Controlling the narrative

Readers may notice that going forward, page 6, generally reserved for police news, contains far fewer names of people charged by the Wellington County OPP.

An OPP spokesperson recently told the Advertiser – not until asked, of course – that the OPP is no longer naming those charged with provincial offences (racing, no insurance, cannabis, etc.) because “corporate” told them it “isn’t prudent.”

The Advertiser has decided to go one step further and stop publishing the names of those charged with drinking and driving offences. We have been considering this move for some time, but the OPP’s provincial offences decision expedited the change. 

We suspected the OPP was not providing all drinking and driving offences, as repeatedly requested, and a recent failure to commit to doing so confirmed that suspicion. 

It’s not fair to print some names of those accused of drinking and driving and not others, regardless of the reason some reports never make it to us. It’s that simple.

(We will continue to publish drinking and driving and provincial offence charges without names and to print the names of those charged with other serious crimes.)

 A few months ago the Wellington County OPP also stopped providing court dates in their news releases. Asked why, police basically said they don’t have to, which is frustrating given the information is readily available to the OPP and media officers have been providing court dates for decades.

These recent moves are part of a precipitous decline over the last couple years in the volume and quality of information the OPP releases to the media. There clearly is no longer a desire to work with journalists or, by extension, the public.

To be fair, this alarming trend is not limited to the Wellington branch, and is not usually the fault of media relations officers, who seem to have received direction to say as little as possible.

The decline in OPP media relations started in 2019. That year Thomas Carrique took over as commissioner at OPP headquarters and local Inspector Scott Lawson retired. While Lawson and this newspaper didn’t always see eye-to-eye, there was a mutual respect and trust there, championed by OPP officials who did not fear criticism and who valued the role played by the media to inform the public. 

Unfortunately, this appears to no longer be the case. We now regularly face arbitrary OPP decisions on the release of information and when asked about it, the police just shrug us off. 

The local OPP is instead embarking on an ill-advised social media campaign, highlighted by mundane Twitter videos of officers stumbling to relay basic information – but not too much information, lest they anger their superiors.  

Unless you’re monitoring Twitter constantly, and I don’t know of any credible media company that has the time to do so, these snippets can get missed, even with notifications set up. Actual media releases, which journalists have relied on for decades, are delayed by many hours, sometimes days, thanks to this misguided social media experiment. 

It is indicative of a troublesome trend among police, governments and other public sector organizations to control the narrative at all costs, media be damned. 

Though often sold to the public as a way to improve the dissemination of information, bypassing or creating barriers for journalists actually has the opposite effect. Worse yet, it leads to the avoidance of scrutiny, reduced transparency and a lack of accountability. 

It’s a sad state of affairs.