North

Reporter banned due to perceived 'bias' against police, RCMP emails suggest

The RCMP's main concern about a Yellowknife reporter it banned from a press conference earlier this year was a perceived bias against police, according to internal emails CBC obtained through an access to information request.

Newspaper reporter John McFadden was banned from Yellowknife RCMP news conference in April

RCMP banned John McFadden, a reporter for the Yellowknifer, from a news conference on April 17 without fully explaining why. McFadden was later charged with obstructing a peace officer after taking photos of RCMP officers searching a van in downtown Yellowknife. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

The RCMP's main concern about a Yellowknife reporter it banned from a press conference earlier this year was a perceived bias against police, according to internal emails CBC obtained through an access to information request.

The rocky relations between the RCMP and Yellowknifer newspaper reporter John McFadden reached a head on April 17, when McFadden arrived at the Yellowknife detachment for a press conference the RCMP had arranged to talk about a large drug bust it had made days before.

All media outlets were invited to send reporters, but when McFadden arrived at the door he was told he was not allowed in. As far as anyone knows, it is the only time the Northwest Territories RCMP has barred a reporter from a press conference.

The incident was widely discussed after a report on the website Canadaland. It has come under further scrutiny after McFadden was charged in July with obstructing a peace officer after taking photos of RCMP officers searching a van in the city's downtown area.

The RCMP has never explained why it turned McFadden away from the news conference.

"The situation involved personal matters between a member of the RCMP and a member of the news agency," said the RCMP in a news release. "All issues have been discussed and resolved. There will be no further discussion or information on the matter."

RCMP emails and notes obtained by CBC shed more light on why McFadden was banned.

Deteriorating relations between reporter and spokesperson

The RCMP member corresponding with McFadden was Const. Elenore Sturko. She had been hired as G Division's first full-time media liaison just months before.

Relations between Sturko and McFadden had deteriorated before the April 17 press conference. Sturko had been asking McFadden for all of his questions in writing "for some time now," according to a March 25 email from the division's senior communications strategist, Marie York-Condon to senior RCMP communications officials in Ottawa.

At the beginning of the year, McFadden wrote a series of stories about the RCMP's failure to warn the public about a break and enter and sexual assault that had occurred in Yellowknife on Feb. 1. Two weeks later another home was broken into and another person was sexually assaulted. A repeat sex offender, Bobby Zoe, was arrested and charged with both sexual assaults.

RCMP spokesperson Const. Elenore Sturko speaks at a news conference in Yellowknife earlier this year. In an internal email obtained by CBC she wrote 'The decision [to bar McFadden] was made in the interest of protecting RCMP employees' right to conduct daily business in a respectful workplace.' (CBC)

At a news conference, Sturko admitted the RCMP should have warned the public about the first break-in and sexual assault and said changes had been made to improve communications.

Less than two weeks after those stories, McFadden wrote a story that said there were "serious concerns" about a break and enter in the city in which a number of firearms were stolen.

Sturko took issue with that. In a phone conversation the day the story came out, Sturko told McFadden all she had said was that the RCMP takes all break and enters seriously, and suggested he leave the assessment of public risk to the RCMP.

According to Sturko's notes on the conversation, McFadden responded, "Oh, just like you did with XXXXX?" The name is redacted. McFadden was likely referring to Bobby Zoe, because he went on to say, according to Sturko, "The RCMP doesn't report sex assaults ... You don't warn the public about sex assaults?" The conversation ended with Sturko hanging up on McFadden.

'Tense situation'

In notes of that conversation, Sturko says the head of RCMP criminal operations in the N.W.T., Supt. Mike LeSage, advised her not to answer any more questions from McFadden.

Sturko hung up on McFadden again shortly after, according to the March 25 email from York-Condon. McFadden asked Sturko for the RCMP's opinion about the availability and success of drug treatment programs in the city. Sturko advised him to speak to other community organizations involved in drug treatment. Sturko said she would take any questions about the drug bust. McFadden persisted in asking for the RCMP's opinion on the availability of addictions treatment. She hung up.

According to the same email, Supt. LeSage asked York-Condon to reach out [to headquarters in Ottawa] to find out if there was anything that could be done to resolve "the tense situation."

