Radio interview about publication ban

Rick Howe had me on his show this afternoon. I agreed not to mention Rehtaeh Parsons’ name during the interview, but that is the case we are talking about.

If you’d like to listen, here’s a link.

Publication ban is pointless

Canning Parsons

Glen Canning (left) and Leah Parsons have fought to keep their daughter’s name alive.

One of the beauties of being a freelancer is that I don’t have to worry about consulting lawyers or publishers, I can just follow my gut and do what a journalist is supposed to do.

To paraphrase the Mr. Dooley character of American humorist Finley Peter Dunne: It’s the job of journalists to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Sometimes, you get the opportunity to do both and when those opportunities arise, you must seize them. Yesterday, more than any other day, it was important to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name.

The guilty plea of one of the accused was validation for her and her family. Any journalist with a sense of public good would recognize that you’d need to link yesterday’s development back to April 2013, when the whole world knew her name and the eyes of the world were on Nova Scotia because of the failure of our justice system to lay any charges.

There was a clear purpose to my post and I’m not content to wait for politicians to change the law. I’m going to point out its flaws, why it needs to be amended, and why it should not apply in this case. I also consulted with Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents – Leah Parsons and Glen Canning — and got a blessing from both of them to break the ban.

Also, reading the judge’s decision from May gave me confidence that it was a pretty safe path if I chose my steps carefully. I was not flouting it just for the sake of flouting it. Former colleague Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College, suggested in a Facebook discussion that “there’s a danger when we start violating bans because we believe it’s wrong in one particular instance.”

“What if another reporter decides to name an alleged rape victim, or a child abuse victim because they think it’s justified. Do we get to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t? And, given that everyone already knows who the victim is in this case, is it really necessary to break the ban to make the argument it is wrong here, or to write in a way that makes the connections for the reader without specifically naming the victim?”

In this case, I take to heart the comments made by Judge Jamie Campbell when he wrote in his decision: “It’s a ban that everyone wants, just not in this case.”

To see Judge Campbell’s decision, click here.

Clearly, it’s a good law, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. A judge, our director of public prosecutions, and our Attorney General had an opportunity to fix that, but none took the opportunities available to them for various reasons. You say that “everyone” knows her name, but I think that only those closely connected to the case would make the crucial connection if not for the efforts of the victim’s parents — Glen Canning and Leah Parsons — who have been breaking the ban.

I’m not claiming the right for me or any other journalist to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t. But remember, both of Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the ban and the Crown fought it, too. Also, when the Crown reviews a complaint — if there is one — they will consider the intent of Parliament in drafting the law, the wishes of the parents, and whether the public interest is served in prosecuting.

Precisely the things that I considered before writing the post.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.

Why?

Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography.
Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

Don’t pit one worthy cause against another

Some folks are pointing out that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a waste of water. With so many people in under-developed countries dying from a lack of clean drinking water, and so few people dying from ALS, this highly successful marketing campaign that has been so prevalent on social media is misguided.

When you look at the raw numbers, it’s a compelling case.

More people die from a lack of clean drinking water than ALS. You can even find some diseases that kill more people than ALS. But look deeper, how many of those diseases are exacerbated by the way we live, poor diet, alcohol consumption or lack of exercise?

People who get ALS get it because they draw the short straw. Plain and simple. I’m not going to pit one worthy cause against another, but I was nominated for the ALS ice-bucket challenge and I accepted – and donated.

The pharmaceutical industry hasn’t found a cure to help these people because it’s not profitable and doesn’t bring a good return to shareholders. If I can help with a little bit of time, a little bit of money, and have a little fun doing it, count me in.

I wonder, how much money would have been raised for ALS research, if somebody just donated money and didn’t make a funny video that also challenged others to give? A lot less, and there’s no doubt about that.

What is the reason for ALS deaths? Lack of research into a cure. What is the reason for deaths related to a lack of clean drinking water? It’s not the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and it’s not a lack of research money. Can money help? Sure it can, but if you think that giving people access to clean drinking water is important, as I do, then use the publicity that this campaign has generated to say that while you support ALS research, you are concerned about access to water or some other disease that doesn’t get enough research funding. Instead of dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, say you’ll fund research for another disease or you’ll fund a project to bring clean drinking water to those who don’t have it.

It’s like using the fundamental principal of jujitsu, but in a slightly different way. In jujitsu, you use the force of your opponent against them. In this case, use the force of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to bring attention to another worthy case and help raise money for that instead.

Oh, I’m also helping to raise money for a project that will drill a well in Ecuador and provide a continuous source of clean drinking water to a village.

