Journalists publicized the inside of B.C. terror suspects’ home: Public interest or legal and ethical dilemma?

By Eric Mark Do

Legal blame is being shifted around after media entered the basement suite of B.C. terror suspects while they were in police custody. The media then documented and publicized the contents to news outlets across Canada. 

By Eric Mark Do

Legal blame is being shifted around after media entered the basement suite of B.C. terror suspects while they were in police custody. The media then documented and publicized the contents to news outlets across Canada. 

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association contends that it was an illegal act and even though the home's landlord allowed the media to enter doesn't mean they had the right to. “I can think of no possible reason for any of you, any reporters or the landlord to be in the unit,” Josh Paterson, executive director of the BCCLA, told Vancouver daily 24 hours.

Vancouver Sun crime reporter Kim Bolan was the first journalist to enter and document the inside of the suite after it had been searched by police. “There's no way that's a violation of a criminal law — I went into the place with the permission of the owner and being escorted by the owner,” she said. “So I don't know what (BC) Civil Liberties is talking about, but I'm a journalist and I was doing my job.”

While Bolan was the first to enter, others followed: the next day, a media frenzy ensued with journalists going in and out of the suite, still under the supervision of the owner.

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Reuters photographer Andy Clark said he went there Wednesday to shoot a picture of the house and had no intention of going inside. When he arrived, Clark said he saw there were already “four or five” members of the media inside the suite, and at least a dozen showed up in the half-hour or so that he was there.

“I was reluctant to go in when I arrived on the scene, but the door was open and I was told it's okay and the owner was there,” he said. “I have to admit, to a certain degree, I was following the crowd in this instance.” Clark added that if he was there alone and the owner invited him in, he would still accept the offer because “I figure it's the owner. The owner is saying, 'come on in, it's okay.'”

Clark’s not the only reporter who thought it was perfectly legal to enter.

Canadian Press editor-in-chief Scott White said in an email to a reporter, "We believed the landlord had the authority to let us in and that we were there legally."

“CBC journalists must be familiar with the legal aspects of privacy or, when unsure, seek legal guidance” states the organization's privacy principles for Journalistic Standards and Practices. CBC News was part of the frenzy and posted a raw video tour of the basement. The Vancouver Sun, Reuters, the Canadian Press, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail also ran stories.

Legally, the RCMP were taking no responsibility: “It's up to the media to decide whether they have the legal authority to enter that suite,” said RCMP Sgt. Peter Thiessen to the Canadian Press.


However, there’s the legal issues, and then there are ethical issues:

“In this particular instance, I'm saddened to see reporters pointing more to the law than they are to their ethical obligations in framing the context for the discussion,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, J-Source ethics editor and an associate journalism professor at the University of Western Ontario.

She cited guidelines from the Canadian Association of Journalists' Principles for Ethical Journalism, including the need for "respecting our fellow-citizens' rights," and to "respect people's civil rights, including the rights to privacy and a fair trial."

“It's not a journalists' job to impugn guilt and by operating on the assumption that the contents of someone's home are open to public scrutiny,” said Fullerton. “I think that's a problematic direction to take. I think it does impede a citizen's right to privacy and it could have an affect on a person's right to a fair trial."

There’s little doubt the public (and potential jurors) may now have a perception of the couple they wouldn’t have had without the media coverage of the accused's home.

News organizations were quick to judge the condition the suite was in, and appeared to downplay the fact that the RCMP had just searched through it. A Canadian Press article about the criticism of the media's coverage called the place a “messy squalor.”

“I think the people that saw inside that suite were probably more sympathetic to the young couple that are facing these serious charges and wondering how they could have been involved in something so sophisticated when they clearly weren't living a very high lifestyle,” Bolan said. In a video she shot showing the inside of the home, Bolan describes it as “very, very dirty.”

That's the image the public now has of the suspects, said Ryerson photojournalism instructor Peter Bregg. “We don't necessarily want to like people who have been charged with crimes like this — they are presumed innocent — but many people will look at the evidence and feel that eventually the courts will rule that they were guilty of something.

However, CP’s Scott White said “there is a public interest in Canadians learning who the accused are, and learning how they lived is part of that."

Fullerton disagreed. The suspects have not been convicted of wrongdoing, so regardless of the condition of the suite, portraying images of their private possessions to the public in no way serves the public's interest, she said.

“Public interest is something that ought to advance the conversation that citizens need to be having about responsibilities and freedoms and rights and laws, but how does knowing the contents of someone's private home advance the public interest?” she asked. “It simply doesn't — it's not relevant.”

But Bolan said she's confident that she advanced the story of the young couple that's been charged.

“I was also giving voice to the story of the landlord and landlady that were thrown into this with no prior knowledge and no role in the allegations that are now before the court,” she said.

The coverage in the media has already turned into a type of trial because covering and reproducing stories about the contents of people's lives is “clearly to impugn guilt,” said Fullerton.

“When you have aspects of a person's private life put before the public, you are in fact, offering a kind of punishment before the person is found guilty in a court of law.”


This article has been updated from a previous version.