Privacy Trumps the Public’s Right to Know in Murders


Should police have to name the victim of a homicide?

The issue raised its head again a month or so ago, when the Saskatoon Police Service, at the request of the family, didn’t release a murder victim’s name.

A couple of local journalists bemoaned the fact, with one saying there is no good reason for not naming the victim. 

I usually agree that the more information journalists can provide to the public, the better. Media outlets in this city have been to court many, many times to try to have publication bans lifted for various reasons. It’s been my experience that even when media organizations have a sound legal position, judges have ruled against them. It’s just because they can. 

Despite the principle involved, eventually media organizations let a lot of these cases pass because they are expensive to fight and the outcome seems predetermined.

I was involved in many of these during my tenure at the StarPhoenix and once attended a meeting to discuss the matter with the chief justice at the time. It was a good meeting, but nothing really changed.

Whenever we failed to get a publication ban lifted, I, like my colleagues, was indignant. Few things fire up a newsroom more than having a court trample on its rights. I am a believer in the public’s right to know — most of the time. 

I am also a believer in privacy. While the journalist said he could think of no good reason for withholding the name, I can think of no good reason for releasing the name. (Note: I don’t have a journalism degree, so maybe I am speaking out of turn.)

Family members know their loved one has been killed. Police know the identity of the victim and can investigate the case. Witnesses will be interviewed and leads followed.

What’s missing that has these people so riled up? 

One Saskatoon defence lawyer told CBC that not naming the victim could cut off investigative avenues. 

“The risk that’s involved is losing some critical pieces of information that might go to solving the situation, both proving somebody’s guilt, but also potentially proving somebody’s innocence,” the lawyer said last year in an interview with CBC. “If you don’t publish the name of somebody there are bits of information, pieces of evidence that become stale, or never are acquired.”

I wish he would have given an example, because I’m not buying it. (Note: I don’t have a law degree to go along with not having a journalism degree.)

Police services can and will release the name if it is pertinent to the case. It’s their right to do so. 

Last year, Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan amended a regulation in which naming the victim supersedes privacy. 

“It’s in the public interest to have people know that a homicide has taken place and to know who the victim is,” Morgan said at the time.

I don’t buy that either. The family’s rights should trump the public’s unless it has a bearing on the investigation of the case. (Note: I have never been a justice minister, a lawyer or a journalist.) 

In a Canadian Press story last year, Marlo Pritchard, chief of the Weyburn Police Service and head of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, said police forces have always had the power to release or withhold a murder victim’s identity.

He saluted Morgan for his clarification.

“It’s probably in the public interest in most cases to release the name of the homicide victim,” Pritchard said. “It kind of stops the rumour mill. It may also generate some information back to police.”

Stopping the rumour mill at the expense of a family’s privacy doesn’t cut it. As mentioned previously, I would like to see an example of a case where withholding a name resulted in a different outcome for the defendant, or prevented the police from properly doing its investigation.

Good on the Saskatoon Police Service for protecting the rights of the victim — yes, dead people have rights — over the public’s “wanting” to know in cases where the deceased person’s name isn’t relevant to the case. 

Then again, I’m not a police chief, a justice minister, a lawyer or a journalist. 

How did the city allow 53 years of pigeon poop to accumulate under the Senator Sid Buckwold Bridge? You’d think it could have been picked up every 25 years or so. 

Now, 1,500 pigeons are going to be executed. These birds are annoying to be sure, but they are paying the ultimate price because they couldn’t clean up after themselves. What a shame.

Congratulations to Kevin Mitchell of the StarPhoenix on being named Canada’s journalist of the year, as well as the country’s top sportswriter.

Kevin won the awards for his sensitive and thorough coverage of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy. If there was an award for being a great person, Kevin would win it every year.

Congratulations as well to Kayle Neis, who won a national award for his photo of hockey sticks stuck in a snowbank in tribute to those killed and injured in the Humboldt tragedy.