CANADA

Bird in a gilded cage

Malcolm Gray October 12 1981
CANADA

Bird in a gilded cage

Malcolm Gray October 12 1981

Bird in a gilded cage

CANADA

A 14-minute broadcast by CBC TV last year may have $250,000 tacked on to its production costs if libel lawyer Peter Butler gets his way. That is the amount that Butler is seeking for his client, British Columbia Deputy Attorney-General Richard Vogel, who was alleged to have interfered in three cases to help friends or associates. The three-week-long libel trial that ended last week in the B.C. Supreme Court was the longest in the province’s history, and an award above $15,000 would set a new record for libel damages in British Columbia. During the trial, the CBC acknowledged that it could not prove its contention that Vogel had interfered in the case of Mickey Moran, a Kootenays lawyer who pleaded guilty to a charge of impaired driving and was given an absolute discharge. Thundered Butler in his summation: “The only issue in this case is how much.”

At times it seemed that Butler himself was acting on Courtroom 52’s 26inch color TV, a set used by Justice William Esson to watch clips of reporter Chris Bird’s remarks about Vogel. Voice rising, Butler declared that Bird had staged an interview with his main source, Bruce Donald, so that the former chief prosecutor in Vancouver would not be suspected of being the “deep throat” providing information on Vogel. Bird had used concealed micro-

phones and phoney scripts to bluff people into talking, Butler charged. These are techniques that sometimes have to be used by zealous investigative reporters—“unlikable ferrets,” Butler called them —but he added that Bird had gone too far when, realizing that Vogel was about to sue, he burned his notes. It was unethical, deplorable and reprehensible conduct, he said, and Bird’s conduct besmirched the reputation of all decent, hard-working reporters. “He is a disgrace to the journalism profession,” he said as Bird, a 40-year-old British immigrant who has been with the CBC for three years, sat alone in the gallery, looking on.

Besides the Moran case, Bird reported

that Vogel had told police he would block any attempt to call former B.C. chief justice John Farris as a witness in the trial of prostitute Wendy King. The broadcast, aired locally on March 6, 1980, and repeated in part one day later on The National, also accused Vogel of interfering in the drinking-driving case of Andrew Rigg, the son of a man described as his friend. Doug Whitworth, who appeared for the CBC, argued that the allegations had been proven in the Rigg and Farris cases, thus forming a credible basis for fair comment. Bird honestly believed that Vogel had interfered in the cases mentioned, Whitworth said, and his opinion—voiced without malice—formed a valid defence to the libel charge.

The trial closed with an odd twist. Butler tried to get one of the defendants, anchorman Bill Good, dropped from the case, but the defence lawyer actually asked that the libel charge not be dismissed. “He’s guilty of little more than the insensitivity of a gramophone needle,” Butler said, referring to Good’s role of reading the introduction to Bird’s story. Whitworth has good reason for wanting the newsreader retained: an English precedent has established that punitive damages be assessed on the share of responsibility borne by the least-involved defendant.

Butler is getting used to seeing himself at the centre of highly publicized trials. Earlier this year, another of his clients, Premier Bill Bennett, won $10,000 in damages from Opposition member David Stupich, who had alleged that Bennett had been drunk in public. He also obtained an apology from Wendy King for her allegation that former B.C. Supreme Court judge Davie Fulton had been one of her customers. At times, though, in the CBC trial, Butler’s flamboyance was too much for the judge. After Butler had suggested that CBC regional director Len Lauk was incompetent, Judge Esson admonished him, saying that the fate Butler was suggesting for Lauk (resignation) had nothing to do with the case.

At the same time, Whitworth countered Butler’s demand that libel awards be substantially increased. He warned that a heavy financial penalty would profoundly affect news coverage, the concept of free speech and free criticism in Canada. Only large, rich organizations would dare risk libel suits in future, he said. Judge Esson has that to think about, as well as the amount of damages and the issue of whether Good should continue as a defendant. His decision is expected in four to eight weeks, but the case has had one effect on a news organization already. At the CBC, says Lauk, news stories now “are being checked more closely.”

Malcolm Gray