Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Oct.  3, 2011)

It’s done all the time

By Bob Cooper


Some news media outlets are in a tizzy this week after hearing that detectives from the Riot Investigation Team will apply for court orders to obtain video and photos taken by the press on the night of the Stanley Cup Riot.  Some have done stories making it sound like this is an unprecedented, intrusive assault on freedom of the press.  Nothing could be further from the truth and they all know it. 

This is really a bit of tit for tat over a statement on the Vancouver Police Department’s website ( which implied that the press bore some responsibility for the riot.  Aside from the very ill-advised strategy of blaming the news media and the irony that the police now need something from them, what made the statement newsworthy was the mystery surrounding its origins.  No one was taking ownership of this bag of crap.   Not even the Chief knew who wrote it, where it came from, or how it got on the Department’s website.  It just appeared one day.

The fact is, warrants for TV news footage are obtained on a fairly regular basis though certainly not every day.  I’ve done a number of them over the years and aside from a bit of theatre, it’s all very civilized.  I would call the Assignment Editor and confirm that they had the footage we were seeking and that the tape was being held in their newsroom and ask when it would be convenient for me to drop by and pick it up.  I would then go before a Justice of the Peace and apply for a Search Warrant.  As a result of a Supreme Court of Canada decision which acknowledges the special position of the press in society, I also have to satisfy the JJP that the video evidence is vital to the investigation and that I have no other means of obtaining it which is usually pretty simple.

Armed with the warrant I’d show up at the newsroom at the arranged date and time and there was usually a camera crew waiting to film me executing the warrant.  They do this for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the media do not want to be seen voluntarily handing over footage to the police which is the same reason they demand that we obtain a court order.  They feel that to do so would create the appearance that they were acting as agents of the police when they shot the footage in the first place which could expose their reporters and cameramen to danger and I can’t argue with that.  Secondly, they make a news story of it that they can use to fill 3 or 4 minutes on a slow day and it’s also free advertising.  On one occasion I was asked by an Assignment Editor why I was picking on their station and not some others.  I made an off the cuff remark that it was because her camera people always got the best clips.  They made a promo commercial out of it.

For an expert opinion, the CBC contacted Peter Klein, the head of the UBC School of Journalism, who felt that it was inappropriate for the police to demand this material from the news media because it would undermine their role as an independent watchdog for the public.  Mr. Klein has an impressive resume including producing the CBS show 60 Minutes but he may be a bit lacking in local knowledge as evidenced by his misread of the public’s mood.  The CBC (who  misread the public’s mood on a fairly regular basis) conducted a poll which revealed 65% (vs. 29% opposed) in favor of media outlets handing over their footage and CBC viewers are not normally cheerleaders for the police.

It may also be news to Mr. Klein that, unlike many U.S. states, there is no ‘reporter shield’ law in Canada and while the public in Vancouver tend to be more liberal than most, they draw the line at events like the Stanley Cup Riot.  I respect the role of the press in a free society and I believe the law should protect newsrooms from random or warrantless searches.  That said, the news media make a lot of money from the images they gather and if they want to be the public’s ‘independent watchdog’ it’s not unreasonable to expect them to do their civic duty the same as the public expect from anyone else who witnesses a crime.

Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2011