Mary Agnes Welch
A few years ago, while waiting for a scrum to start, a veteran
cameraman and I were chatting about the latest episode of a cop posing
as a reporter, this time during the Ipperwash standoff. After we’d
rolled our eyes at astoundingly racist comments the OPP officers
made while posing as a TV news crew, the cameraman sounded off about
the dangers of police impersonating journalists. Up to then, the issue
was an abstract one for me. But not for the cameraman. He talked about
how, if he’s filming a volatile situation and someone thinks he’s a cop
gathering evidence instead of a journalist documenting the event, he
risks getting the crap beat out of him. At best, he’ll walk away
without a single interview or usable clip because no one will risk
talking to him.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when the CBC revealed
that yet another OPP officer masqueraded as a reporter, this time to
get up close to Mohawk Indians who blockaded Ontario’s Highway 401 last
In sworn testimony given as part of native protester Shawn Brandt’s
trial, the OPP officer said no real guidelines exist governing
undercover roles, and it never occurred to him to worry that
impersonating a journalist might erode freedom of the press.
This happens too often in Canada.
Last year, a Vancouver police officer posed as a reporter from the free
daily 24 Hours to lure anti-poverty protester David Cunningham to a
meeting, where Cunningham was arrested. A couple of years earlier, RCMP
posed as a CBC documentary crew to track down, interview and then
arrest the Bushman of the Shuswap, escaped convict John Bjornstrom.
Before that, there was Ipperwash. Now, the Mohawk stand-off. And those
are just the ones we know about.
It’s become a trite statement: Journalists aren’t tools of the police.
If we’re seen to be doing the cops’ jobs for them, we can no longer do
If someone at an anti-globalization protest, a gang meeting or a hockey
riot looks at the woman with a spiral notebook in her hand and wonders
if that journalist is really a cop, they’ll never speak to a reporter
again. That dries up access to information the public needs to
understand the nuance and depth of an issue, vital balance that
catapults a story beyond what’s said by officialdom at
well-choreographed press conferences.
We have access to places most people don’t because we’ve earned the
public’s confidence. People believe us when we call and say we’re with
CTV News or the Sarnia Observer. They invite us into their homes, to
their meetings and even behind their barricades. They give us
confidential documents and tips. Really, we’re afforded a remarkable
level of trust, despite the general antipathy toward the media. That
trust has developed over generations, and it can be destroyed pretty
quickly if enough people suspect they’re talking to a cop who is using
their information as evidence instead of a Sun reporter or a CBC radio
producer whose professional standards compels them to report what they
see and hear as accurately and fairly as they can.
In Canada, the cops can’t even make the argument that impersonating a
reporter was the only way to save a life or preserve public safety or
get a hardened criminal off the streets. As far as we know, there’s
never been scenario like the one in Luxembourg eight years ago, where
police posed as a TV crew to ambush a man holding 25 kids hostage in a
Instead, here it amounts to little more than laziness, ham-handed
attempts to trade on the trust people place in journalists instead of
doing some basic police work, often to nab some pretty small-fry
criminals like the anti-Olympic protester. If police can’t think of a
better way to affect an arrest, we might have more to worry about than
the erosion of press freedom.
At the very least, they ought to know enough about the people they’re
impersonating not to leave the mike on when they call a Native
protestor a “big fat fuck Indian” or tell a joke about baiting them with
cases of Labatt 50.
Mary Agnes Welch is president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and legislature report at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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