conceded that Ms. Robinson’s original story was true.”
Baynham later said that he’d be interested to hear from Furlong why he didn’t pursue Robinson in court if he believed that her article defamed him.
On June 22, while cross-examining Furlong, Baynham offered a theory. He made reference to Robinson’s response to Furlong’s defamation claim, wherein instead of just the eight people she reported about in her Straight story, there were more who had come forward with allegations of abuse.
“Mr. Furlong, you never wanted to appear the 30 individuals that have been named in the response to evidence in court, isn’t that right?” Baynham asked.
Furlong protested, but Baynham insisted: “You didn’t want to have those, those witnesses give evidence in court. That’s why you dropped the case.”
During the trial, Furlong’s lawyer, John Hunter, sought to demonstrate that his client was simply responding to continuous and sustained attacks on his reputation by Robinson, which he said began before and persisted after her story was published.
Hunter said in court that Robinson contacted Furlong’s colleagues and continued to make allegations against him following the publication of her article.
In his opening statement in the case on June 22, Hunter said that the law recognizes a person’s right to answer an attack on that person’s reputation, which is qualified privilege.
Hunter explained that a person responding to an attack may use “violent” or “excessively strong” language, and “may attack the character of their attacker”.
In his cross-examination of Robinson, Hunter asked: “If someone is going to be attacked in the press…they ought to be able to respond to defend their reputation, shouldn’t they?”
Like Baynham, Hunter was asked by the Straight outside the courtroom today about the main point he will raise in Friday’s final arguments.
“It will be a number of points,” Hunter replied.
The last witness presented by the defence in the trial was John Yuille, a memory expert and UBC psychology professor emeritus.
Under oath today, Yuille said that Robinson employed poor investigative techniques when she sought interviews with former students of Furlong in Burns Lake.
As the court heard from Hunter, Robinson prepared a flyer that stated that a journalist was investigating abuses and that she was looking for former students of Furlong. Later, the former students were made to wait in a common area for Robinson’s arrival.
According to Yuille, identifying a target, the nature of the subject, and times and locations, as well as not separating witnesses before an interview produce unreliable information.
“This is a fatal flaw in doing an investigation,” Yuille testified.
Asked by Hunter to comment on the information gathered by Robinson on April 21, 2012, when she first met people at Burns Lake, Yuille said: “Very suspect.”
Baynham’s colleague Daniel Reid cross-examined Yuille and the psychologist admitted that he has no background and expertise in journalism.