Australia's history of chequebook journalism raises question about televised interview with father of Bryer Schmegelsky

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      Update (August 14): B.C. RCMP responded to an inquiry from the Georgia Straight in this article.

      I have a question about an Australian broadcaster's interview last weekend with the father of a suspected triple murderer.

      Did 60 Minutes Australia pay money or any other form of consideration to Alan Schmegelsky, the father of deceased teenage fugitive Bryer Schmegelsky, for speaking exclusively on its TV program?

      It's a serious question because in 2016, the British Columbia legislature passed the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act.

      And the Australian show's interviews with Schmegelsky occurred on B.C. soil.

      Chequebook journalism—in which sources are paid for interviews—is not part of Canada's media culture.

      But it has been a source of controversy in Australia, including with the 60 Minutes Australia program on Channel Nine. It's owned by the publicly traded Nine Entertainment Co.

      In fact, Australian agent Max Markson told News.com.au in 2016 that he's been selling exclusive interviews for 25 years to magazines and TV shows, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      One of Australia's most famous journalists, former 60 Minutes Australia and A Current Affair presenter Ray Martin, admitted in 2016 that when he worked for Nine, there was a need to pay for stories that couldn't be covered in any other way.

      “We paid a lot of money for Lindy Chamberlain, otherwise we wouldn’t have got the interview with Lindy Chamberlain,” Martin told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "There are stories that television stations, unfortunately, and magazines pay for. It doesn't mean the story's going to be ethically wrong or soft or anything else."

      News Corp. obtained details of an alleged $69,000 Nine Network payment to a person hired to grab two children in Beirut for their Australian mom.
      News Corp.

      This revelation came in the wake of  News Corp. disclosing that its rival, Nine Network, allegedly made a $69,000 payment to a so-called child-recovery agent.

      This former detective was trying to abduct two young kids in Beirut so they could be returned to their mother in Australia.

      The Australia Communications and Media Authority regulates content that is broadcast, but not the production process for newsmagazine shows.

      "Current affairs programs are not required to disclose any arrangements they have have with sources," ACMA media officer Naazbano Schonberger told the Straight.

      In the past, 60 Minutes Australia has paid sources to appear on its programs, according to one of its former journalists.

      B.C. law passed after serial killer wrote a book

      B.C.'s Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act is designed to prevent people charged with serious crimes—or their agents, including relatives—from cashing in by selling their stories or memorabilia.

      "This bill will apply to criminals convicted of serious and violent crimes such as murder, criminal harassment, kidnapping, and trafficking in persons or drugs," then B.C. solicitor general Mike Morris said in the legislature in 2016. "It targets those who recount stories of their crimes through books, movies or television.

      "The legislation will also apply to criminals who sell memorabilia and receive financial gain due to the notoriety of the crime," Morris added. "Our government believes it’s wrong for criminals convicted of serious offences to profit in this way. The proposed legislation will also prevent offenders from assigning any of their rights under a contract to other parties, such as a spouse or relative."

      The only way these sales can take place is if they're done with the approval of B.C.'s solicitor general.

      The law was passed by the B.C. legislature after serial killer Robert William Pickton wrote a book under a nom de plume and tried to sell it.

      I have tried to contact the show and its reporter, Sarah Abo, over Twitter to ask if Alan Schmegelsky was paid, but haven't heard a response as of this writing.

      Even if 60 Minutes Australia paid Schmegelsky for the interview, this may not violate the B.C. law because Schmegelsky's son did not assign any rights to his father to tell the story.

      That's one of the thresholds that must be met for a relative to be convicted.

      However, the law also states that a relative of the person charged is presumed to be an agent unless the contrary is established.

      The son was a fugitive and out of contact with his father when the TV interviews took place. The show was only broadcast after the son was dead.

      Upon his death, the charge was stayed.

      The law wasn't designed to curb free speech. Criminals and their relatives can speak about crimes.

      It's simply written in a way that criminals just can't profit from serious crimes, including murder. Nor can their relatives profit in this way if they've been assigned as an agent by the criminal.

      When the legislation was being debated in 2016, Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, as an opposition politician, specifically asked about crime memorabilia, as outlined in section 11.

      "If it passes into the hands of a family member—like an immediate family member, for example—how would this section cover that?" Farnworth asked.

      The then B.C. Liberal solicitor general, Morris, replied that the government can apply to the court to get the money back if the item is sold for over and above its actual value.

      Schmegelsky turned over videos of his son to 60 Minutes Australia for its exclusive use. "Memorabilia" is not defined in the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act.

      B.C. solicitor general Mike Farnworth was a vocal supporter of the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act when he was an opposition politician in 2016.

      Victim's sister highlighted family pain

      There are fines of up to $50,000 for those who buy or sell information or memorabilia in violation of the law in British Columbia.

      The law also imposes liability on directors and officers of companies operating in B.C: "If a corporation commits and offence under this Act, an employee, officer, director, or agent of the corporation who authorized, permitted or acquiesced in the offence also commits an offence, whether or not the corporation is convicted of the offence."

      The B.C. Prosecution Service only lays a charge if it deems that this is in the public interest and if there's a substantial likelihood of conviction.

      To date, there have been no constitutional challenges against the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act on the basis that it infringes on section 2 b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression.

      Judging from a Facebook post by Kennedy Deese, the sister of murdered U.S. tourist Chynna Deese, Alan Schmegelsky has caused tremendous pain to her family with his comments in the media.

      Shortly after Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, were murdered in northern B.C., Schmegelsky gave several interviews to various media outlets.

      But as the manhunt for his son and his son's friend, Kam McLeod, continued over more than two weeks, Schmegelsky stopped speaking to the media.

      This makes me wonder if he was "quarantined" by 60 Minutes Australia away from other media in return for money or some other form of consideration.

      If that's not the case, I would be happy to amend this article to reflect that, posting a statement across the top declaring any denials.

      One thing is clear, however: three families in three countries are in agony as a result of the murders in northern B.C.

      "You cannot relate to us, as we had no doings in the cause of your pain, when you've played a part in the cause of our pain," Kennedy Deese wrote in her Facebook post directed at Schmegelsky. "To the murderers and their family, the appropriate action when mistakes are made is taking responsibility. The proper public response would have been a genuine apology."

      And the pain caused to families victimized by criminals is precisely why the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act was approved in B.C.

      "I think all of us...were shocked when we heard that Robert Pickton...was publishing a book on his horrific and heinous crimes, which actually occurred in my riding, very close to where I live," Farnworth said in 2016. "The idea that he would profit from that, I think, was abhorrent to just about everybody when they heard it."

      If Schmegelsky was indeed paid for his interview with 60 Minutes Australia, Farnworth needs to amend the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act to ensure that something like this never happens again in this province.

      Even if Schmegelsky wasn't paid, the law should ensure that no relative of anyone charged with murder can sell their story to the media in B.C., even without being assigned to do so as an agent for the accused killer.

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