The lawyer for a journalist who is suing John Furlong for defamation warned of the “chilling effects” that will be created if the former Vancouver Olympics CEO prevails in the case.
In his closing arguments in B.C. Supreme Court, Bryan Baynham said a Furlong victory would signal that it’s “open season” for the “wealthy and powerful” to destroy the reputations of journalists like his client, Laura Robinson.
“Journalists by their very nature publish uncomfortable allegations,” Baynham said Friday (June 26).
Robinson is the author of an in-depth article titled “John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake”, published in the Georgia Straight on September 27, 2012. The article uncovered the prominent figure’s previously undisclosed history as a Christian missionary in Burns Lake, B.C., and reported on claims that he abused First Nations students he taught at an elementary school.
Furlong’s lawyer John Hunter asserted in his closing arguments that the law recognizes in a “very practical way” the right of an individual to respond to an attack against that person’s reputation.
“If you’re going to dish it out, better be prepared to take it,” Hunter said.
Referring to Robinson, Hunter said that the case is about a “self-styled journalist” who sued the “target” of her “incendiary” article for lashing back at her.
“These are lies; absolutely didn’t happen,” Hunter said about the emotional and physical abuse allegedly perpetrated by Furlong as a gym teacher in Burns Lake between 1969 and 1970.
For his part, Baynham said that journalists are expected to act responsibly in their reporting, which he asserted that Robinson did.
“Ms. Robinson did not say Mr. Furlong abused individual students,” Baynham said at the end of the two-week trial. “She quoted others. The people she quoted, those individuals, not her, made the attack.”
What Furlong is asking the court, according to Baynham, is to consider reporting a quote containing an attack on a person as the same as an attack itself on the said person.
“It will fundamentally change how the media reports,” Baynham said.
Baynham said that Robinson did what a “good investigative journalist” does, which was to conduct research and interviews.
“Mr. Furlong had many opportunities to say his side of the story but he chose not to,” the lawyer said.
Instead, Furlong conducted a “public relations campaign” that was designed to discredit and damage the reputation of Robinson, Baynham asserted.
Her reporting and the steps she took to prepare her story cannot be construed as “attacks”, Baynham said.
After the Straight article came out, Furlong sued the newspaper and Robinson for defamation, but he eventually dropped his legal action.
Robinson counter-sued Furlong for various public statements he had made. She argues he questioned her honesty and integrity as a journalist, implied she tried to extort money to make the story go away, and claimed she filed a complaint with the RCMP on behalf of another woman allegedly abused by Furlong when she was a child.
During closing arguments, Furlong’s lawyer said: “Nobody came into this courtroom and said the allegations against him are true because they’re not.”
Hunter also took exception to doubts cast on his client’s honesty.
In Furlong’s autobiographical book Patriot Hearts, Furlong wrote that he came to Canada with his family in the fall of 1974. He did not mention that he first came in 1969, and after a few years, returned to his native country of Ireland.
During the trial, Furlong admitted during questioning by Robinson’s lawyer that he actually arrived in Canada as a landed immigrant in 1975.
But according to Furlong’s lawyer, the issue of when Furlong really came to Canada is not important.
“As if that trivial matter was a matter of great public interest,” he said.
At the end of the trial that started on June 15, Justice Catherine Wedge announced that she will come up with her written reasons for decision soon.
Talking to reporters later, Furlong said that he was glad that the trial is over, thanking his family and friends for their support.
Because it’s now known that he came first to Canada in 1969 and returned as a landed immigrant in 1975—not 1974 as he wrote in his book—Furlong was asked if he will make corrections to Patriot Hearts.
Furlong didn’t bother with a reply, and walked away.