By Frank Moher
I recently advised two former journalism students of mine, one working on an article for Chatelaine, the other on a feature for this magazine, that they couldn’t offer money to an interviewee, even though in both cases the interviewee could really use it. That, I explained, is called “chequebook journalism.” And it’s not okay, even if the cheque is going to someone seriously in need.
Imagine my delight, then, when the CBC reported that, along with CTV and Global Television, it had paid “several thousand dollars” to Paul Pritchard, the young man who shot video of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being tasered at Vancouver International Airport, in return for the footage.
The CBC at least had the presence of mind to regard the payment as a story, although they turned it into a matter of why Pritchard accepted payment rather than why they made it. CTV and Global, on the other hand, offer no mention of the payment on their websites, although Global’s print sister CanWest did run a story implicating the public for wanting to see the video. “In the Internet age,” it intones, “the decision to watch — or not watch — high-profile deaths captured on camera may be the grisly litmus test for participation in extreme media culture.”
Well, no. Whether or not you watched Saddam Hussein’s hanging or the beheading of Daniel Pearl on youtube might be a test of your snuff video threshold, but the footage of Dziekanski’s death at the hands of the RCMP is a matter of public interest. Hence the reason that paying for it is so dodgy.
Did the CBC, CTV and Global also pay for their interviews with Pritchard? Presumably not; reputable news organizations know that, besides encouraging bidding wars, buying information from sources degrades the whole notion of individual responsibility to the polis — the obligation to alert your fellow citizens to what’s going down. Nobody paid Paul Revere to get on his horse and shout “The British are coming.” Is it any different, then, to pay Pritchard for his video? Whether or not he’s going to use the money to help his sick Father? If they hadn’t paid him, would it have been okay for Pritchard to just upload the evidence of our national police force killing an agitated but innocent man to his computer and leave it there? Even he didn’t think so; it was apparently his intention all along, once he got his video back from the Mounties, to release it publicly. So how exactly did money get introduced to the equation?
Jeff Keay, Head of Media Relations for the CBC, says its journalists “thought the video should be paid for just like any other freelance video.” But the element of public interest renders this a lot different than the latest Lindsay Lohan sighting. Just who initiated the idea of payment remains unclear; Keay says he’ll get back to me about that, and I’ll let you know if he does. Regardless, the news organizations have tripped up. If Pritchard requested payment, they should have turned him down flat. If he didn’t and they came up with the idea, CTV, Global, and the CBC have seriously undermined one of the basic tenets of legit journalism — you don’t pay for news. And, I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t matter how well-intentioned their offer may have been.