Vancouver police impersonate journalists to bust protest leader

[Saskatoon Star Phoenix editorial]

When Vancouver police officers impersonated a reporter on the weekend to lure a suspect into the open to arrest him, they did more than cross an ethical line. Coming just days after World Press Freedom Day, their action undermined a profession whose proper functioning is essential to democratic societies.

Const. Tim Fanning, a spokesperson for the Vancouver police, said an officer had posed as a reporter for the city's free daily commuter paper to convince anti-Olympics activist David Cunningham to meet him at a mall, where Cunningham was arrested.

Fanning claimed police had no other option in dealing with a confrontational person with whom they've had violent clashes in the past.

This excuse only underlines the dangers police impersonations create for working journalists and the damage they do to a society that relies on a free press to be its eyes on the world.

The sole commodity of value that journalists have to offer to their readers is their integrity and credibility. It's bad enough that a few unscrupulous individuals in the media have done their craft a great deal of harm lately with actions that erode the public's trust. The last thing that's needed is for police to insert themselves into the picture with such shenanigans.

If sources such as Cunningham refuse to speak to reporters, fearing that they are being set up for a police sting operation, information that's in the public interest may never get published. Whether it's a community activist such as Cunningham, who has threatened to stage protests at the homes of Olympics organizing committee members about the Games squeezing out social housing in Vancouver, or an escaped prisoner recaptured in 2005 by police pretending to be a CBC crew, it's a dangerous game being played by officers.

Legitimate journalists trying to get stories could well face threats to their well-being at the hands of sources who get spooked by, say, a hard-hitting question that might convince them they've been set up by police.

Despite Fanning's assertion that police felt they had no other options, that's hardly the case here.

As Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd points out, "We're not talking a homicide. We're not talking an immediate threat."

Given the role police play in protecting our communities and their need to foster trust with the public, laws exist to prohibit anyone from impersonating police officers. The work of journalists may not involve the kind of life-and-death situations that daily face police officers but their work, too, is vital to the well-being of society and depends on the public trust.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey