Ben Kilmer with wife Tonya. (Photo submitted)

Warren Goulding column: Do we have the right to know?

When is it OK to invade an individual’s privacy for the sake of a story?

It was the outcome family, friends and the Cowichan Valley community feared but had come to accept as inevitable.

The discovery of Ben Kilmer’s body, five months after he disappeared, brought a measure of closure for his family. But the grim circumstances of the tragedy — largely hidden from public view by his family and the RCMP — have left many questions unanswered.

And while the family mourns the loss of a loving father, some members of the public have stepped up their demands for information. Utilizing the darkest aspects of social media they spew their rumours and conjecture in the most vile manner imaginable.

Their frustration is motivated by what they regard as the public’s right to know. But that position is poorly articulated and fails to conceal their real motivation — simple, morbid curiosity.

The argument is that volunteers spent countless hours searching for Ben, substantial RCMP and public resources were invested in the search and the public deserves to know the facts surrounding the unfortunate ending.

A valid argument, perhaps, but does it trump the needs of the family for privacy? It’s a discussion that journalists frequently find themselves embroiled in. Often, the media is accused of going too far in reporting sensitive stories. At other times, journalists are suspected of protecting the police or powerful people by withholding information that should be in the public realm.

RCMP have been known to issue misleading or false statements for various reasons, often related to an active investigation that they don’t want to see compromised. In the Ben Kilmer case, the RCMP statement doesn’t ring true for many people but my gut feeling is that it’s essentially accurate and they are protecting the family.

Dana Robbins, who was a journalist with the Hamilton Spectator when a contentious story involving the death of a police officer arose in 2005, outlined the challenges facing the media.

“There’s almost no story that we publish that does not intrude on the private life of someone, in some description,” Robbins opined.

The question then becomes, when is it OK to invade an individual’s privacy for the sake of a story? “That’s always a huge, huge balancing act for journalists — especially good, ethical, thoughtful journalists,” says Robbins.

Frustrating though it may be for the social media folks who see themselves as wannabe investigators and journalists, the Ben Kilmer tragedy is not a story that should be pursued any further. His widow, Tonya, his young children and Ben’s family deserve our sympathy and privacy.

Warren Goulding is the publisher of the Cowichan Valley Citizen.

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