Can you call the Cops?

The complainant, Maxwell Silverman, said reporter Nick Purdon was wrong to call the RCMP after he encountered a shivering refugee on the Canada-U.S. border. The decision to intervene in a story, especially to call authorities, is one of the most challenging for journalists. It requires assessing the journalistic purpose and what’s at stake for personal or public safety. In this case, there were circumstances that made it an acceptable decision.

*There has been a change to the original review to clarify a reference to international law on refugees.

COMPLAINT

You were angered by a report broadcast on the National on February 12, 2017, prepared by reporter Nick Purdon. Mr. Purdon was on the Canada-U.S. border near Emerson, Manitoba in the early hours of a cold winter morning. He and his camera operator were looking for any refugee claimants trying to make their way into Canada. They encountered a man, and called the RCMP, who arrived and took him to the nearest point of entry to be processed. You said that journalists have no business calling the police on their interviewees. You said this was even more the case here since the reporter “welcomed this refugee (literally) into his arms.” There is no obligation to report “a crime” to the police. You said the crime in this case was fleeing for one’s safety:

It is not the job of a journalist to have someone arrested.

It is indeed not the job of a journalist to intervene in their story, but should they choose to do so, it should be done for the betterment of their subject, not to land him in (worse than normal) jail. Refugee agencies, migrant support centres, paramedics, homeless shelters, hospital ER's... there were many alternatives to calling the police and having this man arrested if intervention was deemed necessary.

You pointed out that in Canada there is indefinite detention for people without status, and asked if the man in this story was on his way to, or already in, an immigration detention centre. You are concerned that is his fate. You said “as an indefinite detainee in the immigration system, he has less rights than a convicted child murderer.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He did not address your primary concern about the ethics of the reporter calling the RCMP, but he shared other information about the events at the border. He told you that the video was edited and that the full exchange was not broadcast. He said that Mr. Purdon identified himself as a reporter about a minute after the got out of the car and walked toward Mohammed, the refugee claimant. He added that Mr. Purdon asked about his health, and within three minutes of the encounter, he called the RCMP to get assistance for him. Then he led him to the vehicle so that he could warm up.

He also told you that Mr. Purdon and his producer, Leo Palleja, had encountered some RCMP officers earlier in the evening who asked them to make contact if they came upon any people along the road.

REVIEW

The issue you raise about how and when journalists intervene in a story, and if ever, it is justifiable to call the police is one that challenges news staff. None of these decisions are taken lightly. Journalists have an obligation to do their job - that is to tell a story so citizens can make informed decisions about issues of the day. The question is, when - if ever, is it justifiable to cross the line and call authorities?

Before considering that issue, it would be useful to set out some facts.

Before considering that issue, it would be useful to set out some facts. You believe that the phone call could consign the person to the fate of a refugee detention centre. *The 1951 Convention on refugees states that claimants cannot be penalized for making that claim as long as they present themselves to authorities in a reasonable time. Mr. Purdon and Mr. Leo Palleja knew from their research that when individuals crossed the border, they wanted to contact either the police or a Canadian Border Service official. That is indeed what happened as the officer explained in the broadcast - Mohammed was taken to the nearby official point of entry where he was able to claim refugee status. He was then taken to Winnipeg and was provided with shelter. He has moved cities, but he is still in the community.

I checked the journalists’ understanding with someone who works with refugee organizations. I was told that although it might be counterintuitive in these circumstances, this is indeed what claimants crossing into Canada outside of official border crossings wish to occur. The reporting team weighed the potential pros and cons and opted for this course of action. The first time Mr. Purdon asked Mohammed if he wanted him to call the police was a few moments into their encounter. He did not get consent, so he then asked “Tell me what you want?” About two minutes later, he asked him again if he could call the police. He said "Okay, you're cold, we need to call, okay?" He told him the police would come and take him to the border. Mohammed’s response was to ask “Is the border on this side or this side.” Mr. Purdon thinks that he wanted to make sure he was still in Canada.

There is the broader question of whether journalists can intervene or they must dispassionately do their job. Journalists have a strong obligation to ensure they do not compromise their independence and impartiality. CBC Journalistic Policy offers this guidance:

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

There are times though, when there is imminent danger, when the reporter must take a back seat to the human being. War and disaster reporters face that dilemma all the time, and for some of them it exacts a high toll on their mental health. They have an obligation to get the image, to tell the story, but sometimes that is not enough. As Bob Steele, the Director of The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said in an article by Cary Spivak, Calling the Cops (American Journalism Review, Spring 2012), there are many aspects that must be considered by journalists before they call the authorities:

Saving that life or saving somebody from very serious harm could trump journalistic purpose.

There is not one answer about the ethics of calling the authorities, no blanket pronouncement I can make to cover all situations. In assessing the facts and the circumstances in this case, I find that the CBC team operated appropriately.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman