The law is an ass, but must it bray so loudly? -

The law is an ass, but must it bray so loudly?


Behold the compound stupidity that emerges from ill-made privacy law. There was a terrible murder near the entrance of Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald early Monday; the Edmonton Journal conducted a careful, sensitive investigation into the background of the victim, who had committed a murder himself in 2001. Because the Journal disclosed that the dead man had once been in foster care and that he had been a young offender, the broadsheet couldn’t report his name for fear of inviting reprisals from multiple levels of government. Meanwhile, every other news organ in town was left free to identify him precisely because they didn’t have, or didn’t tell, the full story. The law, in its infinite wisdom, endowed this lucky brute with privacy rights that did not expire with this death. But for whatever it might be worth, those rights did absolutely nothing to shield his identity from anybody.

It would be lovely if governments decided that concealing information about suspicious deaths, or indeed any deaths at all, is horrible public policy. Privacy provisions in Alberta’s child-welfare laws are particularly awful in this respect; they have repeatedly impeded newsgathering on the quality of foster care in this province—an exercise of the free press that could not possibly be more urgent. I would add that various police forces are rapidly embracing the repugnant habit of concealing the identities of corpses discovered in public places “at the request of their families”. This does not appear to be a matter of law at all; it is just improvised self-regulation. The reporter, presented with a blank wall of sentiment, never has any ready means of confirming that a family has made such a request, or, indeed, been consulted or located at all. If we are prepared to accept this obfuscation as a matter of routine, we might just as well give the cops an explicit license to cover up homicide, or, indeed, to commit it.

[UPDATE, 6:46 pm: the Edmonton Sun has withdrawn the name of the victim from its story, which is linked to above. Here’s how it reads now; here’s a screenshot from 6 am Eastern time today, courtesy of the Google cache. Note here that general knowledge of the name of the victim might actually, I dunno, help the police solve the crime.]


The law is an ass, but must it bray so loudly?

  1. I'm not sure whether Cosh is arguing that the privacy laws are not very effective (in which case I agree) or that privacy laws are a bad idea altogether (in which case I disagree). It sounds like the latter.

    The press is just as capable of steering a narrative to hide what they want to hide as the police are; why should we put our trust in them? I'd rather have privacy laws than journalists deciding what gets publicized.

    • "The press is just as capable of steering a narrative to hide what they want to hide as the police are"? Are you quite sure you want to stand behind that statement?

      • I suppose it would be better stated as "expose what they want to expose", but I think the effect is the same: the narrative gets steered.

        • As opposed to being suppressed outright, yes, perhaps. On the very crudest level of analysis, I suppose you can see that there is only one state but that the "press" is multiple and competitive? Are you really as afraid of bad, out-of-control media as you are of bad, out-of-control police authority, or are you trying way too hard to be contrarian?

          • It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've backed myself into a corner by being uber-contrarian, if that's what's happening.

            It's true that the press, in principle, is multiple. And yes there is some safety in that. However they are also remarkably monolithic on certain issues, albeit less so than in prior decades. It's hardly unthinkable that the press, as a whole, would dig up and expose dirt on people they view as enemies in order to destroy them. Is this worse than police-state tactics? It may well be, although in general the two go together.

            Given the choice between facing thugs with nightsticks and thugs with newspapers, I'd probably prefer the former. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all, and one man can accomplish a lot more against brute force than he can against a determined smear campaign.

          • I think I'd fear the nightsticks. The pen is mighty, but the truth always gets out. So in the end, rogue states always need to resort to physical control and violence.

          • Hear, hear Mr Cosh – I do have issues with press coverage but not in this case I agree fully with you

  2. I would worry less about the police doing something untoward, if they were not allowed to investigate themselves.

  3. Colby, you sure privacy rights survive death? I googled "do privacy laws survive death" and found this reference in BC:

    Action does not survive death

    5 An action or right of action for a violation of privacy or for the unauthorized use of the name or portrait of another for the purposes stated in this Act is extinguished by the death of the person whose privacy is alleged to have been violated or whose name or portrait is alleged to have been used without authority.

    Or is this Fed jurisdiction?

      • The question of whether privacy rights survive death would depend on the specific legislation called into question. "Privacy" isn't a field that was awarded to either of the federal or provincial governments in the BNA Act, which is sensible, both because it was 1867 and there wasn't really the attention paid to it that there is now and because it's an issue that arises both federally and provincially. We have what is effectively a patchwork quilt of privacy, with different rights under different Acts, in both the federal and provincial jurisdiction.s

        The Act that you're referring to in BC is a somewhat unusual piece of legislation called the Privacy Act that creates a right of action against other parties who invade your privacy. I know some provinces have equivalents and others don't. Privacy in the sense that Colby is talking about presumably relates to right to have information about some specific way in which you interacted with the government kept private.

        • Yeah, I agree with what you have written. I've had some involvement with some privacy issues in BC quite some time ago. I believe the relevant legislation is FOIPPA (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of BC). Alberta, I believe, subsequently enacted similar legislation covering provincial gov't agencies. There's usually a list of which ones are covered in an appendix somewhere. A bit of digging will probably uncover it.

  4. The law is a ass.

    *I read too much Dickens

  5. Privacy is a temporal concept. Knowing is also temporal. The difficulties of context are hard to control, yet human nature is such that we will always seek to manipulate context to make truth out of knowing. There are many obstacles on the path to truth and still more on the path to make meaning from truth. If a name can’t be told, if a history must be hidden, it warns that meaning is an arduously difficult task to make from the truth. I have respect for the obstacles on the path because they challenge the worthy. ergo the most complete report is the one to MERIT censure.

  6. In principle I agree, but I can't get too excited about defending the media's right to the information, because most crime reporting has nothing to do with ensuring police/justice system accountability and everything to do with reporting ghastly details for a prurient audience.

    A lot of crime reporting just feeds a kind of revenge fantasy cheering section repeating lurid details again and again alongside public grieving by the victims. That trend towards more public grieving is also frequently accompanied by uninformed public policy criticism by victims or their representatives (up to and including public rallies at legislatures) but without any question as if their personal, emotional response is license to opine without facts or corroboration.

  7. Whether a juvenile or anyone else commits a crime they have no right to privacy about it. A criminal charge should be a matter of public record. All of the people who know the person charged will know about the event whether the media disclose it or not. We need to ask ourselves, privacy from what?

  8. Alberta child services uses the privacy act and is allowed to use it for it's own use.There have been two murders of foster children in the past three years and one this year and yet the public knows very little about them, on top of this there have been six deaths of foster children and no public inquiries. The child who died of a methadone over dose, we know every thing about her and her family and child services released this information along with the police. So why is it that child services is not made to hold public inquiries on all deaths of children in their care. There must be openess of all deaths of children, not just the children within the general population, all children, including those in care. Until then, children will continue to die in care with no justice.