 

 

 

 

An early autopsy of the newspaper industry

newspaper-2

The newspaper business is slowly dying, but it didn’t have to be this way.

The Poynter Institute reports that 1,300 more newspaper jobs disappeared in the United States in 2013.

In what is surely a most cruel form of irony, the people responsible for running the newspaper business – the suits, the MBAs, the publishers – could have made the decisions to at least soften the decline of the industry if not prevent it, but they failed miserably.

Supposedly, they had all that business savvy, but they proved that they didn’t. They supposedly had the knowledge to read the changing business landscape and the authority to make the decisions to adjust; they did neither well enough to make a difference.

Here’s something you need to know about newspapers. They were never really a challenging business during their prime. In many communities and cities, they were a licence to print money – especially if it was a one-newspaper market. Classified advertising was the huge cash cow for many newspapers and there was also revenue from display advertising that pushed the percentage of revenue from non-subscription sources to upwards of 75 to 80 per cent.

Think about that. The people who got the newspapers at their doorstep paid for 25 per cent of the cost of collecting that news, printing it on newsprint, and delivering the bundled-up dead trees to the homes of subscribers.

Then, along comes a new medium called the Internet that can deliver the news to readers for a pittance. You still need to pay reporters, photographers, designers, and people to upload the news to a website, but you eliminate some huge cost centres. You don’t need to buy newsprint, you don’t need to buy expensive printing presses, or pay the salaries of people to print it and deliver it.

Comparatively, it’s a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way of delivering news to readers. It offered the promise of huge savings if the new medium was embraced, but the industry timidly put one toe in the water instead and continued printing newspapers while paying lip-service to their websites.

Then came the complaints that the Internet wasn’t working for them because they had to give content away because people wouldn’t pay for it. During this time sites like Craigslist and Kijiji siphoned classified ad revenue. Instead of copying their business model to keep those eyeballs on newspaper websites, they continued to charge for classified ads and drove more and more classified ad users to these free websites.

Like anything that has gone extinct, the companies that run newspapers failed to evolve.

If the companies that run newspapers want to exist — and continue delivering news — after the great demographic bubble of the baby boom passes on, they’ll need to get their heads out of their wazoos and stop printing news on dead trees.

Trashing the litterbugs

Tim_hortons_cup_trash

 

 

My daughter was only about four years old when we were out at a park and she noticed some litter on the ground.

“Oh, look,” she said. “Somebody forgot their garbage.”

We produce way more than our share of garbage in North America that the least we can do of it is properly dispose of it. When I was a kid, we were taught that littering was bad. Then, we tried to add another layer of responsibility on top of that and it seems like the North American brain short-circuited.

“Recycle and dispose of my garbage? But I’ve got TV shows to watch,” I imagine the modern-day neanderthal saying.

We live in a society with too many lazy slobs and not enough people who care. The evidence is overwhelming. Yesterday, my son took part in “Clean up to win,” a neighbourhood clean-up that coincides with the end of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win contest. In about three hours, one person picked up more than 500 empty cups that had been discarded in Spryfield. He was not alone, many others from the Adventure Earth Centre in Halifax, who are part of HEAT (Helping the Earth by Acting Together) are participating in the clean-up. Tonight, those who participate get to enter their name into a draw for prizes. To be fair, there was some other garbage from a local McDonald’s, but about two-thirds of it originated from Tim Hortons.

This is the kind of contest we need. One that helps prevent litter and waste, rather than causing it.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Ignore the branding: These are the oranges you’re looking for

Navel Oranges

As a teenager, I worked for a few years at a produce store in Montreal and learned a great deal about fruits and vegetables from my boss, Harvey Levy, who loved to educate his employees.

One day, we got a shipment of navel oranges and they were delicious. Harvey, as he often did, sampled them before buying a few hundred cases of the juicy, seedless citrus fruit that is popular with consumers.

He knew it was good value – a better value than the navel oranges sold by Sunkist which relied on branding to pump up its price and reputation. Yes, pilgrims, Sunkist is not a type of orange, it’s merely one of many companies that grows and sells navel oranges.

Harvey knew that some customers would be skeptical about the oranges because they didn’t have the Sunkist stamp, so he asked us to cut up a bunch of them and offer them as samples.

For many people, tasting was believing and they happily bought the oranges which were on sale. They, like me, learned a valuable, lesson about oranges and branding.

Some people, narrow-mindedly refused to even try a free sample, even though these oranges tasted great and offered all the same health benefits of the name-brand orange.

“I only eat Sunkist oranges,” some said.

After I finish shaking my head, I pity people like that.