Covering bikers: dont flirt, avoid underlings and never, never touch the bikes

QUESTION: What advice do you have for reporters who cover dangerous figures (bikers, organized crime members) and want to keep their kneecaps right where they are?

[Unlike most of our Ask a Mentor questions, this one did not come from a J-Source reader. Ask a Mentor editor Robert Cribb gets this question routinely from students and decided to have it answered for J-Source.]

Peter EdwardsAnswer by Toronto Star reporter and author of The Bandido Massacre (to be published in 2010), Peter Edwards.

These are just rules of thumb, so if anyone breaks your thumbs, don’t blame me:

  • Expect trouble if you’re interfering with ongoing business. These people take money seriously.
  • Also expect trouble if you make things personal. Try not to upset his wife or kids. Photographing a biker going in or out of a courthouse isn’t nearly as emotionally charged as photographing him going in or out of his family home. Try to keep things business-like.
  • If you feel the need to take surveillance photos, do it from a company car. You don’t need people checking your license plate and learning your home address.
  • Take your questions to the top. Try to avoid underlings. They don’t have any decision-making power and are far more likely to be violent than someone at a high level. With bikers, go to the top club – ie Hells Angels – and try to bypass more junior support clubs.
  • Don’t expect people to act the same towards you in a group as they do one-on-one. A chummy Ontario Hells Angel will likely become standoffish and even hostile when he’s around someone senior from an established chapter like the one from Sherbrooke, Quebec.
  • Don’t touch a biker’s club vest or his bike. Never, never, never.
  • Bring photo identification that quickly establishes you as a journalist. They don’t particularly like us, but we’re on firmer ground than police or members of rival clubs.
  • Don’t flirt. Female reporters have no trouble getting attention from Hells Angels and other bikers, but things can take an ugly turn quickly. Biker wives and girlfriends won’t appreciate the competition, while many bikers want more than eye-batting.
  • Don’t brag about who else you’ve talked to. Less is more in terms of gossip and nothing is best.
  • Don’t be tricky. Nothing angers a lot of people as much as feeling conned, and these folks are good at spotting cons. I was invited once to a Hells Angels party, but I said I would still be a reporter if I went. The invitation was quickly rescinded but we remained on polite, businesslike terms.

Peter Edwards has been covering organized crime for the Toronto Star for more than two decades and is author of The Bandido Massacre (to be published in 2010), his sixth book on organized crime.

(Image by Katayun. Used under Creative Commons license.)