Kathy English, Toronto Star, Public Editor
by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
open letter: posted to www.tomadamsenergy.com
Dear Ms. English,
I am an independent energy analyst specializing in government accountability and consumer concerns. I am also a Star subscriber. During my investigations into the Ontario government’s decisions to cancel contracts for gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga, I became aware of evidence from 2010 suggesting a concealed conflict of interest between Tyler Hamilton — then a Star journalist — and the Ontario government. Further investigation revealed a web of concealed financial and personal conflicts of interest behind Toronto Star news reports authored by Mr. Hamilton.
My purpose is to bring to your attention what I believe is an editorial dilemma for the Toronto Star.
I have been interviewed by Mr. Hamilton in the past on various energy subjects but other than that I do not know Mr. Hamilton personally. Nor do I have any financial interest in the matters that follow.
Mr. Hamilton has publicly ascribed malicious intent to my investigation. Furthermore, he has threatened to sue both me and media outlets reporting on this story.
Hamilton’s “Engagement for Central”
Gas scandal documents subpoenaed from the Ontario government contained evidence that Mr. Hamilton may have been recruited to work for the Ontario government. In a November 23, 2010 email exchange, Ben Chin, former journalist turned McGuinty fixer, confirmed that the government should “make Tyler feel special” and that Mr. Hamilton ought to be “engaged for central”. The full exchange is posted here. Mr. Chin’s use of the trade craft term “central” meant Premier McGuinty. Furthermore, Mr. Hamilton now acknowledges his personal friendship with Mr. Chin.
A week after this exchange, Mr. Hamilton secured the first of at least two Ontario government contracts. The first contract had Mr. Hamilton providing writing support to the “Ontario Smart Grid Forum”, administered by the government agency called the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).
Smart Grid is a key plank of the Ontario government’s overall electricity platform. The Ontario Smart Grid Forum was composed of direct members of government agencies and utilities like Toronto Hydro, and a Corporate Partners Committee including among others Siemens, IBM, General Electric (GE), Ecobee, Energate, and Enbala.
Mr. Hamilton’s first Smart Grid contract started November 30, 2010.
Hamilton’s Concealed Conflict of Interest: Smart Grid
During 2011, after contracting with the government, Mr. Hamilton authored a series of articles in the Star reporting on the Smart Grid. In each of these articles, Mr. Hamilton failed to disclose his paid connection with the Forum and the role of the firms mentioned below in that Forum.
Here are three examples of Mr. Hamilton’s Star articles from that time, each of which refers favourably to a Forum member or Corporate Partners Committee member.
1. Ontario a Bright Light for Smart Grid Innovation, Toronto Star February 18, 2011 – This article promotes various firms, including Corporate Partner GE, who was the recent recipient of a $40 million Ontario government grant to build the grid R&D facility featured in the article. The subsidy was unmentioned.
2. The Smarter the Grid, the Less You Notice It, Toronto Star May 11, 2011 – This article profiles Forum member Toronto Hydro’s Smart Grid investment activities.
3. “Smart Grid, Delayed Delivery” Toronto Star June 29, 2011 – This article advocates for accelerated Smart Grid spending by the Ontario government. Six of the companies profiled in this article were also members of the Corporate Partners Committee listed above.
Hamilton’s Concealed Conflict of Interest: Air Miles
In 2010, while Ben Chin was a VP at the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), the OPA entered into a partnership with Air Miles. In March 2011 Chin moved from the OPA to become VP for Energy Conservation Incentives at an Air Miles affiliate.
On July 7, 2011, the Toronto Star published what appeared to be a news article “A Rewarding Way to Influence Greener Choices“, promoting the OPA’s Air Miles program. The article contains no reference to Mr. Hamilton’s personal relationship with Mr. Chin.
On September 8, 2011, Mr. Chin/Air Miles hosted Mr. Hamilton’s book launch at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. Opening the event, Mr. Chin celebrated his friend Tyler as “a reporter whose phone call I really didn’t want to return (while in the Premier’s Office)”…”he had a way of asking pointed, maddening well-informed questions”…”as a former journalist I’ve always admired journalists…that are above all fair”.
Existing Toronto Star Standards
The Star’s “Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide“ (Standards Guide), is clear about the ethical significance of conflicts of interest as they apply to journalists writing about particular subjects. Here are the rules that apply to Mr. Hamilton’s above noted conflicts of interest.
“It is not proper for journalists to be both actors and critics.”
The Standards Guide makes the following declaration regarding freelancers:
“For freelance columnists whose work for the Star is based on their expertise as investors, there is an exception to this general policy. This dual role must be clearly acknowledged in a tagline at the end of their columns.”
In this case, Mr. Hamilton was a contractor paid to promote the subject he was also reporting on while presenting himself to Star readers as independent.
The Standards Guide also warns journalists that they must disclose friendships that bear on a reporter’s work.
