So the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a Vice News reporter has to hand over to the RCMP records of his conversation with a terrorist and this is a ‘dark day for press freedom‘?? In fairness, the ones who think that are from Vice News and as they fought the original order to pony up the information in the first place we would not expect any other reaction, would we? But is it as dire as all that?
As background, the reporter, Ben Makush, entered into online communication with Farah Shirdon, one of Canada’s most pathetic and attention-seeking members of Islamic State (IS). In 2015 the RCMP asked Mr. Makush for those records and he declined, claiming source protection issues. The highest court in the land has decided that “while it was important for media to be able to gather news without government interference, that right was outweighed in this case by society’s interest in investigating and prosecuting crimes.”
What then should we make of all this?: a) correct decision b) government overreach or c) ‘dark day for press freedom’. I am going to go with a). But before I explain I have to admit that I see Vice News’ point, to an extent, when it comes to protecting sources. After all , as a 32-year intelligence veteran there is nothing more important than not disclosing your source. I agree that the press should have the same privileges (wait, wasn’t there a Mary Tyler Moore episode on this a gazillion years ago?), with limitations, as CSIS and the RCMP.
Except that Shirdon was never a confidential source who needed to remain protected. Quite the opposite. He was annoyingly on social media bragging about joining IS and pledging to come back to Canada and carry out terrorist attacks. That Mr. Makush was in regular contact with this wanker was not a state – or a press – secret. So, who was the journalist protecting exactly?
Furthermore, what Shirdon was promising to do, whether or not it had any tie to reality, was a serious threat to public safety. The RCMP had every right to investigate this idiot and determine the nature of the menace he posed. Part of that investigation would include any information that could shed light on his plans, up to what Mr. Makush and Shirdon talked about. If Mr. Makush tried to claim that nothing he possessed was germane to a criminal investigation, I would counter with ‘how do you know that Ben?’
The decision is then the right one. I do think this power, should it now be seen as precedent-establishing, has to be exercised judiciously by our courts and I am confident that it will be done to that degree. Besides, the reaction by some on the side of Vice is little short of over-dramatic. Vice News went so far as to drag in boy President Trump’s comments about the media as the ‘enemy of the people’ implying that the Canadian decision was putting journalists in ‘physical danger’. Oh, puh-leez! Spare me the drama!
In addition, the president of a journalists’ union has stated that “Police have an important job to do in protecting us from crime, but they cannot expect journalists to do that job for them. The media is not, nor should it ever be, an arm of the state.” Except that is not what the state is asking journalists to do. What it has decided is that journalists, like any other Canadian, should help our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies do their jobs to keep us safe, and if they choose not to do so voluntarily and there are reasonable grounds to believe they have important data, then they can be compelled to share it.
We cherish our rights and freedoms and must fight to keep them. But rights and freedoms come with obligations. Vice News has an obligation to assist in counter terrorism investigations. End of story.