John Furlong’s public-relations campaign damaged my earnings and health, journalist Laura Robinson testifies
John Furlong sat in the back row as freelance journalist Laura Robinson told a courtroom how she suffered from the “unrelenting attack” unleashed by the former Vancouver Olympics CEO.
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Her earnings dropped and her health weakened, the B.C. Supreme Court heard at the start of Robinson’s testimony in her defamation suit against the prominent figure.
“We felt that we needed to let the people know that Mr. Furlong had been conducting a campaign of untruths,” Robinson testified today (June 16).
Based on financial statements read out by Robinson’s lawyer, Bryan Baynham, in court, the writer had an income of more than $23,000 in 2012, including the fee she received from the Georgia Straight for an in-depth article on Furlong in that year.
In that piece, Robinson wrote about the omissions made by Furlong about his early years in Canada in his autobiography Patriot Hearts.
While Furlong claimed that he came to Canada in 1974, Robinson determined that he was a teacher at a Catholic school in Burns Lake, B.C., in 1969.
Robinson’s story also reported on claims that Furlong verbally and physically abused First Nations students he taught.
Following publication of the story, Furlong questioned Robinson’s credibility as a journalist, issuing news releases and conducting media interviews that are now the subject of the defamation suit against him.
“This is my life and my personal life as well as my public life, my professional life, that he was attacking,” Robinson testified in court.
Because of the controversy, Justice Catherine Wedge heard, her earnings from writing and public speaking dried up.
Based on her financial statements, her earnings decreased from $52,600 in 2011 to about $7,000 in 2013. In that year, she had to withdraw some $5,000 from her retirement funds. That brought her total income in that year to about $12,600.
Last year, Robinson’s total income was almost $11,000.
Robinson also testified that the controversy following publication of her story in the Georgia Straight took a “great toll” on her personal health.
According to her, she was admitted to emergency wards a “number of times”. She started suffering from cramps. The nerves on her feet hurt.
The court also heard that although Furlong sued Robinson for defamation, the former Vanoc CEO didn’t pursue the case.
Robinson testified that she spent $150,000 on her defence in that dropped suit, to which her husband committed all of his savings and for which she started a legal defence fund.
In the meantime, according to Robinson, “He was saying so many defamatory things against me in public.”
Outside the courtroom, Furlong’s lawyer, John Hunter, declined to comment on the testimony given by the journalist Tuesday morning.
Instead, Hunter elaborated on the “qualified privilege” defence that Furlong will mount eventually.
Hunter told reporters: “The concept is that there are circumstances in which you’re allowed basically to say what you want about somebody as long as you’re not being malicious.”
According to Hunter, qualified privilege provides someone “huge latitude” to say anything when that person is under “attack”.
Hunter said: “It’s kind of self-defence.”
When the trial resumed in the afternoon, the court was informed that Robinson started digging into Furlong’s early years in 2009 when she was told by a First Nations artist that Furlong taught at a residential school.
Her initial research didn’t come up with anything, and so she dropped the subject.
But Robinson didn’t forget about the “tip”, which she picked up again when she did a review of Furlong’s Patriot Hearts book that was published in 2011.
As Robinson related in court, more information came in, and in April 2012, she was at Burns Lake taking statements from former students of Furlong at the Catholic-run Immaculata Elementary School.
She recalled that the people who gave statements about their memories of their experiences with Furlong were “very traumatized”.
“Some people were crying,” Robinson told the court.
From Burns Lake, she got in touch with Charlie Smith, editor of the Georgia Straight.
When Robinson travelled from Burns Lake to Vancouver to meet Smith at the Straight offices, she was told by the editor that affidavits were needed. She said she soon returned to Burns Lake to secure these statutory declarations.