TORONTO – The level of “social media paparazzi” surrounding Rob Ford is unprecedented, media and online experts say, as videos showing the Toronto mayor enjoying a night on the town have sparked renewed questions about his behaviour.
Three short videos posted online, one of which was titled “Mayor Rob Ford wants to party,” show the mayor at a street festival bantering with people who had surrounded him and were posing for pictures with him, taking photos and shooting video.
Within minutes the criticism started pouring in on Twitter, with many people accusing the mayor of being drunk and ridiculing his behaviour. Media outlets ran stories on the reaction the following day. One of the Ford videos was on YouTube’s main page for most of the weekend.
Greg Elmer, professor of new media at Toronto’s Ryerson University, said the lightening speed of the reaction doesn’t surprise him.
Elmer said that part of the problem is that the mayor has made a habit of taking pictures with everyone who requests it.
“Unfortunately it seems to be as though this is an individual who likes to show up and have a drink now and again apparently,” said Elmer, who has recently been researching controversial videos, photos and blog posts of celebrities or other public figures.
“That kind of behaviour has started to get him into more and more trouble.”
Ford told his weekly radio show on NewsTalk 1010 on Sunday that he had a couple of beers Friday night but contends videos that have sparked a torrent of criticism are being blown out of proportion.
“I had a good time, I let my hair down,” Ford said. “Did I have a couple beers? Absolutely I had a couple beers.”
“I drove myself down there, I was not drinking. I went out, had a few beers and I did not drive home. My people met me after that.”
In the videos, which were posted on YouTube by someone who goes by the handle Adrain Soso, the mayor can been seen saying “I’m not driving, I’m not driving.”
Peter Loewen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the mayor is receiving the high level of attention due to unresolved questions of an alleged video appearing to show Ford smoking crack cocaine.
Ford has denied he uses crack and said he can’t comment on a video that does not exist.
But once stories surfaced of a purported video, “the game changed for him,” said Loewen.
The gossip website Gawker was involved in a crowdsourcing campaign to raise $200,000 to buy the tape from a man who claimed to have the video.
Journalists from both Gawker and the Toronto Star say they were shown the video and the two outlets ran stories earlier this year.
Loewen said Ford hasn’t yet given “a credible explanation” on the issue.
The result, Loewen says, is now people recognize there’s an audience if they can get video of Rob Ford doing anything that might raise eyebrows, giving them a reason to videotape the mayor wherever he goes.
Elmer said this is a unique situation where the alleged crack video central to controversy surrounding Ford is missing, so instead there is a “cacophony” of images, reports, and blog posts all talking about the same kind of behaviour.
“It’s just kind of creating this whole economy of related images and stories and pictures,” Elmer said. “It’s unprecedented because it’s become an international story.”
There have been media reports in the past of Ford appearing intoxicated in public. In May the Toronto Star reported allegations that Ford showed up drunk at an official function. At the time Ford dismissed the report as nothing but “lies” and his brother added he’s never seen the mayor drink at any event.
In 2006, before Ford was mayor, he admitted he had too much to drink and verbally abused a couple at a Toronto Maple Leafs game after initially denying the incident.
In 2010, Ford recounted an incident from the 90’s where he was charged with driving under the influence and marijuana possession in Florida. Ford at first denied the allegations, but later pleaded no-contest to the impaired driving charge and the drug charge was dropped.
Ford isn’t the first politician whose private life has come under scrutiny.
The late Alberta premier Ralph Klein made headlines in 2001 after making degrading comments at a homeless shelter while allegedly drunk.
Although his staff denied Klein was drunk, the premier later admitted he had a drinking problem and promised to cut back, in stark contrast to the problems surrounding Ford.
“Klein owned up to what he did. He didn’t deny it,” Loewen said. “In this case you’ve got Rob Ford denying stuff all the way down the line.
“Any leeway that most citizens would have given to other politicians is now gone for Mayor Ford.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly indicated Mayor Ford pleaded guilty in the 90’s to refusing to give a breath sample in Florida. In fact he pleaded no contest to an impaired driving charge.