Trial by Journalist
In Canada, you're innocent until proven guilty. You wouldn't know it from reading Christie Blatchford's columns
Christie Blatchford lives in a 105-year-old house near the eastern fringe of Toronto’s Little Italy, where the right half of her bedroom functions as a small home office. Hanging over an old wooden desk, where her Macintosh PowerBook G3 lies, is a pencil sketch of a judge watching a man give his testimony. The judge is Justice Edward Then, the witness Taghe Savojipour, who in September 1999 would go on to receive a life sentence for first-degree murder. Though the case had no historical significance and received little media attention, it marked a crucial moment for Blatchford; it was the first time in her career that her reporting was put to trial.
The crime in question was a particularly brutal one, in which 16-year-old Mehdi Amin Mohammadi was raped and stabbed, and his body was hacked to pieces and dumped in various parts of Toronto. Savojipour testified that two anonymous armed goons forced him to rape the boy before they killed him. Fearing that the law would hold him responsible for the murder, Savojipour-a butcher by trade-claimed he dismembered the body to better hide it.
About nine months into the trial, and mere days before the jury was set to retire for deliberation, the National Postprinted Blatchford’s report, headlined “A Butcher Asks Jury to Believe His Story.” Describing the defence in her trademark sarcastic, conversational prose, she made no bones about her incredulity about Savojipour’s testimony. “He had to stroke himself and ‘imagine one of the most pleasurable sexual scenes I could’ in order to get aroused, but by golly, it worked, and he had anal sex with Amin for between six and 10 minutes,” she wrote. “A man does what a man has to do.”
This was too much for David Bayliss, Savojipour’s defence lawyer. In the days after the column went to print, Bayliss insisted the jury might have been tainted by the piece, and urged the judge to slap either Blatchford or the Post with contempt charges. Justice Then decided it would be out of his jurisdiction to penalize remarks made outside the courtroom. However, he did agree to poll the jurors one by one to assess what influence Blatchford’s column may have had.
Anxious about the implications of the decision, the Post‘s legal advisor, Stuart Robertson of O’Donnell, Robertson & Sanfilippo, hired criminal law expert Alan Gold to represent Blatchford for the trial’s duration. What Robertson and Blatchford didn’t realize was that Gold had previously slammed Blatchford’s work on the Alison Parrott trial in an article for a lawyer’s trade paper. Bayliss knew it, though, and read excerpts of Gold’s piece to the court. Gold soon withdrew, and left Blatchford feeling alone in the near-empty courtroom. She watched from her usual spot (right side, second row, aisle seat) as the individual jurors stepped to the witness stand, each time praying, “Please God, say he didn’t read it.”
Blatchford’s own defence of her actions in this and other cases-and it’s a damn solid one-is that jurors are reasonable individuals who bring a lot of common sense to the courtroom and take their jobs very seriously. If they go behind the judge’s back and read the news, it should not substantially influence them, since the writer can report only what the jury has already heard. At the crucial moment of deliberation, they’re sequestered anyway. Is their integrity so fragile that an ordinary journalist, one clearly expressing her opinion, can prejudice their opinions over the facts of a case?
Staunch as her argument is, it only covers one facet of her work. From councils to colleagues, Blatchford’s writing has a knack for bringing out the most impassioned emotions from readers. But Blatchford is not a case of “you either love her or loathe her.” Most readers do both. But when she is criticized, the condemnations cover a short range: from harsh to brutal.
Her strongest opponents aren’t interested in bashing her personality or prose, but rather focus on the process she uses to get the story. From what I’ve heard from lawyers and reporters who have studied her actions, it goes like this: Blatchford generally makes up her mind about the accused on day one, after the initial questioning by the Crown. The severity of her indictment is proportional to the brutality of the crime. At the same time, she may write favourably, flatteringly, even flirtatiously about the defence lawyer, playing to his vanity in hopes of gaining his confidence and perhaps an exclusive interview. Then she sits down to pen her column, which is invariably entertaining, meticulous, and thought-provoking, as her detractors always make sure to point out. But the end product is a bastard hybrid of highly persuasive op-ed and factual reporting that’s just newsy enough to confuse her less sophisticated readership. A brief outrage may ensue, but it’s the kind of controversy the Post expects and hopes to get from its marquee columnist, the country’s most devoutly read.
