"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It would be nice if the staff at FOX News would cut it out, too.

Pretending to be reporters, that is.
The new head of the Ontario Provincial Police says it is against policy for officers to pose as journalists to collect information on suspects, but he won't rule out the tactic.
If I pretended to be a police officer to get information, I'd go to jail and rightfully so - you can't have people running around pretending to be police officers or the real cops would never have any credibility.  But by pretending to be reporters, the police are not just making the jobs of real journalists more difficult, they are putting journalists in considerable danger. As the linked story mentions, an OPP officer posed as a reporter to gather information at a Mohawk rally, a tactic I'm sure seemed brilliant to the OPP at the time. Except that now every single time a reporter shows up at a rally or protest or incident involving  First Nations' people, it is going to be in the back of everyone's mind that the reporter just might be a cop.
Few enough people trust the media as it is (thank a bunch Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich and Bill O'Reilly) but we are still at least perceived as more or less neutral in confrontations between citizens and police. In fact, reporters can often go places the police can't go safely, simply because they aren't perceived by their subjects as "the enemy" in the way a police officer might be. Thanks to the irresponsible actions of the OPP and other police forces, that may not be the case much longer.
As a young reporter in southwestern Ontario and later in eastern Ontario, I often had contact with motorcycle gang members and various shady characters. Sometimes it was in the course of my job, sometimes it was just because the only bar in town catered to a rough crowd.  I was (and still am) a big white guy with a mustache and shortish hair and tended to be dressed in the "business casual" style typical to reporters at parties or in bars where a shirt with a collar and pants without holes were considered formal wear. Reporters like to ask questions and when I was a rookie I worked so many hours it became my default conversational style to interview virtually everyone I met. As any good narc knows, this is not a good or safe combination around people who live outside the law and have a sincere antipathy toward the police.  I can recall several instances where being able to prove I was reporter and not an undercover police officer probably saved me a couple of serious beatings.
The police probably find it easier to gather information on potentially violent activists by posing as reporters than as activists. The average OPP officer may have trouble infiltrating a First Nations Warrior Society or Islamic radical group due to ethnic or language barriers - but the flip side is that the next time there is an Oka-style standoff or a violent demonstration by the Black Bloc anarchists or White Supremacists or radical chartered accountants demanding better standardization of depreciation rules on capital investments or whomever, the reporters who are there taking pictures and trying to interview people are going to be seen as potentially hostile cops instead of neutral observers.
By posing as members of the fifth estate, the police are pinning a target on real journalists and making it more difficult and more dangerous for reporters to do a job that is essential to a functioning free democracy.