Front Page Justice
Though the police had little to go on, the press saw fit to charge
Wayne Riley was relieved when the Ontario Provincial Police held a press conference last fall to answer questions about its investigation into a string of murders in the Ottawa Valley. In the previous four years, six middle-aged and elderly recluses had been gunned down in their homes, some shot through a window. Try as he might, Riley, since 1985 assistant manager of the weekly Chesterville Record, had been unable to get much information out of the OPP. He knew his readers in Chesterville (population: 1,400) and other villages in the valley were growing agitated in their belief that the investigation was getting nowhere. “You have to understand this area,” explains the 31year-old Riley. “I myself live way out in the country, on a road where there’s only one farm. The streets are unlit. We have a police force of 12 or 14 members to cover about 350 square miles. That means you might not even see the patrol car during the night.” So when, on September 21, the OPP announced it had a suspect, although it lacked the evidence necessary for an arrest, Riley applauded. “People are sleeping easier these nights with the information that has been released,” he said in his editorial two days later. And he gave credit for the announcement to pressure put on the OPP by the urban media.
No sooner was the editorial published, however, than Riley wished he could retract it. When he wrote it, he hadn’t bargained on the urban media’s response to the press conference. A suggestion by the investigation’s head, Detective Inspector James McCormick, that the suspect might “have a story to tell” was all it took for some journalists to engage in what one critic later described as “pack journalism at its worst.” Acting on rumors that a Chesterville mechanic had been under OPP surveillance, reporters headed for the village, which is 65 kilometres southeast of Ottawa. They camped outside the mechanic’s home for two days until the man-who had not been charged -went on local television to protest his Innocence.
Police had made his life a “living hell,” he said on Ottawa’s CJOH-TV “There’s no place I can drive without them being there. I have been watched from the air by helicopters. I’ve taken enough harassment over the past few months and I feel something must be done for my behalf. I haven’t done nothing.”
The legal community promptly denounced the police for violating the man’s right to the presumption of innocence. Some critics accused the OPP of deliberately staging the press conference to unleash reporters on the suspect so that he would somehow incriminate himself. (Superintendent Joe Crozier, head of the OPP’s criminal investigation branch in Toronto, refuses to discuss the allegation. “Everything we’ve said to the media has been twisted around,” he says.) Others, however, believe the press conference, far from being an OPP master plan, was hastily called to quell complaints from news agencies that the OPP was giving preferential treatment to The Ottawa Citizen.
These charges stemmed from a story that had run in the Citizen the morning of the press conference. It was the first article to contain an official acknowledgement that a serial killer might be at large in the valley. Based on an interview with McCormick, reporters John Kessel and Ian MacLeod revealed that police believed the three homicides in the area of Winchester, 10 kilo metres west of Chesterville, had been committed by one person. As well, the story indicated that police now thought that three other deaths, which had occurred between 1975 and 1983 and had been attributed to mysterious fires, were the work of the same killer, “an Ottawa Valley resident in his 40s who knew at least two of the victims.” The article did not identify the 44-year-old Chesterville mechanic by name. But, because he lived in the same area as the victims (on television he denied knowing any of them) and had been under police surveillance, it gave credence to the rumor that he was the OPP’s suspect. The damage to his rights and reputation was done even before the infamous press conference.
As to why McCormick gave him the information, Kessel can only speculate. Even before the press conference, he says, police had “invited” him to interview the suspect, who was refusing to answer their questions. Perhaps, Kessel surmises, the police intended to confiscate his notes and tapes afterwards. Then his paper “would’ve become part of the [legal] process, which is not what we’re designed to do.” So the Citizen resisted the OPP’s private overtures. The public ones, however, proved irresistible. The day after the press conference, Kessel and Macleod were the first reporters to stake out the man’s house, and the only ones to maintain a vigil through the night. Their quarry’s reaction was described in the next morning’s Citizen: he circled “the area earlier in the day, but was unable to get into the building without being seen until well after dark.”
By the following day, more than a dozen reporters had descended on Chesterville. They represented, among others, CBC Television and CBC Radio, CTV affiliate CJOH- TV and Le Droit, Ottawa’s Frenchlanguage daily. Swarming over the town, they questioned people on the street, in stores and in their homes. (“At first I wasn’t that concerned,” one woman told the Record. “But when I was asked for the sixth time if I was frightened, I became frightened.”) All day long, reporters lined up, three and four at a time, to use the village’s one pay phone. At lunch time, they crowded into Louis’ Restaurant on Chesterville’s main street. Meanwhile, two blocks away, the stakeout of the mechanic’s house persisted. At one point, as many as a dozen reporters-some with cameras at the ready-parked their cars and stood outside, spilling over into the road. Passing motorists slowed to take a look, creating a bottleneck. “The circus came to town,” wrote Riley in his next editorial.
