Opinion
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

ICYMI: Objection! Local Journo's Trial an Expensive, Questionable Circus

Nobody looks good in the case of an NNSL reporter charged with obstruction of justice

As John McFadden's trial re-opens this afternoon in a Yellowknife court, here's Mark Rendell's take on the case, first published June 23, 2016:

“It’s a huge officer-safety liability to have an angry man with a camera in the area when you’re trying to work.”

That line, from RCMP Const. Christopher Watson, sums up the police’s testimony against John McFadden, the 53-year-old Yellowknifer reporter currently facing charges of obstructing justice. McFadden, who appeared in court yesterday to hear the Crown’s evidence against him from three RCMP officers, was allegedly intoxicated, aggressive and deaf to police demands on a summer night last July when he was arrested while taking photos of officers searching a van parked beside the Elk’s Club.  

The police evidence paints a cinematic tableau: four officers dig through a parked white van with stolen plates, as its intoxicated owner sits in a police car. Enter McFadden, wearing flip-flops, shorts and a ball cap “in support of marijuana,” who crosses the street yelling and swearing. A riled-up crowd jeers in the background. McFadden calms down and gets his camera, snaps a few pics, then leans in towards the van’s open door with his camera — click.

Let’s pause for a minute to state the obvious: this is a monumentally silly case.

The actual numbers and whereabouts of the crowd, the size of the camera, where the officers parked their vehicles — all this evidence differed from police witness to police witness. But their rationale for arrest remained consistent: “an angry man with a camera” was “kind of in [their] bubble,” and they weren’t happy dealing with him while they were conducting a search. The words “officer safety” were bandied about liberally.

Let’s pause for a minute to state the obvious: this is a monumentally silly case. And with the proceedings postponed — yet again — until September, this minor case has turned into a marathon. And what will the end results be? Either McFadden will get off, or he’ll be fined and have to do some community service. (The Criminal Code says obstruction can land someone in jail for up to six months, but any jail time is highly unlikely in this situation.)

No this isn’t a cri de coeur from a fellow journalist shouting ‘He’s innocent! Free the press! Police state!’ McFadden may well be guilty of the minor offence he’s charged with; that’s up to the judge to decide. The real question is: why wasn’t this case diverted into the community justice system where it would have cost the public a pittance compared to what it’s costing now?

The alleged crime is so marginal it boggles the mind to think that it’s taking well over a year to resolve, while likely costing the public tens of thousands of dollars in court time, salaries and other expenses. Of course nickel-and-diming individual cases gets us nowhere. But community courts were established to provide an inexpensive way to resolve minor matters and provide a less antagonistic forum for resolving lingering tensions, such as those McFadden had with the Yellowknife RCMP. In other words: for this precise scenario.  

The problem may be that community court diversion requires that the accused take responsibility for what happened. It’s far short of an admission of guilt. But because of the public nature of the case, it’s hard to fault McFadden for wanting to clear his name; journalists are only as good as their reputation.

There’s also a burbling subtext to this case: the ongoing sour relationship between McFadden and the police, which led to him being banned from a press conference shortly before his arrest, and some very dubious communication tactics on the RCMP’s behalf. Here’s hoping McFadden will air these grievances during his September defence; barring journalists from press conferences because of the tone of their reporting is not just bizarrely immature behaviour from a police force, it’s also counterproductive to the RCMP and the media’s shared goal of keeping the public informed.

The Crown’s case is now closed, and we’ll have to wait for the next installment of this made-in-Yellowknife drama — covered yesterday by the largest contingent of YK journalists I’ve ever seen in a single courtroom. Whatever the defence’s evidence is, it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be hard for the Crown to get a conviction —which raises the question: why did the Crown proceed with charges?

For a criminal charge to stick, the prosecutor has to prove not only that McFadden disrupted the police in their search, but that he intended to disrupt them. The police evidence, suggesting that he was rude from the get-go — “I remember ‘Fuck’ a lot,” said Watson — and then belligerently uncooperative after his arrest, may help the intention argument. But if the principal justification for the arrest was McFadden leaning through the open doors of the vehicle with his camera — while standing on the sidewalk no less, where he’d been told to stand — and thereby getting in the way of an officer who wanted to get into the door, then it seems hard to say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was deliberately disrupting the investigation. Don’t forget: an officer had told him he could take photos, as long as he was on the sidewalk.

By the sound of things, no one, on either side, will be winning an award for their work that day. The evidence so far suggests McFadden was confrontational and unprofessional when asserting his rights as a journalist; the cops, in turn, were overzealous, jumpy and perhaps aggressive (McFadden claims his head was pushed into a wall in the police station) in the way they handled the situation. Nobody looks good. But were there ways for both sides to avoid this expensive, ridiculous dog-and-pony show? You bet.

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