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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Supreme Court of Canada Says "Don't Trust a Journalist!"

Bad news for investigative reporting in Canada and in the US.

In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, that the Toronto daily, The National Post, must hand over an evidence envelope to the police for DNA testing.

The envelope contained information, according to the National Post that connected the former Liberal government to a series of bribes and kickbacks, allegations that eventually drove the Liberals out of office.

The Prime Minister of the day, Jean Chr├ętien claimed the documents in the envelope were forgeries and demanded that they be tested to determine if the whistle blower could be identified. The reporter, Andrew MacIntosh refused, claiming that he had an obligation to protect his sources. The SCOC disagreed.

The court ruled that journalists have no broad constitutional immunity to protect sources and any such claims have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis.

It said in this instance, the right of the police to investigate a potential crime outweighs the newspaper's right to protect a source. Justice Rosalee Abella was the one dissenting voice.

In the US, another setback for investigative journalism:

A United States district court judge has ruled that Joe Berlinger who has produced a film called "Crude," must turn over 600 hours of unused footage ("outs") to Chevron, owner of Texaco, the oil giant that Amazon rainforest dwellers accuse of polluting their environment with billions of gallons of toxic waste. Only about 1 percent of the footage was used in Berlinger's film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and was released in theaters last fall.  Berlinger's lawyer plans to appeal, and says the decision "threatens grave harm to documentary filmmakers and investigative journalists."

Just in time, the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) is meeting next week in Oxford, England to discuss how the role of a public editor/readers' representative/ombudsman must function as a watchdog for independent journalism at a time when wikis, bloggers and other media critics are assailing journalism from all sides.

The National Post (which has no ombuds) is a case in point: would an independent mediator have resolved this issue before it got to the Supreme Court? Should ONO proactively offer its good offices to independent investigative journalists to help adjudicate conflicts before they become litigation?

At a time when the highest courts in the land doubt the integrity of journalism, there has never been a greater need for independent news ombudsmen to restore the reputation of news organizations and strengthen the role of journalism in the public good.

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