A few hours after McFadden was barred from the press conference on April 17, York-Condon informed senior communications officials in Ottawa about the incident.

"Recently, a certain reporter, has reported in an inaccurate manner on RCMP matters," she wrote. "Senior managers are supportive of actions taken and aware of confrontation ... No actions required at this time."

The Ottawa official York-Condon emailed said they had never had to deal with such a situation. 

"We always try to work with media as we are bound to provide them with timely information," wrote Staff Sgt. Julie Gagnon. "The next option would be to lodge an official complaint."

York-Condon replied that there was no professional organization representing journalists in the North, so there was no avenue for an official complaint. She was presumably unaware of an email the Yellowknifer had sent to Sturko a few hours earlier, advising the RCMP that the newspaper is a member of the Alberta Press Council, which handles public complaints about its members.

York-Condon told Gagnon that the paper would continue to receive RCMP press releases, but added, "should they take an adversarial stance on this, Sr. Management may instruct us to remove them in total for a period of time."

According to the same email, an editor of the paper showed up at the press conference and demanded to speak to Insp. Gallagher, the detachment commander. There are no notes or other records of that conversation.

The email conversation continued the next day, a Saturday.

"I am fully aware of this reporter," emailed Gagnon.

The head of communications for the RCMP got involved. Christine Pappas said she would call York-Condon on Monday to "discuss the issues at play here."

LeSage, who was cc'd on the email, said he wanted to be involved. He said newspaper coverage of the RCMP had improved since communications with McFadden had been restricted. 

"The reporting has been consistent with no underlying anti-police tones," he wrote.

'Reporters ... frequently are biased'

York-Condon then emailed LeSage and suggested contacting other divisions that have complained about bias in media reporting before the conversation with Ottawa officials. She said that in an April 8 teleconference meeting of RCMP communications officials, the two had talked about dealing with "biased" media.

Within an hour, York-Condon sends out an email to RCMP officials in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. In it, she took issue with Gagnon's suggestion that the RCMP is obliged to provide media with information, and wrote, "Senior management...directed us not to deal any further with this reporter. There is no relationship to 'maintain' or 'build."

According to the records CBC received, York-Condon got only one response, from Paul Greene, who is now an RCMP spokesperson in New Brunswick.

"Although they shouldn't be, reporters can and frequently are biased," wrote Greene.

"The concern is, do they have the facts straight and reporting our side of the story in a fair manner ... We need to work at going around the media more and more to reach our target audience."

'Nothing to do with accuracy or inaccuracy'

On April 21, four days after McFadden was not allowed into the press conference, Sturko emailed York-Condon, Gagnon and LeSage that she had received inquiries about the incident from the website Canadaland and from CBC. Sturko said Canadaland seemed to have emails related to it.

York-Condon advised, "At this time suggest no response."

That day, Canadaland published a story based on emails exchanged between Sturko and the newspaper. The story suggests the barring of McFadden had more to do with his critical reporting than inaccuracies and rudeness Sturko cites in her emails.

RCMP headquarters offered to draft a public statement for G Division.

"The matter that has brought us to this point has nothing to do with the accuracy or inaccuracy of any news story," the statement began. "What this is about is a simple matter of respect and professionalism."

The short statement provided no examples of unprofessional or disrespectful behaviour.

Sturko took issue with it, saying it lacked clarity.

"The decision [to bar McFadden] was made in the interest of protecting RCMP employees' right to conduct daily business in a respectful workplace," she wrote.

York-Condon added a line to the statement: "During the course of their duties as a media liaison for the Northwest Territories RCMP, a member had several interactions with a reporter that are believed to have subjected her to a disrespectful and unprofessional environment."

But the public never got to see the amended draft. Instead the news release describing the situation as a "personal matter" was issued.

CBC requested an interview with the RCMP about the emails and notes surrounding the banning of McFadden.

"We will not be speaking to this topic," responded York-Condon on Friday.

McFadden and the managing editor of his newspaper, Bruce Valpy, also declined comment. Valpy says the paper will not talk about it until the charge McFadden is facing for obstructing a peace officer is dealt with. McFadden says his lawyer has advised him not to talk about the banning.

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