Bracing for a media tornado

Court preparing for crush of reporters when Pickton trial begins in January

September 26, 2006

VANCOUVER -- It's been called a media tornado. Throngs of reporters, bumper-to-bumper satellite trucks and streams of thick cables suddenly blow into town and take over the street in front of a courthouse in order to cover a sensational trial.

The Michael Jackson child-molestation trial drew 2,300 people working in the news media. Scott Peterson's double-murder trial drew 870 media people.

Three months before a jury starts to hear evidence in Robert Pickton's serial-killing trial, the British Columbia court has given credentials to 238 media people and is bracing for more. Fewer than a dozen media representatives from outside Canada have applied for accreditation.

Mr. Pickton has been charged in the deaths of 26 women who were drug addicts and worked as prostitutes. If convicted of all charges, he would be considered one of the deadliest criminals in North America.

The start of his trial on six of the charges on Jan. 8 is expected to draw more media professionals than have yet assembled for a murder case in Canada.

Trials are a lot more global than they used to be, Don Bales, director of strategic management for the B.C. Attorney-General's court services branch, said yesterday.

"There is the potential for media from all over the world coming to a trial, if it catches their fancy," he said.

The court has to plan for the media onslaught without having any idea how many will show up. Anticipating a sizable crowd, considerable effort is being made to avoid the frenzy that has overtaken notorious court cases in the U.S.

"In some jurisdictions, there is a throng, and it is almost like a melee on the front porch of the courthouse," Mr. Bales said. "We hope to not see that happen here in B.C."

Extraordinary preparations are being made based on experience gained from the mammoth Air-India bombing trial that concluded last year in Vancouver and from court cases in the U.S., including those of pop singer Jackson and murder defendants O. J. Simpson and Scott Peterson.

"If we cannot manage this front end of the proceedings, it is going to be more difficult for the people who are really doing the work -- which is the court -- to do their job," Mr. Bales said. Public access to court has to be balanced with the court's requirements, he said, "so everyone can do their thing."

He also said he is aware that public perception of whether justice is done may relate to how the news media portray what happens.

People's opinions are often based on what the media present, Mr. Bales said. "Justice is sometimes confusing, but it does work in Canada. We want to make sure it is open and accessible and seen."

The court services branch is putting together plans to deal with the media in conjunction with representatives of several news outlets, court officials, the sheriffs, police and city hall. Neighbouring businesses have been consulted and a second public meeting to inform the community about the anticipated "tornado" is expected to be held this fall.

Managing access to the courtroom is one of the major challenges, Mr. Bale said. The courtroom has a public gallery with only 50 seats. Families of the alleged victims, officials and the general public have been allotted 35 seats, leaving only 15 spaces for the media.

In anticipation of a huge crowd, provisions have been made for 85 additional spaces for journalists in an adjoining courtroom and a media centre, where the proceedings will be broadcast live. Similarly, additional seating will be provided for family members in the adjacent courtroom and in a special families-only room.

Plans also call for measures to ensure that courthouse routines and other court cases can continue with minimal disruption.

"When you have a major news event happening on the front porch of your courthouse, it can be quite intimidating to people who want to go and file something in the registry," Mr. Bale said.

The courthouse is two blocks from the main business thoroughfare of the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster.

David Brennan, executive director of the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday that local businesses were initially worried about the issue of parking in front of their stores during the trial. "This was their only real concern," he said.

However, that concern has died away. "No one is talking about it any more."

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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