Asked whether any of the participants suggested calling off the siege, the Citizen’s Kessel replies: “Why would they do that? We’re all in competition for the same story. People aren’t going to leave just because others leave-especially if their editor is saying, ‘Stay there and keep trying to get him.'” In fact, only when the mechanic retained noted Ottawa lawyer David Scott did the reporters back off. In a statement issued three days after the stakeout began, Scott accused the media of making the man and his neighbors “prisoners in their own houses.” And he threatened legal action against anyone who publicly associated his client with the murders.
By then, however, additional damaging information about his client had been published. On September 23, even before the television interview was broadcast, the Citizen further identified the suspect by printing that he “occasionally worked at a used car lot on Highway 31.” Ironically, this was in an article that criticized the OPP for its handling of the case and for “making it easy for the media to learn the suspect’s identity and whereabouts.”
Moreover, the article also revealed that the suspect had a criminal record dating back to 1960. “Although it consists mainly of property crimes,” the piece said, “it includes convictions for armed robbery, possession of a prohibited weapon and wounding.” Since a defendant’s record is inadmissible evidence in a court proceeding, had the suspect been charged with the murders, the Citizen would have risked a contempt-of-court citation for publishing information prejudicial to his trial. Because no charge had been laid, however, the paper was able to publish the record with impunity.
Still, this discussion of the man’s past was unethical, says Professor Klaus Pohle, who teaches media law at Carleton University’s School of Journalism. “Dragging his past through the media prejudices the reader against this particular person. There’s no doubt about that. It raises the question in the ordinary reader’s mind that, if the man has a criminal record, the police are probably right in suspecting him in the murders.” (Scott Honeyman, the Citizen’s managing editor, argued in an interview that, since the paper didn’t refer to the man by name, it was all right to publish his record. Yet, a few minutes earlier Honeyman had stated: “It was pretty obvious to everybody in that town who the suspect was. That’s where we found out the fellow’s name.”
Pohle sees no public benefit to the media’s undertaking what he terms such “quasi-criminal investigations.” And, he says, there’s a danger in this: once the media acquire the information, they’re tempted, in their quest for the better story, to publish it. The proper procedure, Pohle argues, is simply to report that the police have a suspect, giving no details about him. “The media have all kinds of information that’s never published for various reasons,” he adds. “It’s not that you have information, it’s what you do with it that counts.”
In the Citizen’s defence, Honeyman pleads the pressure of competition: “Put yourself in the role of a person working at this newspaper and deciding what to run. If people are getting loads of information off T~ out of the Star and out of the Globe, they ask you, ‘Why the hell haven’t you got that story?’ ” Pohle sympathizes with this dilemma: “Ethics is in the eye of the beholder. When something like this happens it’s difficult to take the high road, because people don’t understand you’re being more cautious than the other media.” Nevertheless, he points to the consequences of succumbing to the pressure: “Once this thing gets going it has a snowball effect; you’ve got to tell better and better and better stories, which leads to more and more questionable information being published.”
After the man’s television appearance, news editors wondered if his name still belonged in the category of questionable information. They went into a huddle, debating the legal and ethical implications of publishing it. Legally, most concluded, they were in the clear: the mechanic himself had publicly acknowledged that he was the suspect. Still, heeding David Scott’s threat, the Citizen maintained its no-name policy. (That it named Scott’s client once-on September 26 in a feature on serial murderers-was the result of human error, Honeyman says.)
The Chesterville Record also adhered to its practice of withholding the name of a suspect who has not been charged. Yet Riley believes the man wanted his identity revealed, at least locally. The mechanic himself had telephoned the CJOH reporter and requested the interview. Then-as Riley learned from the reporter-he had turned down the station’s offer to film him in silhouette. Says Riley: “I think he wanted to say, ‘Listen, these people are in front of my house. I know it and you know it. Let’s just get this thing out in the open.'”
