Stafford Case Prompts Question of Right Versus Need to Know

By Jason Menard

Should there ever be a point when protecting the public’s need to know gets tempered by what the public truly needs to know?

Today the Supreme Court of Canada upheld an earlier decision to partially lift a publication ban in the Tori Stafford murder case. As a result, we’ve learned that Terri-Lynne McClintic pleaded guilty in April to first-degree murder charges that will see her serve 25-to-life in prison.

Today we learned that Tori Stafford was murdered not because she was targetted, but rather because she was in the wrong place at a horrendously wrong time. We learned that McClintic went to a Home Depot in Guelph to buy garbage bags and a hammer. We learned that shortly after that, she took Tori to a remote side road, where the young girl was murdered and hidden. We also learned that McClintic wanted to have her plea and sentence released publicly that day, which was denied.

That’s the main point of what we’ve learned. And, in my mind, that’s enough.

The publication ban is still partially in place so as to not compromise the upcoming trial of Michael Thomas Rafferty, who has been charged with kidnapping and murder in the same trial. But the stories will come out. Just as in the Bernardo/Homolka trial, publication bans don’t cross borders – and with the advent of the Internet, any banned facts will just be a few clicks away.

More recently, a young junior hockey player was charged with manslaughter as a result of an incident during a rugby game. His name was left out of the Canadian papers, even if many in the junior hockey world knew of the story. U.S. Web sites gave out details, if you know for whom to look.

The stories will get out. Links will get passed along and people will learn about all the details of this case. But what’s forgotten is that we’re not just talking about a case – we’re talking about a little girl.

A few years ago, I was 100 per cent against censorship of any type. You laid out all the cards on the table and let people make their own choices, I thought. I saw it only from the perspective of the budding journalist, idealistically framing the world through a prism of the people’s right to know.

But what about other people’s right to privacy? Do we really need to know how Tori was killed? Do we need to know the horrors to which she may have been subjected?

This isn’t the Gomery inquiry. And in this day and age of Wikileaks, this isn’t a question of protecting the public from corruption. This is about a young girl whose life was taken from her. This is about searching for justice and this is about a family that’s had to suffer in ways no family should ever suffer.

In my mind, the only people who should be privy to this information would be the judge, the jury, the accused, and Tori’s family. All I allegedly need to know is that justice has been reached – I don’t need to have every step along the path described to me.

I understand that it’s a slippery slope. I understand that if we limit the media’s right to publish, we set precedents that could lead to problems down the road. I understand that our freedom is partly assured through the efforts of a free press working on behalf of the people.

But it’s the people who I can’t keep out of my head. People like Tara McDonald and Rodney Stafford, Tori’s mother and father; people like Daryn Stafford, Tori’s older brother. Those people who have to live with the effects of this horrible for years to come. These very same people who will forever walk down streets and see the knowledge of Tori’s final hours reflected in the eyes of people who know more than anyone has the right to.

Do I want a publication ban in this case? No. What I want is for there not to be a need to have a publication ban. What I want is for people to not be interested in anything more than the final verdict. I also know that there’s no way that’s going to happen.

I didn’t watch the video of Nick Berg’s beheading, but I know people were passing it around via e-mail like it was the latest Internet meme. When Paul Bernardo was on trial, I had no interest in the how’s and what’s – I remain only interested in the why’s and what next’s.

Maybe I’m in the minority. Maybe I’m completely wrong and any and all details of this young girl’s death should be open for public consumption. Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have that black-and-white perspective on ideals I once held as absolutes. Maybe I just don’t see the point.

All I know that if this happened to someone I cared about, there’s no way I’d want these details shared with the public. Nor would I want to be around people who wanted these details for what amounts to nothing more than entertainment’s sake.

In the end, the media has an absolute right to unfettered access to information. We need our social watchdogs and we need to know the truth about issues that matter to us. But with that absolute power comes the need to temper it with compassion – not enflame it with sensationalism in the pursuit of the almighty headline. To me, when it comes to tragedies befalling private citizens, even if they’ve been as public in nature as Tori’s death, the line’s pretty easy to draw.

After all, there’s a huge difference between what we, the public, have the right to know and what we actually need to know.

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