A decade ago, Blatchford’s gutsy, combative take on the courts would have virtually guaranteed her a citation for contempt. By the time of the Savojipour trial, though, things had changed. Thanks to relaxed contempt laws, rather than facing judicial censure, Blatchford is now winning awards, loyal readers, and salary offers rumoured to hover in the $200,000 range (which Blatchford staunchly denies). But what’s good for Blatchford may not be so good for court reporting-or the court system itself.
Forming short, choppy sentences between quick bites of Nicorette gum, she tells me about her love for the stuffy mannerisms of legal hotshots, how she agonizes over her copy, constantly seeking perfection and worrying about being repetitive or self-aggrandizing. She tells me how excited she still gets to finish writing her pieces so she can start thinking about the next, how she sees each case as an individual tale, a two-way power struggle that, she says with a shrug, is not much different from a hockey game.
She’s not the first journalist to get caught up in the drama of the courts-or to transmit her personality through her coverage-but Blatchford is at the vanguard of the current crop. Several court and crime reporters in the post-World War I era took on personae, sometimes betraying opinions along with their sensational reportage. But by 1960, the mythical hard-as-nails reporter/pulp writer had all but disappeared from our cultural consciousness, while investigative journalism was becoming a respected staple in the daily news. Meanwhile, legislatures began toughening their already strict stances on libel and contempt law. As a result, much of the court coverage throughout the ’70s and ’80s was relatively bland and by-the-book.
By the early 1990s, a new reporting style was emerging. Writers like Larry Still of The Vancouver Sun veered from the conventional 10-inch summary of court proceedings by providing more context and analysis of relevant issues. Editors, perhaps responding to pressure to be more competitive, were increasingly making risky decisions to publish potentially incriminating information and photographs. And while the practice of “columnizing” coverage wasn’t invented during the trial of Paul Bernardo, it was greatly augmented, most notably in the work of Blatchford, then at The Toronto Sun.
Blatchford didn’t start out on the court beat. Her writing career began during her second year studying journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. She spent a year on the city desk at The Globe and Mail, followed by a year of sports reporting. When she graduated in 1973, managing editor Clark Davey offered her the fashionable position of “chick sports columnist,” which she held for four years. Blatchford primarily covered hockey, which she had grown to love as the daughter of a hockey-rink manager in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, a working-class town whose chief exports are copper and hockey legends. Tired and lonesome from the long hours and travel, Blatchford’s last straw was the Globe’s employment of a “writing coach” in 1979. “We didn’t get along at all, and one day I quit in a huff,” Blatchford says. “I’ve never been very good at being edited. If I have a reputation for being temperamental and bitchy, it’s because I can’t stand to have my copy touched.” Ironically, she ended up at the heavily edited Toronto Star, where she spent the next three and a half years as a news reporter, until pitching the idea for a topical humour column to the Sun in 1983. In her 15 years at the Sun, Blatchford’s work evolved from personal observations on relationships and acne to a more general opinion column on current affairs.
Blatchford had first dabbled in court reporting in 1979, during the murder trial of 12-year-old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques. Blatchford found herself enthralled by the sense of tradition and community in the courts, early on demonstrating an unusually keen eye for detail and drama. Her later work stood out even among the frenzied coverage of 1995’s ultra-sensational Bernardo trial, where reporters competed to provide the most lurid account of Canada’s grisliest crime in memory. For the 65 journalists who suffered through five months of awful testimony, at least one small reward materialized: they were allowed to write practically whatever they wanted, with little fear of contempt charges. Nothing written of Bernardo could have been more incriminating than the infamous tapes of him and ex-wife Karla Homolka committing unspeakable acts. Presiding Justice Patrick LeSage even declared that he wouldn’t want a jury so oblivious that they hadn’t previously read anything about the case (the same judge later spoke out against the opinionated tone of court reporters in a January 2000 public address).
“We were very lucky there because the chief witness, Homolka, came before the court as an acknowledged, convicted party in these killings,” says Blatchford, whose account of the proceedings was at times particularly graphic and damning. “This gave us the freedom to describe her the way we did-we didn’t have to say ‘allegedly’ every second paragraph. You could say she was a slut, you could say she was a murderingslut, and it was true. And it was defensible.”
The trial was at first considered a shocking but brief ripple in the tradition of justice reporting. It turned out to be a watershed that would change how journalists across the nation cover the courts.
When Blatchford joined the Post in 1998, she became the country’s first columnist writing exclusively on the courts, and arguably the country’s most popular columnist, period. After a few years of covering high-profile cases, she quickly emerged as the leader of a trend of sorts. For example, the Globe‘s Erin Anderssen was assigned a beat similar to Blatchford’s, albeit without the running commentary. And after Kirk LaPointe left thePost to briefly sign on as The Hamilton Spectator’s editor, he made Susan Clairmont the city columnist. Clairmont had done crime and court reporting for 10 years, and now covers high-profile cases in a scrappy, outspoken manner that sometimes emulates Blatchford’s.
