So let it be written…
Cops and journalists. In the animal kingdom, we’d be the cobra and the mongoose, the lion and lamb, cat and dog, owl and rabbit, seal and shark, fox and chicken. You get the picture. And from one day to the next, we swap roles.
This spring I’m marking my silver anniversary as a crime reporter here in Surrey, and have the grey hair to show for it. I’ve had some of my best gut laughs — as well as hair-tearing frustrations — with cops, and I’m sure they’ve got their own opinions of me.
I fondly remember the wonderful competition of digging up stories back in the pre-internet days of refrigerator-sized desk computers. Investigating was the name of the game.
Then, one day, a senior RCMP officer from back east invited me out for a calzone to tell me the force would be appointing these new-concept “media liaisons” from within their ranks to handle media calls. I didn’t like what I was hearing. If we all talked to the same guy all the time, I reasoned, we’d all be getting the same quotes, the same story, and how could the RCMP having that kind of control over the flow of information possibly be good for democracy, not to mention my own ego in scoring the occasional scoop?
I looked at him, my notebook on the lunch table.
“But I don’t like that,” I protested.
“Get used to it,” he replied.
It’s been difficult. I set about writing columns complaining about this new regime, and how I was going to get my own media liaison so I, too, could dodge pointed questions about the work I do.
But alas, you adapt. To date I’ve seen well over a dozen media liaison officers pass through the Surrey detachment, and a good many through the Delta Police as well. Now everybody’s got one. It’s become the way.
Out in the field, I’ve found myself in many a squabble with Mounties at crime scenes, standing outside their yellow barrier tape. I saw a group of Mounties jump up and down, like yo-yos, trying to block our photographer’s exclusive shot of serial killer Clifford Olson when he was helicoptered into Surrey for a court hearing. I’ve been told to get back, for my own safety, while mothers pushing baby carriages were free to go about their business. One day, my wife and I happened by a crash scene in Newton where thieves had wiped out a stolen car and ran off. A neighborhood full of lookie-loos descended on the wreckage and the attending officers let them be. But when a radio reporter showed up with his microphone, the cops were on him like green on snot.
I don’t know how many police press conferences I’ve attended just to hear “We can’t release that information, we won’t release that information” and numerous variations of tactful non-answers.
Then again, I’ve also witnessed reporters inflict stupid questions on the officers behind the podium. “About this murder-suicide — are police recommending criminal charges?” That sort of thing.
Full disclosure here, I too am not without blemish. I’m thinking back to the pre-media liaison days.
Once, I asked a high ranking officer — whose name I won’t reveal because I at least owe him that — what kinds of leads his homicide investigators had on this particular case.
“Diddly squat,” he replied. And so, in the interest of accuracy, that’s exactly what I reported.
Man, did he freak.
I’ve also lugged a case of Heinekens over to Surrey RCMP’s main detachment, as a peace offering to another senior officer, after I wrote a story that I readily admit made him look — albeit unintentionally — just a little bit bad.
Just a little. Hey, I’m not perfect, right. Nor do I expect perfection from them. They have their role to play, I have mine, and hopefully for the most part you get to know what you need to know.
Conversely, during the media liaison years I’ve seen one officer do an end-run around a news scoop of mine by pumping out a press release to every other reporter in the Lower Mainland who didn’t put in the leg work. I also had another freak out on me for breaking a story about a local MP’s house being burglarized before he knew about it.
Some reporters might think writing a column like this is recklessly courting a shunning from information gatekeepers who, let’s face it, wield considerable power.
I’m not worried. I’m operating on good faith that the current media liaisons at Surrey detachment, and their bosses above them, are possessed of a fine sense of humour.
And if not, it’ll be just one more fight over the phone, and maybe a case of beer.
So let it be done.