Canadian Poultry Magazine

Here’s the point: September 2014

By Leslie Ballentine   

Features Business & Policy Emerging Trends Business/Policy Canada

Do the means justify the ends?


Canadians are being watched as never before. We’ve come to expect that we’ll be videotaped on security cameras, that we’ll be data mined by internet providers (and now by our own government) and that we can be Googled by anyone. The popularity of undercover reality TV reflects that as a society we are accepting of, even if uncomfortable with, the idea of being secretly watched.

At the same time, the role of undercover journalism has become a point of debate as moral and ethical lines are being blurred.  The Rob Ford saga is a case in point.  The public is outraged when “The State” is seen to be invading privacy. Yet, we are forgiving if not supportive when it is done by those we perceive as good; even when it is done outside the confines of the law.  


Calling them “undercover investigations” may lend an air of legitimacy but citizen spying is still unauthorized spying.  

Once the domain of card-carrying journalists and law enforcement, today “undercover investigations” and the often accompanying “gotcha videos” have become commonplace. Some in Canadian society have been granted limited rights to violate our privacy.  But we don’t extend that right to just anyone – for example, to a disgruntled neighbour or business competitor.  In fact, we’ve created legislated protections and legal recourses to address such violations. But where the law is concerned, there is still a lot of grey.

Animal agriculture in particular is being increasingly targeted using unauthorized spying by animal activists.  A quick search on YouTube shows more than 25 pages of hidden videos allegedly showing animal abuse on farms. A similar search shows barely any hidden videos of old age homes, day cares, classrooms and hospitals. All of which are also areas of potential and, sadly, occasional abuse.  Even in the rare case where human abuse videos are posted, it is generally a family member or whistle-blower, not some self-serving vigilante group, behind the camera.

Yes, employees have lost their job, farms have lost customers and food companies have been punished in the court of public opinion. Yet, in Canada at least, there are seemingly few if any convictions for farm animal mistreatment that are hinged on hidden videos.

Obviously, when they do capture legitimate misdoings, underhanded tactics can lead to beneficial outcomes. Those found responsible for the cruelty should not only lose their jobs but should be legally punished, just as with other forms of industrial espionage. However, that’s not necessarily the purpose behind spy missions aimed at agriculture. If it were, then these self-appointed investigators wouldn’t wait weeks, to make their accusations.  They would respect the due process of law and not be calling press conferences. And they wouldn’t be profiting.

Marketing the spoils of spying for a wider purpose should be seen as crossing the line.  

Based on the theory that: “If I see it, it must be true,” these activist spy missions carry weight with the public and division within the industry. The implication that brutality and neglect is “standard practice” in farming is the true purpose behind such spying.  Activists have learned that when used on the farm and food community, this strategy often gets them what they demand.

What we can’t know is just how many hidden videos of farms never see the light of day because there is nothing untoward to see. What we can’t know is the context of heavily edited videos because never are we allowed to see complete footage.  What we can’t know is which farm will be next.  

What we can know is that the footage and accusations will live on in marketing campaigns — cue the melodramatic music, role the footage and run the sensationalized donation appeal.

This activist business model is just that — business. A lucrative way to raise more money to undertake more spying that can be used to pressure more businesses, sectors and governments.

We have activist groups, media and some within the industry encouraging and enabling spying. What we don’t have, but what we do need, is a public debate on the ethics of vigilante spying.

Here’s the point: We can’t stop undercover investigations.  We can’t prevent all cases of bad actors. We can’t end fundraising and marketing tied to underhanded tactics.  But we can follow the lead of other animal-reliant sectors by reducing the risk and eliminating the enticements that spying on farmers affords.



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