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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 1 | Jan. 2, 2003

Sensational Murder Trial Must Stay Open to Reporters

UBC journalism professor is concerned that it won’t.

By Erica Smishek

Media and the public will be allowed in the courtroom when Robert Pickton’s preliminary hearing gets underway Jan. 13.

But how long the court remains open is anyone’s guess.

“I think a quarter of the way through the hearing, we will have another petition from the defence lawyer to seal the court. He will see potentially damaging information published by American media or the foreign press,” says Stephen Ward, an associate professor at UBC’s School of Journalism. “We’re not through with this yet. It’s not the final word on the issue.”

In early December, Provincial Court Judge David Stone refused to exclude the public and reporters from one of the biggest murder cases in Canadian history. Pickton’s defence lawyer, Peter Ritchie, had requested a seal of the courtroom, arguing that an onslaught of publicity would make it impossible to find 12 impartial jurors for Pickton’s trial on 15 counts of first-degree murder. He was particularly concerned that foreign reporters would break a publication ban imposed on the preliminary hearing.

“I thought that the defence request was over the top and a violation of the constitutional rights of the public and the families of the victims and the media’s right to be the eyes and ears of the public,” Ward says. “(Stone’s ruling) is a very positive step for people who believe in an open court system.”

Ward says given the high-profile nature of the case and the intense scrutiny police have come under for their investigation, it was particularly important to allow the media and public access.

“If you shut the court down, it will just breed more conspiracy theories and more mistrust in the legal and justice systems,” says Ward, who is currently writing a book on the history of journalism ethics.

Preliminary hearing publication bans are common and Canadian journalists usually obey them. When a verdict in the trial is delivered, journalists are free to report the evidence from the hearing.

Since foreign journalists are not bound by Canadian law, Ritchie is concerned they will break the ban and release details of the hearing accessible to Canadians through radio, satellite TV and the Internet.

“The laws of the preliminary hearing have not caught up with changes in the media,” Ward says. “Borders mean nothing. You can’t seal off information anymore.”

Despite the potential information flow, he says he has a strong faith in jury selection and in the ability of juries to review the evidence and deliver a fair verdict.

“There are no easy answers here,” says Ward. “I am sympathetic to the worries of a fair trial. But Paul Bernardo got one. Shannon Murrin got one. Robert Pickton will get one too.”

Ward, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Waterloo and spent 10 years with the Canadian Press as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief, says reporting on sensational crimes is the oldest form of news we have. He says while courtroom coverage is often criticized for being biased, misleading, superficial and sensational, it’s “part of the cost of having a free press.”

“The only way to avoid it is to completely ban media from the court and that is just not appropriate or acceptable.”

Given that our society recognizes both the right of the accused to a fair trial and the media’s right to freedom of expression as fundamental principles of democracy, Ward says there will probably always be tension between the media and the courts.

But he says there are ways to improve relations.

“We have to get together and talk more. Right now both sides are just complaining and pointing fingers and it keeps going back and forth. In B.C., I’d like to see the judges’ association and the journalists’ association form a committee, identify problem areas and look for solutions.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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