Government opposes cameras in court

Cecil RosnerLast year, Manitoba’s justice minister said the introduction of cameras into courtrooms was an idea “whose time has come,” writes Cecil Rosner.  So why is the government arguing against cameras at one of the highest profile inquests to come along in years?

It was a shocking death that garnered national headlines in September 2008. Brian Sinclair was found dead in his wheelchair at the Health Sciences Centre, Winnipeg’s largest hospital. He had spent 34 hours waiting in the hospital’s emergency department.

The province’s chief medical examiner said the 45-year-old man’s death could have been prevented had his blood infection been treated. How the man went unnoticed for so long became the subject of intense debate and controversy.

The province and the regional health authority promised a thorough investigation into all aspects of the incident, as well as a public review of the circumstances during an inquest into the death. Eighteen months later, that inquest is about to begin. Given the extensive public interest in the case, broadcast media outlets in Winnipeg — the CBC, CTV, Global and APTN — applied to have cameras present in the courtoom. The CBC is also proposing to stream the entire proceedings live on the Internet.

But at a hearing Friday to consider the request, which is supported by Sinclair’s family and aboriginal groups in Manitoba, the idea ran into stiff opposition. Lawyers representing the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the Manitoba Nurses Union and the provincial government lined up to offer arguments against the presence of cameras.

While it might not be surprising for health officials and practitioners to be worried about camera access, the government’s stand was more puzzling, especially in light of comments made last year by then justice minister Dave Chomiak.

“I think the court and the government both want to see televised
proceedings,” Chomiak told Canadian Press at the time, referring to court cases in general. “We probably should have done it
a long time ago.”

But the same government prepared a 74-point brief arguing against coverage. It says inquest judges don’t have the authority to allow televised access. It suggests that cameras might rob witnesses of their privacy rights, and it generally argues that the harms might outweigh the benefits of such a move.

The other opposing lawyers brought out familiar arguments about cameras potentially intimidating witnesses, distorting the proceedings, and helping to create a media circus atmosphere.

The lawyer for Sinclair’s family noted that much of the opposing arguments lacked any supporting evidence for the feared consequences. More than 500 witnesses — including front-line health workers — have given evidence at televised judicial inquiries over the last few years, and “the sky has not fallen,” he said.

Manitoba itself has held numerous public inquiries which have been televised. These range from the aboriginal justice inquiry, to probes into wrongful convictions, to an inquiry into a government vote-rigging scheme. CBC lawyer Dan Henry said he used to present arguments advocating camera access at such inquries, but they have become so routine lately, and so welcoming of cameras, that he is feeling like the forlorn Maytag repair man.

But Henry has no shortage of work trying to crack the judicial system generally, and because an inquest in Manitoba is held by a provincial judge under the Fatality Inquiries Act, camera access would set an important precedent.

It seems that whenever an application for camera access to the courts is presented, all the conventional arguments both pro and con are trotted out for judges to consider. But this time, applicants also filed the research compiled by Prof. Daniel Stepniak of Australia, who has undertaken a comprehensive analysis of audio-visual coverage in several countries. His conclusion?

“Canada’s significant experiences with audio-visual coverage of courts do not disclose evidence which would substantiate concerns regarding the effects of such coverage. Canada’s overwhelmingly positive experiences, while not producing the empirical evidence which opponents of cameras in courts demand, have served to reassure those Canadian courts which have experimented with such coverage that potential dangers are able to be minimised through appropriate regulation and control.”

Provincial court judge Tim Preston will rule on the application March 19.

Update, March 19: Judge Preston denied the application. There will be no camera access at the inquest.

Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s
Investigative Journalism area. He teaches investigative journalism at
the University of Winnipeg, and is the author of
Behind the
Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada