If a former MMA fighter decides to throw down in front of the local strip club, but the RCMP won’t confirm it to media, did it really happen?
In Yellowknife, this is a real question reporters are facing. The city’s journalists are struggling to get basic answers from their local police force about reported crimes. In June, the Mounties lost their only media relations officer for the division, Const. Elenore Sturko, and she has yet to be replaced.
Shane Magee, a reporter at the Yellowknifer who wrote the story “‘Don’t call us,’ RCMP tells media,” said the Mounties have been reluctant to answer questions about things ranging from sexual assault reports to information about boaters missing on Great Slave Lake.
Magee said when they heard about sexual assault at a music festival, they got in touch with the RCMP who didn’t confirm anything for days. “Four days later they sent out a news release saying that, ‘Yes, there had been four separate reports of sexual assault. Oh, here’s all there these traffic stops we did that weekend, and boat checks we did.’”
“We were getting to the point where we’re no longer getting basic information anymore.” He said the Mounties were basically deciding what was and wasn’t newsworthy.
“Someone tells us there’s been a serious assault involving an ex-MMA fighter outside one of the strip clubs downtown on Friday night, we email police and say, ‘What happened, did you respond?’ ” Magee said. “And they say sorry, they can’t really answer any questions. Yet the same day, they put out a press release about a truck driving into a fence with no injuries.”
It wasn’t always this way. When he first arrived in Yellowknife, Magee said he was able to call the media contact with any questions. While they didn’t always have all the answers, Magee was able to build a relationship with someone who understood his role in informing the public.
Since the media officer’s departure, that’s all disappeared.
In June, the RCMP sent an email to media outlets across the territory telling them an email address has been set up for all inquiries. Last month, a follow-up email was sent, informing reporters they were no longer supposed to call individual detachments or the central RCMP office.
“Our OCC operations [dispatch number] is for emergency purposes only, and media inquiries tie up valuable time and resources that could be directed towards emergency matters,” the email said.
RCMP Cpl. Danny Brookson told CANADALAND that in the absence of a dedicated media contact, inquiries have been split between a number of different officers who have had media training. “Without a current media liaison position, it is felt that this is the best way to ensure inquiries are met. We are committed to try our best to get a response within four hours of receiving a request,” provided it was within regular business hours, Brookson said.
While Magee has noticed an improvement in the week or so since his piece ran, there’s still some ways to go. Even if the media officer is replaced, there’s a longer history of discord between the two sides.
“I think over the past number of years there’s been several things that have led to a more adversarial relationship,” Magee said.
Among those things is the rather acrimonious relationship between Magee’s colleague John McFadden and the RCMP.
Last year, McFadden was barred from an RCMP press conference, after officers took issue with the reporter’s tone and accused him of “unprofessional and disrespectful conduct.” Since then, McFadden has been put on trial for obstructing police. He was arrested last July, after taking photos of police searching a vehicle. He says he was just doing his job, police testified he was too close and impeded their ability to do their jobs.
McFadden’s trial is still in progress and is scheduled to resume next month.
But one question still hangs. In the months since the media officer departed, has the public been put at risk because of a lack of information?
“Well, we don’t know,” Magee said.