A canny editor explains why journalists must name defendants

In an email cri de coeur last week, musician Robert Speirs lambasted Halifax TV newscasters for publishing the names of five men allegedly lured into motel meetings with a police officer they believed to be a a 16-year-old girl.

Bill Turpin, former editor of the late lamented Halifax Daily News, makes the case for printing names of people accused of crimes, even bogus crimes concocted to entrap them.

I understand Mr. Speirs’ distress over the plight of the men identified as the accused in the on-line child luring case last week and his sense that the media are persecuting them. But publicity is ultimately to their benefit.

Donald Marshall Jr., David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin, Thomas Sophonow, and Steven Truscott are among a dozen or so well known cases of wrongful murder convictions in Canada. None of these injustices would have been corrected if names had been suppressed. People don’t empathize with convicts they know only as John Doe. They do not ask hard questions on their behalf.

Anonymous-Sex-defendantsIn Canada, child sexual exploitation (except for marketing purposes) is a heinous crime that does indeed provoke the rush to judgment that worries Mr. Spears. But if you’re wrongly charged with this crime, your reputation is lost whether or not your case proceeds anonymously. The best you can hope for is acquittal, which suddenly makes the courts your best friend.

But, like the police, the courts are staffed by people who make mistakes. At that point, your best friend is a public that holds the justice system to high standards. The public, however, cannot do this without knowing who has been accused. Some theoretical examples:

A colleague you’ve thought for years to be a fine person fails to return to work after a leave of absence because — you’ve just learned — she’s been jailed for shoplifting. You’d like to know if justice was served, but you didn’t follow the case because you didn’t know the nameless defendant you read about was someone you cared about.

Was it the justice minister’s son who was acquitted of drunk driving even though he clocked in a 0.16? You might hear rumours, but you’ll never know for sure.

An outspoken blogger stops posting for “personal reasons” after writing a couple of items critical of the way child sexual exploitation charges are being handled. Is it because he’s tired of writing or because he’s been accused of attempting to access child porn, even though he simply Googled the phrase “kiddie porn” for research purposes? You’ll never know.

When you don’t know who is accused, you can’t judge the judges or the police. You can’t even tell if the media are making up their crime stories.

This is not a theoretical argument. Just for example, during the 1970s and ’80s, thousands of Argentines judged to be enemies of the state by public-spirited cops simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Many were flown out over the Atlantic and dumped alive.

Faced with a choice, I’d prefer to have my good named dragged before the courts and, yes, the media.

Bill Turpin was managing editor, and later editor-in-chief of the Halifax Daily News during its heyday in the 1990s.