Media won’t cooperate with Habs riot investigation

Mere hours after demanding that police ruthlessly prosecute anyone involved in the Great Habs Riot and some even printing photos of suspects and asking people to identify them to police, local media are now refusing to participate in the investigation by handing over photos and video of the rioters. They are now in the process of fighting search warrants while evidence sits sealed under police custody.

The media have a legitimate interest in fighting such invasions. If they were seen to be agents of the police, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs properly. Perhaps more worrisome, in situations like this the media itself could become a target.

But can you really pretend to take the moral high ground and a tough law-and-order stance, asking people to get involved and cooperate with police, when you refuse to do so yourself?

None of these rioters received promises of confidentiality, and none could have been stupid enough to think photos and video of them smashing police cars and store windows wouldn’t eventually get in the hands of police.

UPDATE: The Gazette’s Andrew Phillips responds on his blog, using the “slippery slope” argument. The Gazette’s article presents both sides of the issue, and Thursday’s paper has an editorial explaining the decision. The Journal’s Benoit Aubin also responds, giving mostly philosophical arguments about how the media shouldn’t act as deputies to the police.

Meanwhile, Richard Martineau, always ready to disagree with everyone, asks the question: Aren’t journalists citizens first? Should they not report when they witness crimes?

UPDATE (April 26): The court date is set for June 17. Can you feel the overwhelming speed of our justice system?

UPDATE (April 29): A letter-writer calls cooperating with police “doing one’s civic duty,” journalist or not.

5 thoughts on “Media won’t cooperate with Habs riot investigation

  1. Peter

    The media has a moral obligation to turn over this footage (if not a legal one as well). I don’t see how doing so would make them “agents of the police”. If I as an individual witness a crime and report it, that does not make me an agent of the police. It makes me a good citizen.

    What if someone is seriously injured or murdered in a riot that is filmed. Would the media take the same stand on the issue? And if not, would that not mean that media would be deciding which crimes warranted turning over evidence, and which ones didn’t. Sorry, but I’d rather that the justice system make that determination instead of the media.

    What fundamental right is the media trying to protect? The right to film people committing criminal acts, while allowing those same people to remain anonymous? Are they afraid that potential rioters will be too afraid to riot the next time out for fear being caught and punished? Ridiculous!

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  2. Josh

    Peter – to boil it down to its simplest form:

    Journalists often encounter situations where they need to use criminals of all types as sources. And if they know that their words/materials might then go right to the police, they’ll be less likely to talk to journalists.

    The argument would be that it’s a slippery slope down to there that starts with something like handing over tapes of the riot.

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  3. Peter

    I understand the argument but I don’t think that it applies in this particular case. It’s like saying that if the police identify the rioters from the tapes, the rioters (the source I suppose) would be less likely to provide information to the media about riots, since they wouldn’t be rioting as much, and this is somehow a bad thing, because the public wouldn’t be getting as much information about riots, because the rioters (the source) are afraid of being turned in to the police by the media….It’s just not sensible.

    Mob psychology relies a lot on anonymity. For the media to aid in this anonymity for idealogical reasons is irresponsible. If a potential rioter knows he/she may be caught on tape and punished, it will make them less likely to engage in this activity, which is surely a good thing. I agree there are many instances where the confidentiality of a criminal source is essential. The police themselves do this all the time. It’s purpose, however, is to prevent more crime. The anonymity needs to serve the greater good in some way. If anything, allowing rioters to remain anonymous does just the opposite. It encourages more rioting.

    Freedom of the press has limits. If the media has information that can help solve a crime than they should do the responsible thing and come forward with it, unless they have a compelling reason not to. They can’t just say “we will never provide information to the police under any circumstances”. Imagine what would happen if the average citizen took this attitude. It should be a case by case basis. In this case, there is no compelling reason that the rioters should remain anonymous.

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  4. Michael

    Phillips’ blog post is just weasel words. There was a clear ethical line here. and that was for the Gazette to not have made itself a participant in the story in the first place, which it did by publishing closeups and breathlessly asking the public to identify the hoodlums.

    It doesn’t pass any kind of sniff test to use the photos and mock outrage one day to help generate retail sales and the next to pretend there’s some ethical issue at stake. There WAS an ethical issue at stake – and the Gazette failed the test long before the cops came calling.

    Of course a newspaper shouldn’t turn its files over to the cops. That’s high-school journalism class stuff that sixteen year old kids understand. But so is not making yourself a part of the story.

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