An entirely avoidable controversy

Yukon’s Mounties made the right call to pull the plug on their ill-conceived plans to co-operate with the American producers of a reality TV program.

Yukon’s Mounties made the right call to pull the plug on their ill-conceived plans to co-operate with the American producers of a reality TV program. What we can’t quite wrap our heads around is how such a bizarre decision was made in the first place, given how predictable the public blowback over the project seemed to be.

Apparently some bigwig in Ottawa was bowled over by the prospect of having the territory’s Mounties on national television, and figured this could somehow assist in the force’s efforts to repair its tarnished reputation with the public. This was delusional.

It didn’t help that the television company the Mounties had partnered with had produced trashy programming like The Real Housewives of Atlanta. In fairness, the same company had also produced shows such as Trauma: Life in the E.R., which is considered to be serious documentary television. But that show’s production also raised now-familiar criticisms involving patients who say they didn’t consent to being involved in the show.

It also didn’t help that the RCMP and the show’s producers weren’t on the same page as to how they would resolve the Yukon public’s privacy concerns. At one point the producers said they would blur out the faces of participants who didn’t sign a waiver, but that wouldn’t offer much in the way of anonymity to residents in small communities, where individual homes are easily recognized.

Mounties, meanwhile, said they had been given veto over footage. That may have satisfied some privacy concerns, but it also raised other questions about how this could be a genuine journalistic enterprise under such conditions.

There was never an adequate explanation as to how consent could be secured from arrestees who are intoxicated – which, let’s face it, is the condition of many people in police custody. Much of the public dismay also seemed to stem from concerns that the show wouldn’t do justice to the complicated contributing factors to Yukon’s many messy, alcohol-fueled crimes.

It’s difficult to talk about the public’s perception of the “M” Division without mentioning the in-custody death of Raymond Silverfox in December 2008. The public’s memory of the callous mockery that the violently-ill man endured while he slowly died in the drunk tank won’t fade soon, and, like it or not, the event continues to colour the force’s relationship with the Yukon public.

Since Silverfox’s death we’ve witnessed an apology by the division commander, changes to how intoxicated people are treated in custody and some well-received efforts to rebuild community trust. But, in such cases, trust is easily lost and hard to rebuild. The controversy growing from the reality TV show threatened to create another setback to fostering relations between the RCMP and the community it serves.

None of this is to say that the force’s stated goals of co-operating with the production were not worthwhile. Mounties in the territory have tough, thankless jobs, and it would probably be eye-opening for many residents to witness the challenges they face.

That’s why this newspaper has made repeated requests over the past several years to join officers for a “ride along” for several evenings to produce a feature article about how they do their jobs. Sadly, the force has always declined. That makes their decision to participate with the reality TV show all the more bewildering. We’d contend that it’s far easier to respect privacy concerns when your primary reporting tool is a notepad, rather than a video camera, and that local media are more likely to understand the nuances of local issues.

Our understanding is that such proposals invariably die due to a web of rules created by the RCMP’s masters in Ottawa – presumably, the same out-of-touch bureaucrats who gave this project the green light.

So we’d like to again extend an invitation to the force: if it’s serious about sharing with Yukoners the challenges that officers face, that’s a story we’re interested in telling. But it’s not easy when the force’s default mode of operating is to side with secrecy, unless an American television producer is on the line.