Editor’s column: Why we didn’t publish the Atwell police story earlier

We received no confirmation of facts, first-person accounts, evidence or police report and no one agreed to go on record

Greater Victoria media outlets were falling over one another this week chasing a story published by the Times Colonist that quoted sources as saying Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell was involved in a Dec. 11 incident where police were called to a private residence.

The story, published Tuesday, also used a comment from Saanich police neither confirming nor denying police attendance at this incident, as well as criticism from Dermod Travis, a spokesperson for watchdog organization IntegrityBC, about the mayor’s presumed involvement in a police incident. The story references unnamed sources. A University of Victoria professor then weighed in on the odd silence from the Mayor after running on a platform of transparency.

Atwell was AWOL all day Tuesday. Saanich News attempted to contact Atwell through numerous channels for comment throughout the day, and to garner further comment from Saanich PD to no avail.

Most other news outlets chose to report on the TC’s report, creating a flurry of online comments and musings about the motivation behind the incident in question.

Atwell didn’t do himself any favours with residents and the media by staying out of the spotlight. On Wednesday, he said that as a rookie mayor the ensuing media frenzy caught him off-guard, and he felt it necessary to speak with the other parties involved in the incident before issuing any statement. Still, the silence didn’t play well.

The News chose not to publish Tuesday’s story of a story because we received no confirmation of facts, no first-person accounts of the incident, no evidence nor a police report to independently corroborate the TC’s story. No one agreed to go on record.

In short, it didn’t meet our basic requirements for publication.

On Wednesday, Atwell spoke about the incident in question and pointed out several facts that appear to have been incorrect. Most significant is that Atwell was inside the home of a campaign supporter and her fiancé – with the fiancé present – and the police were called around 8 p.m., not 11 p.m. as reported. An argument ensued and Atwell then called 911 “for the safety of all involved.” He chose not to pursue charges after everyone calmed down, he said. (*Police can still recommend charges to Crown in any case, but did not find grounds to do so.)

The incident in question, without confirmation it actually happened, wasn’t a story. Now that we have someone on record, we can report on the incident. The other subjects can now choose to come forward if Atwell’s account is incorrect, or they can stay silent. On Atwell’s end, he should address the issue at police board and it may yet be prudent to request an independent review, as the incident raises questions about how police should handle incidents involving a board member.

In future, Atwell should come out ahead on any incident involving himself and police. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on verifiable facts before we publish a story.


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