CBC producers field phone call from Edmonton hostage-taker

When a man held a group of hostages at the Workers’ Compensation Board offices in Edmonton on Wednesday, a group of journalists in Edmonton faced a number of different journalistic, ethical and safety issues that had to be handled on the spot under tense circumstances.

While reporting on a hostage situation is always difficult and presents many safety concerns, this particular case was complicated when the hostage-taker called the CBC newsroom in Edmonton.

Esther Enkin, CBC’s executive editor of news operations, wrote a column for Inside the CBC called “The Edmonton hostage taking and the lessons learned.” In it, she explained the situation and brought to readers attention the questions that journalists were asking as this hostage-taking unfolded.

When a hostage phoned the newsroom, a few of these questions were:

“Are we tying up the police negotiating line?” “What could we say about this that wouldn’t inflame the gunman?” “Are we putting the hostages more at risk if we report this conversation or anything we learn from it?”

Enkin notes: “As journalists, we haven’t the psychological training to handle these situations.”

Gareth Hampshire, news coordinator in Edmonton, was one of two producers in the newsroom who spoke to both the hostage-taker and the hostages on the phone. He gave a play-by-play of what happened that afternoon for a segment of The Current.

The Edmonton team made the decision to record the conversation, but not to air it while the incident was still going on, despite the fact that the hostage-taker wanted his story told publicly and was hoping to go live on CBC.

He told host Anna-Maria Tremonti:

“It’s a moment that I’ll never forget. I answered the phone, on the other end was a man speaking in a very blunt manner and what he said to me was this: I’m the guy holding people hostage at the WCB building downtown. I just stopped for a couple of seconds there, just the gravity of the situation just hit me as well and it was just the surprise, it made my heart sink a little bit to be honest.

“Here we were in the newsroom trying to figure out what was really happening inside the building, where people being held at gunpoint and here I was actually speaking to the person claiming to be the gunman. It just all felt a bit surreal. I mean, there was no doubt in my mind this really was Patrick Clayton. I could just tell there was a desperate nature to his voice. It didn’t sound like a prank, but at the same time I really wasn’t sure how to handle it.”

When it comes to handling hostage-taking situations, CBC managing editor in Winnipeg Cecil Rosner has suggested developing a protocol for dealing with phone calls from hostage-takers. Enkin wrote that this is something the CBC will now work on.

Other issues that were raised by Enkin were:

  •  regulating the use of social media in tense situations (someone from CBC Twittered that the newsroom had been phoned, while CBC was not reporting its involvement)
  • issues of safety when reporting live and knowing the hostage-taker may be listening
  • how much attention the situation deserved after the fact (not overplaying the story due to CBC’s own role)