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Bob Wakeham: Sex sting, cops and media coverage

"Not only did I not have a problem with having a reporter assigned to the Village story," columnist Bob Wakeham writes, "I encouraged the coverage, demanded it in all likelihood, for no other reason that it was an unusual, unique event at the time…"
"If one of them had been a cabinet minister, a high-profiled member of the clergy, it would have been legitimate to make the ID," columnist Bob Wakeham writes of the men caught up in the 1993 Village mall bathroom sting. "But in this case, I decided, long after the fact — too long after the fact — that it was the wrong call." — Stock photo

First of all, for the sake of full disclosure — that hackneyed expression that supposedly informs an audience that the person rattling off the conflict of interest qualifier is “all about transparency” — I was in with both feet as a journalistic observer of that infamous sex sting operation undertaken by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in 1993, the hidden camera raid that captured dozens of gay men performing sexual acts in the urinals at the Village mall in St. John’s. It’s an event whose coverage has been dusted off by various media archivists because of demands from some members of the LGBTQ community that the cops apologize for what the more vocal members of that group angrily describe as a discriminatory attack on the gay community.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham


And if that apology is not forthcoming — and it certainly appears it is not, given Chief Joe Boland’s rather definitive assertion that his investigators did absolutely nothing wrong when they responded to complaints of indecent acts being performed in the mall bathrooms — there is a chance the cops might be banned from taking part in the Gay Pride Parade in St. John’s.

Now, this issue is hardly black and white; there’s a sprinkling of grey here and there. As well, it’s not an example of the “thin blue line” — police banding together to protect their own (cops are certainly capable of that circle-the- wagons approach to self-preservation, but in terms of this 30-years-later fallout from the Village mall bust, that kind of coverup doesn’t appear to be the modus operandi).

In fact, there are a variety of conflicting points of view here, some of them generated from within the gay community itself, arguing among themselves in letters to the editor of The Telegram and, I can only presume, in social media, given its ubiquitous role in just about every matter these days prompting debate.

As for my part: I was executive producer of CBC Television News at the time, and had the final say, virtual autonomy in fact, in deciding which stories were to be covered, and the nature and extent of that coverage.

And not only did I not have a problem with having a reporter assigned to the Village story, I encouraged the coverage, demanded it in all likelihood, for no other reason that it was an unusual, unique event at the time; a police sting on dozens of people performing sexual acts in a public mall is a legitimate subject for a journalistic take. Period.

If one of them had been a cabinet minister, a high-profiled member of the clergy, it would have been legitimate to make the ID. But in this case, I decided, long after the fact — too long after the fact — that it was the wrong call.

But it was in the public identification in the coverage where I believe I made a mistake.

We decided to go through the list of the dozens of men charged and publicize the names of anyone charged who had a public profile or was a person of societal influence (in much the same way I once did a story on a premier getting nabbed for speeding or a politician illegally operating a snowmobile in a wilderness area; the crimes themselves weren’t heinous, but the perpetrators were public figures. It’s an age-old premise for identification in the media, as dated as a rusting R.C. Allen typewriter.)

But, in retrospect, the people — four or five, if memory services me correctly —that we identified weren’t exactly among the movers and shakers in Newfoundland; they included a cop, a well-known Catholic family counsellor, etc.

If one of them had been a cabinet minister, a high-profiled member of the clergy, it would have been legitimate to make the ID. But in this case, I decided, long after the fact — too long after the fact — that it was the wrong call.

At the risk of sounding defensive here, I’m not a johnny-come-lately to this conversation; in fact, in a column I wrote nine years ago in The Telegram on the general topic of identifying people appearing in court, I admitted I had “dropped an easy fly ball” with the way I handled the release of some of the names in the Village mall case, that the crime wasn’t of such a magnitude that it required the identification of several of those charged. (Although we had every right to do what we did; we represent the public in the courtrooms, and the public should have access, if it wishes, to every single case that goes before a judge).

We’ve been told this week by a man named Sean Cole — a supporter of the LGBTQ community, he claimed on VOCM — that he was 11 years old back in 1993, and was propositioned by one of the men in the mall bathroom as the man was masturbating at a nearby urinal. His parents complained to the cops, and the investigation began.

In that column I wrote nearly a decade ago, I wondered, as well, whether the sting was an appropriate use of police resources, whether they could have been utilized in a much better and more effective way in another area of crime prevention.

In retrospect, though, in view of this information about the 11-year-old boy, and the fact that it was probably more than just him who would have been exposed to sex taking place in a public bathroom in a public mall, it seems to me the operation was legitimate.

I’d argue, further, that if the police had ignored such a complaint, then or now, and turned a blind eye to the crime, be it homosexual or heterosexual activities, the cops would have taken it on the chin.

There would have been hell to pay.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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