LaPointe’s other major change at the Spec-one that has been far more common in newspapers across Canada, particularly Ontario-was to overhaul the typical court story to be more narrative-driven, informal, and descriptive. One inevitable side effect was that the writer’s opinion would sometimes show. Like the addition of columnists, it was a change that benefitted readers, many writers, and newsstand owners alike, because it often made for a better overall read. Less pleased were the lawyers and judges, who felt that this kind of reporting poisons the minds of jurors, incorrectly colours the public perception of justice, and generally makes a mockery of the law’s presumption of innocence. Even some journalists from the “old school” of reporting joined the backlash, notably Post media columnist John Fraser, who has debated with Blatchford on these issues both in print and in person, while walking their dogs side by side across the University of Toronto football field. Her columns, he wrote in December 1999, “could be considered in contempt of court according to all the rules journalists and judges have abided by since the Criminal Code began in this country. What’s changed is reporters and editors have become bolder while judges and lawyers have become more forbearing, even timid.”
Others have expressed concern that the function of the court columnist, essentially a cross-examiner with a national audience, is far too powerful to be left unaccounted for-especially in hands less capable than Blatchford’s. “Christie is a master at what she’s created as her own art form, but a hell of a lot of other people shouldn’t even be trying,” says the Globe’s Kirk Makin, a veteran legal affairs reporter and a highly respected practitioner of the classic style of reportage. “Christie, because of her ability, the authority of her name, the force of her personality, and what is frequently the eloquence of her pieces, can get away with a lot of things that I think other people would get called on very quickly.”
But lawyer Alan Young thinks Blatchford should get called on it too. In October 1999, Blatchford wrote a series of columns for the Post about Young’s client Amina Chaudhary, a woman who 15 years earlier received a life sentence for strangling her eight-year-old son, Rajesh Gupta. Though Chaudhary had always maintained her innocence, having already appealed the decision once, she was applying for a possible sentence reduction under Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, the so-called “faint hope clause.” During her time in jail, she gave birth to four children, married another inmate, and earned two university degrees. One prison psychiatrist stated that society would gain nothing by Chaudhary’s continued incarceration.
Whereas most court reporters would have strictly recounted the facts of the trial, Blatchford let her coverage betray her personal feelings, as she often does. Her articles described Chaudhary, then 35, as “vacant,” “patronizing,” a “child-killing, baby-making sex machine.” She wrote, “It was all I could do, while watching her testify, not to leap into the witness box and slap her hard across her pretty face.” Several times, she noted how strong and broad Chaudhary’s hands looked as she gesticulated throughout her testimony.
The faint hope application was eventually dismissed, but with the chance to apply again after five years. Young says he was stunned by the decision. Not only did Blatchford’s words personally devastate his client, but Young believes her one-sided account may have swayed the jurors’ votes as well, despite the judge’s orders to disregard media reports. “It was a horrible distortion of the reality of the situation, bordering on mean and vindictive,” says Young. “There are people in this country who believe that prison should be something like Dante’s hell, and you shouldn’t have any opportunities to better yourself. Christie’s an important journalist, because on occasion you need somebody who has that abrasive, tenacious tone. I just think she picked the wrong case.”
But aside from a few warning shots and some private grumbling on the other side of the bench, the legal community has been reluctant to clamp down on Blatchford and her imitators. The explanation has little to do with a sweeping sensation of untouchable celebrity columnists and much more to do with a gradual relaxation of contempt laws and a slow, inexorable move toward an American-style court system.
The landmark 1994 Supreme Court ruling of Dagenais v. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (better known as the Boys of St. Vincent case) established the strict need for proof of a “real and substantial risk to a fair trial” before a judge can impose a publication ban. Previously, judges would grant media bans seemingly at whim. “Dagenais suggested that the rights of the press are not to be trumped by the rights of the accused,” says Bryan Cantley, director of editorial services for the Canadian Newspaper Association. The same principles may soon also apply to the act of publishing criminal records before trial, provided the Alberta Court of Appeal decides in favour of The Calgary Sun and The Edmonton Sun.
