UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 1 | Jan.
Sensational Murder Trial Must Stay Open to Reporters
UBC journalism professor is concerned that it wont.
By Erica Smishek
Media and the public will be allowed in the courtroom when
Robert Picktons preliminary hearing gets underway Jan.
But how long the court remains open is anyones 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 UBCs School of Journalism.
Were not through with this yet. Its 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. Picktons 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 Picktons 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 medias right
to be the eyes and ears of the public, Ward says. (Stones
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
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 cant 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
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, its 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 medias 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., Id like to see the judges
association and the journalists association form a committee,
identify problem areas and look for solutions.