Editorial employees must not use their close relatives or close friends to circumvent these conflict restrictions…Star editorial staff should not write about, photograph, or make news judgements about close relatives or friends unless this conflict is made clear to readers.
Hamilton’s Ethical Failures
Mr. Hamilton’s ethical failures began when he failed to disclose to Toronto Star readers his personal and financial interests behind reports he presented as independent news.
In August, I published evidence indicating that Mr. Hamilton concealed his financial conflict of interest in his news reporting. As noted above, Mr. Hamilton responded with denials and legal threats against both me and media outlets reporting on my research. Mr. Hamilton presented two denials. The first denial was posted August 30, 2013. The second denial was posted September 4 and a recovered archive copy is posted here.
In discussing a case of plagiarism by Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew, a Star reporter since 1995, in your Jan 11 2013 column you emphasized the significance of Ms. Yew’s taking “full responsibility for ‘poor judgement’ in lifting words from the Globe” and “she apologized immediately”. Contrast Ms. Yew’s response with Mr. Hamilton’s denials and threats.
Mr. Hamilton’s unethical news reporting should be a serious concern for the Toronto Star and its readers, however his ethical failures are not my main interest.
Toronto Star’s Editorial Dilemma
The Toronto Star editors supervising Mr. Hamilton’s work knew or ought to have known of many red flags indicating Mr. Hamilton’s bias and lack of independence.
What steps did Mr. Hamilton’s editors follow to supervise his work? Was there any supervision?
What steps will the Toronto Star take to prevent this type of corrupt reporting from being published in future?
While the Star’s “Standards Guide“ is clear about the ethical significance of conflicts of interest for journalists on a particular stories, the Guide is unclear about the standard of care for editors supervising writers.
The editor’s responsibility to detect and prevent conflicts, particularly within their own organization. Reporters presenting themselves as technical experts may be difficult for editors to closely supervise on substantive issues. However, editors still have a duty of care to protect readers from unethical relationships that could taint the news.
The Star’s “Standards Guide“, recognizes that awards can threaten journalistic independence:
“No Star journalist shall enter any awards program sponsored or administered by the profession or industry or community he or she covers. Any entries submitted for consideration for awards or contests must receive prior approval of the managing editor or ME designate.”
Prior to Mr. Hamilton’s work supporting the Ontario government’s Smart Grid policies, he had been recognized for three journalism awards. In each case, the award was granted by a group that had an interest in influencing his reporting.
Canadian Advanced Technology Association “Science and Technology” Journalist of Year award (2010)
Canadian Electricity Association’s “Sustainable Electricity Journalist” of the Year (2010)
Cleantech Group “Pioneer” award (2005)
Star readers had a history of flagging bias in Mr. Hamilton’s reporting on green energy. For example, in 2009 Star readers concerned about wind power brought a complaint about Mr. Hamilton’s reporting on wind power to the Ontario Press Council.
Published October 7, 2010, Mr. Hamilton’s column “Smart Meters Are Here. Get Over It” lauded the government’s smart metering program, promoted IBM, and argued that consumers should embrace higher power rates. The Star’s editors presented the article not as an Op/Ed but published it as “Business/Tech News”. In it, Mr. Hamilton lamented that in Ontario “There’s no sense of pride for taking the lead and having vision.” Mr. Hamilton’s editors failed to questioned whether this article was “news”. Had they cautioned him that his work had become so cozy with corporate and Ontario government’s interests that he should avoid even the appearance of conflicts, harm to the Star’s reputation might have been avoided. Instead, the timing suggests that this article was effectively an audition for offers of government Smart Grid work.
Had the Star’s editors reviewed his blog any time after May 3, 2011, they would have known that Mr. Hamilton’s had a commercial relationship with government and corporate Smart Grid interests.
How is it that nobody at the Star noticed that Mr. Hamilton’s September 2011 book launch was sponsored by Air Miles, a company he had promotionally profiled in a Star article two months earlier?
Journalistic Standards in Context
Ms. English, a year ago you commented extensively on a plagiarism issue in your column “Margaret Wente Plagiarism Scandal a Test of Accountability” where you described the issue as the “Globe’s credibility crisis” advising:
“I am fairly certain that the Star’s strong culture of accountability, from the highest office of chairman of the board John Honderich, down through my boss, publisher John Cruickshank, would not have allowed me to downplay such serious allegations about any of the Star’s journalists.”
If the facts of the Wente case justify calling it the “Globe’s credibility crisis”, what would be the best way to summarize the Star’s editorial dilemma involving Mr. Hamilton’s conflicted news reports?
What is the value of a newspaper?
Toronto Star customers are vesting their trust and paying for the judgement and professionalism of its editors to supervise and publish balanced, informative, and ethical journalism. The lines between marketing vs. journalism vs. government are blurred. The Star must take action in response to this evidence showing that Mr. Hamilton’s editors turned a blind eye while he repeatedly crossed the line.