That interpretation was behind The Toronto Star’s decision to name the man right away. Managing Editor Ian Urquhart has no qualms about the decision: “We weren’t compromising his rights by using his name. Far from it. He felt he was furthering his rights by going public at that point.” At first, The Globe and Mail reached a different conclusion. It omitted the name for fear of “adding to the hysteria” by identifying the man to readers who had missed the television interview, says Beverley Bowen, then acting city editor. Next day, however, the paper reversed its position. Its rationale: by then the man had been identified by the Star and, even more significantly, he was probably widely known in the community where it mattered most, his own. Bowen stands behind this decision. In fact, she thinks the name should have been used from the outset; it had become part of the public domain and the man himself had made it so. “You can’t get any closer to the horse’s mouth than that.” The Toronto Sun didn’t share that opinion. It withheld the name because, as Edward Monteith, the editorial director, puts it, “You have to protect people from themselves sometimes.” He says the man clearly lacked the civil-rights savvy to call a lawyer instead of a reporter, and the media took advantage of that.
Indeed, the mechanic lost an advantage when he turned to the media. In Pohle’s view, until then the man had solid grounds for a defamation suit because, while the original articles linking him to the murders did not identify him by name, they did contain enough specific information about him for people in his community to make the connection. However, says Pohle, by giving the interview he severely limited his legal options. “I would think that a judge and jury would not be terribly sympathetic to somebody who talks about the allegations on television and then turns around and sues.”
Maybe so, but to sue would have been to defer gratification. The president of the Civil Liberties Association of the National Capital Region, Donald Whiteside, agrees that the televised denial may have been a “tactical mistake” from a legal standpoint, but not from a psychological one. “He needed to lash out and say, ‘I’m not guilty.’ That was very satisfying for him.”
From where Wayne Riley stands, the tactic doesn’t look like a mistake: “If you’re being hounded by the media, you may as well use the media to relieve the pressure.”
And it certainly appealed to the community’s sense of outrage. “It was funny to see the shift in attitude locally,” says Riley. “After the interview, there was a lot of sympathy for the man.”
This sense of outrage extended beyond Chesterville. On October 2, Solicitor General Joan Smith issued a statement in which she apologized for the OPP’s part in the affair. It was an “error in judgment,” she said, to give out details about the suspect. And she ordered a complete review of guidelines governing the way police release information to the media. No review of the case, however, has been undertaken by the Ontario Press Council. Since it received no complaints from the public about this matter, explains Executive Secretary Mel Sufrin, the council has had no occasion to make recommendations for preventing similar trespasses in the future. Still, G. Stuart Adam, chairman of the Centre for Mass Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, insists that the presumption of innocence is its own recommendation; either you embrace it or you don’t. “If you accept the rule that a person has a right to his reputation and a right to a fair trial, you won’t abrogate it in the name of a story. That’s the rule. You don’t need other guidelines.”
Those at the Citizen who have broken the rule are unrepentant. Honeyman, the managing editor, says he “didn’t lose a minute’s sleep” over the likelihood that his paper helped to ruin a man’s reputation. Kessel, the reporter, blames the victim (since he “bragged” and “joked” to people in Chesterville about being the suspect, and further publicized it on television) and the detective who released the initial details (“he put his foot in his own mouth”). In “Inside Story”-a column that takes readers behind the scenes at the Citizen-Honeyman described his paper’s handling of the fiasco as “journalism at its best.” But Pohle of Catleton University sees it differently: “No one in this whole mess has covered himself with any glory.”
Least of all the media. For even if the man had already been the subject of gossip, the media, by their obtrusive presence, fanned it. Even if the initial identifying information came from the police, the media wantonly disseminated it. Even if the man himself confirmed on television that he was the suspect, the media stakeout drove him to it. Invoking the pressure of competition-though a mitigating factor-does not absolve news agencies of blame. A sign of regret, however small, might help to redeem their tarnished Image.
At least in Chesterville it might. Shortly after the urban reporters had departed, two Record employees were in Louis’ Restaurant, where, Riley says, they “took a pretty good ragging” from patrons and staff. “The consensus was that the media are out to sensationalize stories and create panic whenever they can. And we were lumped in with them.”
So when Wayne Riley sat down to write his next editorial, while he didn’t spare the OPP or the local gossipmongers, he reserved his harshest words for his fellow journalists. Their conduct, he wrote, “had created the impression that the media is a mongrel ready to rip through anyone’s garbage if there is any promising scent of a bone inside.”
Cecile Skerritt-Cramer was the Chief Copy Editor for the Spring 1988 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.