On Wednesday, The Globe’s front page showed three men who have been charged in the Lac-Mégantic rail tragedy walking in handcuffs and single file to the courthouse.
The three men, charged with criminal negligence causing death, were marched in front of the townspeople. The Globe’s Ingrid Peritz wrote that the victims’ families stood watching mutely and there were no boos or jeers from the dozens of onlookers. In police parlance this is commonly known as a “perp walk” and it is an unusual sight in most of Canada.
Following that front-page photo and the incident, The Globe’s editorial board wrote that there should be “no more perp walks.” It said: “Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian police and prosecutors do not hold up their catch, like a fisherman displaying a prize marlin. They usually bring him in quietly through a side door or an underground garage. That’s as it should be. Our legal system is founded on the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
We heard from two readers who wondered if The Globe was being hypocritical. “The Globe and Mail decries the practice of ‘perp walks’ (‘No more perp walks’), calling them a humiliating spectacle arranged for the media. Why, then, was this practice seemingly validated by the paper in putting a photo of those arrested in Lac-Mégantic front and centre on May 14th’s edition? Is it not hypocritical and contradictory to participate in a practice whilst simultaneously condemning it?” asked one.
Another reader said: “That picture of the men being walked to the Lac-Mégantic courthouse was not just humiliating for them, but also demeaning to our legal and law enforcement systems, and to our sense of fairness. However, not to indulge in second-guessing, if you felt initially compelled to display their picture so prominently above the fold on the front page, your editorial stand would have been greatly strengthened if you had decided to crop out the bottom half of that picture and edit out their handcuffed hands.”
Night editor Patrick Brethour said: “Our role is neither to condemn nor to praise events, but to present them.” He also noted that the decision to walk the three charged men was a conspicuous decision of the Quebec provincial police. As the article notes, one of the men’s lawyers complained that an armed SWAT team arrived the previous night with sirens blazing and ordered the man along with his son and a friend to lie face down on the ground in his backyard.
The editorial is not saying the coverage was incorrect, but that the police force was overzealous in its actions. Editorial page editor Tony Keller said he saw no conflict “between a newspaper running pictures of a major news event – the perp walking of suspects – and the editorial board of that same paper telling the police to refrain from staging such news events in future because perp walks are demeaning, dehumanizing and contrary to the presumption of innocence. In running the pictures, we weren’t making a moral judgement. We were showing the news. And it was news – both the arrests and the perp walk. Many people who saw pictures and video of the perp walk were repulsed by it. Me too. But had the media not brought them the images, how would they have known about what happened? We didn’t perp walk them. We brought news of them being perp walked. There’s a big difference.”
It’s worth noting that the Quebec police have done this before with the Hells Angels’ Maurice “Mom” Boucher and Mafia don Nick Rizzuto. In France, since 2000, the penal code says that showing photos of a manacled person without their consent infringes on their presumption of innocence.
In my view, it absolutely was correct to show the photo, which was taken in a very public display in front of the townspeople. Not only was their arrest newsworthy, as were the photos of the people charged in a very public case, but also the way in which they were arrested and marched to court was newsworthy. The public has the right to see that and to make up their own minds about the practice of perp walks.