Interestingly, media lawyers have noted that the likelihood of a newspaper being prosecuted for contempt or violation of a ban depends largely on the time zone you’re in; authorities in Western Canada, particularly Alberta, tend to take a harder stance against pretrial publicity than anywhere else in the country. “Maybe there’s something in the air or water or the beef, but they have a very protective notion that the court system has to be enveloped in a special skin,” says lawyer Stuart Robertson. On the other side of the spectrum, Ontario newspapers seem to be the least prosecuted, even though they take the most risks in reporting pretrial information. Robertson says it might be because there’s less danger of an unfair trial in larger, high-crime cities. Or perhaps the current Ontario attorney general simply thinks the Crown has little chance of winning.
Still, we’re not fully Americanized yet. Some aspects of Canadian media-law relations seem draconian compared to the Land of Milk and O.J.; access to court documents or sensitive police files, for instance, can be very difficult even for well-known reporters, whereas in the United States documents are typically available online. Donovan Vincent, a justice reporter at the Star, told me how a court officer once interrogated him and asked for credentials, just for sitting in the public gallery. And for better or for worse, Crowns are very restricted in what they can say to the media, though defence lawyers are not. Barriers like these explain why the court beat is considered among the most demanding. Faced with so many barriers of law and attitude, it’s no wonder some court reporters and media lawyers applaud Blatchford for trying to break through a few.
Of the 12 jurors in the case, two had already been dismissed for personal reasons, and any further dismissals would have caused a mistrial. The remaining 10 were polled, one by one. Five said they had heard about Blatchford’s call-it-as-I-see-it article. Of the one or two who had actually read it, Justice Then was assured it would not affect their view of the existing evidence. In a later column, Blatchford quipped, “It was the first time in memory I was thrilled to hear that something I had written didn’t amount to a hill of beans.” Bayliss, who even today believes the piece biased the jury, eventually gave up the fight.
Blatchford says she couldn’t have-and shouldn’t have-written the story any other way. Her argument, one she’s used to defend similar pieces, is that a straightforward account would have given Savojipour’s testimony more credibility than it deserved. Blatchford penned an equally snide assessment of Francis Carl Roy’s flimsy-sounding alibi against the charge of raping and murdering young Alison Parrott. Two years after the trial ended, Blatchford recalls the testimony. “He woke up, masturbated, went out for a run, then saw this dead body and thought: ‘Hmmm, I think I’m going to stick a finger in the body.’ And wouldn’tcha know it, the bad luck was, that was the very same hand he used to jack off-and as you know sperm lives forever-and that’s how the DNA got in the little girl’s vagina,” she said. “So that’s how I wrote it, and if people concluded at the end that he was lying, I think that’s fair. People did report it straight, and that’s more misleading than any other way you could’ve covered it.”
Accuracy, thoroughness, and insight: if Blatchford didn’t possess these qualities in spades, her words might never make it to print. She always arrives at the courthouse at least one hour before proceedings begin, paranoically securing “her” seat. When she can’t follow a trial from beginning to end (as was the case with Savojipour), she makes sure to obtain transcripts. Reporters who have sat next to her on the public bench have admitted to reading her column the next day, just to make sense of the bewildering spectacle that the courtroom can be. Like most journalists covering the courts, she keeps close ties with her publication’s lawyers. However, her understanding of the legal system is so thorough that they rarely have to tinker with her work. The same was true during her days at the Sun. Despite the oppressive task of working around four individual publication bans, Blatchford’s coverage of the Bernardo trial broke journalistic ground while avoiding legal trouble.
“She is a wordsmith,” says Alan Shanoff, media lawyer for the Sun Media Corp. “A lot of times there wouldn’t be even a single word that I would suggest changing, and other times maybe one or two in 1,000. She’s careful with her language, she sweats over her words, and she’s famous for getting pissed with editors who want to change them. Even to change a preposition or a comma was something you didn’t lightly do.”
Along with her copy, Blatchford is equally famous for protecting her reputation. The first time I challenged her on the issue of her writing’s influence on jurors, I was reprimanded like an unhousebroken puppy. And our final moments of discussing the Chaudhary case were among the iciest two minutes of my life-until she hung up on me. She seemed completely convinced that my sole motivation was to attack her.
Though her guard was often up, my time with Christie Blatchford taught me a moral: Like the sketch of the glowering judge and the gesticulating accused murderer that looms over her writing desk, Blatchford’s colourful writing often serves, ironically, to reduce the courtroom battle to black and white, good versus evil, our team against the bad guys. What readers must decide is whether the role she plays-a self-appointed 13th juror with a front-page column-is one that serves justice, or merely caricatures it.
by Mike Drach
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.