Fighting for media access to Canadian courts: Daniel Henry

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Daniel Henry is the recipient of CJFE's 2012 Vox Libera Award. He will be honoured at the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting, on December 5, 2012.

Daniel Henry is an optimist. After more than three decades as the CBC’s go-to in-house expert on media law, the steadfast proponent for greater transparency in Canadian courts says he can see the day coming when cameras in courtrooms are no longer a novelty and some proceedings are screened via webcasts.

But “unless journalists ask for it, it won’t happen,” warns Henry, the recipient of CJFE’s Vox Libera Award, given to Canadians who have made important and sustained contributions to free expression. “The system is very good at maintaining inertia and nothing may change.”

Since the establishment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, a number of watershed deci- sions have created solid legal footing in favour of greater media access and freedom of expression—and Henry has played a significant role in several of them.

The most significant to date, Dagenais v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp., struck down a broadcast ban on the film the boys of st. vincent. The landmark 1994 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada changed the common law and established a test that places the onus on those seeking a publication ban to prove it’s necessary.

A former professional actor who originally had an interest in entertainment law, Henry joined the CBC’s legal team in the late 1970s after graduating from the University of Toronto. He was immediately thrust into working with a who’s who of Canadian TV and radio journalists to help them “get their stories out safely.”

In the niche field of media law, he walked a daily tight- rope between journalists pushing the courts for greater latitude in covering stories, and the legal system’s concerns about accommodating journalists. “I was in a unique place to mediate the concerns and point out to each the benefits of co-operating with one another,” says Henry, who co-founded the Canadian Media Lawyers Association (Ad IDEM) and is an in-demand lecturer for journalists and lawyers across the country.

Although recently retired from the CBC, he remains active in media law through his independent practice and in various capacities at Ad IDEM. He is still a passionate advocate for cameras in courts—a cause that’s consumed much of his time since 1981, when his interest was sparked by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found electronic media and still photogra- phy coverage of judicial proceedings were constitutional.

Cameras are still rare in Canadian courts, but precedents have been set by the work of Henry and others. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada has broadcast most of its hearings since the mid-1990s.

Although newsrooms and media budgets are shrinking, Henry is confident there will always be journalists who will fight the system when barriers to information of interest to the public are erected.

For his essential work ensuring that Canadian journalists possess the tools they need to tell important stories in the public interest, CJFE presents Dan Henry with the Vox Libera Award.