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.

Fabricating crimes to feed our sense of righteousness

Late last week, Halifax musician Robert Speirs fired off an angry email to three broadcast networks:

Why did you divulge the names of the men accused of luring?

What if they are innocent?

Why do you want to try them by media and subject them to public humiliation, [and] so ruin their lives? Why do you display such unjustified hatred to people you do not know?

Again, what if they are innocent?

Your insistence on revealing the identities of the accused inspires any thinking person to wonder who are the true perverts. Shame on you!

Speirs, who signed the note, “Disgusted,” was referring to a sting operation by the Halifax Regional Police/RCMP Integrated Internet Child Exploitation Unit, which goes by the chilling anagram, ICE. The ICE cops arrested five men for “luring a child online,” after hoodwinking them into believing an undercover officer who bombarded them with messages was actually a 16-year-old girl eager to trade sex for money.

No child prostitute was harmed in the fabrication of this crime. But a group of men who may or may not have impulses we may or may not disapprove of have been publicly shamed in way that seems certain to wreak havoc on their lives, and probably the lives of others.

I won’t link to the news stories, which named the men and their home towns, because I’m no more comfortable with public shaming of accused persons than Speirs, although I do sympathize with decision-makers in mainstream newsrooms, who would be starting down a slippery slope if they began picking and choosing which accused persons to ID.

I’m more troubled by police departments who spend time and money creating bogus crimes into which they attempt to inveigle citizens. Whether the accused men were guilty of luring I have no idea, but clearly the police were.

In a news release, HRM Police spokesman Cst. Pierre Bourdages said the operation resulted from “a noted increase in the amount of young women engaged in online prostitution.”

How big an increase? Noted by whom? On what evidence? When I hear off-the-cuff police comments about the prevalence of crime, I’m reminded of the old saw that you shouldn’t ask your barber if you need a haircut.

If there exists a significant increase in prostitution by women under the age of 18 (after which, trading sex for money is no longer illegal), then why the need to fabricate transactions? Why not bust clients who are actually engaged in actual crimes?

Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, a Halifax organization that provides support services to people involved in the sex trade, is skeptical of any claimed increase in youthful sex trade.

“How can you tell,” she asks, “especially on the internet?”

The great majority of sex trade workers Ross deals with are in their 20s and 30s. Ironically, the Criminal Code ban on prostitution by persons under 18 prevents Stepping Stone from providing services to younger people who trade sex for money—even real ones.

Ross is unequivocal that, “men should not be trying to have sex with 16 years olds.” The subject, she says, “evokes a lot of feelings and emotions, it tugs at your heart strings, but it’s missing a lot of analysis.”

Early in her career with Stepping Stone, Ross told a Parliamentary Committee that Canada should come down harder on clients and johns.

“That’s one statement I wish I would take back,” she said in a phone conversation with Contrarian. “Sex workers are criminalized by those crackdowns.”

“It’s never the Steven Laffins they catch,” she said, referring to the Dartmouth man accused of murdering one sex trade worker, and kidnapping and beating another who managed to escape from the trunk of his car. “It’s the guy who wanted to get out and get off while the wife was at bingo.”

We may approve or disapprove of the guy who wants to get out and get off while his wife is at bingo, but devoting massive police effort to criminalizing him—including make-believe victims, fabricated crimes, and public shaming of citizens who are supposed to be presumed innocent—seems a dubious allocation of police resources.

“When you start working from the perspective of morality, that’s your shit,” said Ross. “You’re not doing anybody any service.”