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Stevie Cameron

Journalist warns against speaking to police

Stevie Cameron

HALIFAX - A journalist who was once a confidential informant for the RCMP says she'll never speak with police again.

And she's advising young journalists to do the same.

"Never talk to the police," Stevie Cameron told a symposium on democracy and journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax on Saturday.

"My encounter with the RCMP has been a disaster for me and I will never talk to the police again, and I think that would be good advice for you."

Cameron is the journalist listed as a police informant in the ill-fated Airbus investigation which eventually led to a lawsuit by former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

She initially denied the allegations when transcripts pointing to her informant status were made public in November.

However, last month Cameron admitted she had given Mounties what she considered to be public information, but said she had never consented to the confidential informant status.

The author and freelance journalist said she's already been avoiding contact with police.

Cameron has been writing a book about British Columbia's serial killer, Robert Pickton, for the last two years and hasn't spoken to police once, she said.

Alongside Cameron on the panel were two journalists all too familiar with the fight for freedom of the press.

One was Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill, whose home and office were raided by RCMP officers in January as they searched for the source of leaked police documents.

Also on the panel was Andrew McIntosh, who won a court battle to protect the confidentiality of sources in the Shawinigate affair in January.

Cameron said the controversy surrounding her relationship with the RCMP has changed investigative work in Canada forever.

"Reporters are now telling me that stories they did where they traded any information with the police, those stories will probably never appear now. One person did six months of work on a story that has been killed."

Cameron, who said she has paid $50,000 in legal costs since November, told the standing-room only audience that journalists, especially freelancers, are shying away from investigative reporting because of the financial and professional risks involved in disclosure.

King's journalism student Roberto Rocha, 24, said he isn't letting horror stories from the trio of veteran journalists scare him off digging for a story.

"The final idea that I got from this is, 'Deal with police as little as possible, or not at all.' That is not something that I want to take out of this or advice that I will take to heart."

Dealing with police is a reality of reporting, said Rocha, but the bigger question is where to draw the line between working with and collaborating with police.

Dean Jobb, professor of journalism and media law at the university, said his advice to students on dealing with police is clear.

"Be very aware of police motives if they agree to sit down with you. I think they're very happy to get information from you. I don't think they're very happy to give you information."

It's not the death of investigative reporting, said Jobb, but the fallout from Cameron's experience has made using police sources a less appealing option for many journalists.

Many of his students were unclear where to draw the line between their civic duty to police and their journalistic responsibility to sources.

That line, Jobb said, has become more clear in light of cases like that of Cameron.

"If there was any naivete up to this fall, I think it should be gone now. What journalists have to do is govern themselves on the assumption that anything they say to police not only can be publicly revealed down the road, but probably will be."

Newsroom confidential

Cameron talked to the Mounties. Big deal. A journalist gathers information through relationships, says RON HAGGART

No one, I'm quite sure, ever gave me the grand title of "confidential informant," but I suppose that's what I was for several of the better detectives, guys I liked a lot, on the Vancouver police force. And I can be certain that no one ever gave me a file number, as the Mounties did with Stevie Cameron.

But, as a young reporter covering the police and the courts, I spent half my days gossiping with detectives. Cops spend a lot of time in court, but I spent more, so I can see now, looking back, that they probably regarded me as a tiny spigot of information on how certain Crown attorneys were doing, what the current defence strategies were, what kind of evidence was favoured by certain judges, and the latest moves by the famous heroin-wholesaling family who lived near the Granville Street bridge.

I spent idle moments buying beers at the Columbia Hotel for Johnny Rae, an alcoholic and an addict and a great source of gossip from the heroin underworld. I passed on some of his "pathetic scraps" (to borrow Cameron's phrase) to my detective friends but without, of course, revealing the source.

It was only after he was dead that I learned that Johnny Rae had been a police informer (I thought he was my informant). The police probably regarded my little scraps as a confirming second source but, as we have so recently and so sadly learned, that is how "intelligence" works.

My greatest problem was getting the Vancouver Sun to approve $2 expense accounts for buying Johnny's beers. I gave up on trying to get the $2 back for buying him half a cap of heroin (this will give you some idea of the ravages of inflation). No ethical concerns ever crossed my mind. You swapped information with the nicer criminals, the cops, and with lawyers, and even some judges sometimes, and that is how the system worked.

I suppose the system was mutually self-serving, and although I was aware of this dynamic, it gave me not a moment's pause. The cops would provide that little bit of colour, that odd incident during the raid, that moved a routine police story onto the front page. On the road to making sergeant, it does a detective no harm to have his name all over the front page (this was so long ago, they were all men). It also put my name on the front page, in an era when bylines were an award of merit.

I liked the detectives I dealt with. They were sharp dressers (the clothing allowance was generous) and they had a sophisticated view of crime, not at all like the stilted evidence they were required to give in court. They were fun to talk to.

Much of that talk took place in a blind pig that operated right by the rear entrance to the Vancouver police headquarters. It was operated by a famous criminal recently released from a long prison sentence. He needed some income, and the cops needed a discreet place to have a drink after work.

It never occurred to me to expose this flagrant breach of the law. You can call it moral relativism, I suppose. Cops needed reporters and reporters needed cops, and we never really paused to analyze that dependency. I like to think, however, that the system resulted in slightly better law enforcement and a marginal improvement in reporting.

The Mountie sergeant in charge of the drug squad (who never went to the blind pig) believed that heroin addicts were medical victims, not criminals. But of course he enforced the law to its hilt, that was his duty. I suppose I could have ruined his career by reporting what he really believed, but the thought never crossed my mind. Because he had such thoughtful views, because he was far more sophisticated than the Narcotic Control Act, I believed what he told me about the heroin underworld. This was an unspoken bond of trust and I like to think that it improved the level of reporting on drugs in the pages of the Vancouver Sun.

Stevie Cameron has written that she believed some of her conversations with the police were "off the record." In my conversations with the detectives I liked so much, we all understood that some information was for use, some was not for attribution, some was deep background, and some was Not For Publication. Everyone understood the system.

In those days, there were four "police magistrates" sitting in three courtrooms at police headquarters, and one of them was on the take. It was the job of the bootleg squad to load a case of Scotch into the trunk of this man's car every Friday afternoon. It was all done in the safety of the small quadrangle inside police headquarters. A cop who'd done the job himself told me about it, but I never even tried to write it. No cop would have spoken to me again.

Journalism, as Stevie Cameron has discovered, is not an exact science. It involves a daily round of accommodation and compromise, and not always proud moments, with the hope that accuracy, fairness and balance perhaps may be achieved within a range of plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

After I left Vancouver, the police department was rocked by scandal. Many senior detectives had been on the take from the bookies. Many cops lost their jobs. I used to nod to one detective-sergeant who became the house dick at the Hotel Vancouver.

It occurred to me that not one of the detectives I had dealt with was involved in the scandal. Those who were implicated tended to be the detectives I didn't like so much; I never felt they were being frank with me. Trust turned out to be quite a good barometer after all.

Journalism is an enterprise built on trust. And that enterprise of mutual trust -- comparing my small experience to hers -- appears to be an enterprise that engaged Stevie Cameron as she dealt with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and which has now betrayed and entrapped her.

Ron Haggart, born in Vancouver, is a former Globe and Mail columnist and former senior producer of CBC TV's the fifth estate.