Columns

Life on the crime beat

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 25 2000
Columns

Life on the crime beat

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 25 2000

Life on the crime beat

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In the early 1980s, investigative crime reporter Michel Auger spent a couple of years working for the CBC program the fifth estate. So, for a couple of months, did I: in my final year of university, Brian McKenna—the filmmaker who was then a Montreal-based producer for the show—gave me part-time work as a researcher/gofer. On the few occasions that Auger came into the office, he was polite but preoccupied, and spent most of his time meeting with McKenna, or murmuring, in a voice not much louder than a whisper, into the telephone to persons unknown. On occasion, when I would ask where Auger was or what he was up to, McKenna—no stranger to intrigue himself—would grin, and say, “Don’t worry, kid: he’s out there earning his salary.” He sure was: the two produced a steady diet of scoops and slice-of-life pieces about the city’s seamy underside. They didn’t always make friends in the process.

So it came as a shock last week—but in a sense, no surprise—to hear of an attempt on Auger’s life. He took five bullets in the back while in the parking lot of his employer, Le Journal de Montréal: With typical efficiency, Auger nonetheless managed to call in news of his own shooting to 911, and then gave police the phone number of his next-of-kin. It’s not clear whether the murder attempt came on account of things already written, or other stuff he plans to write: Auger is typically up to so many things that it’s impossible to keep track.

Although it’s often a mistake to generalize, there’s a case to be made that Montreal has the richest, most developed tradition of high-profile crime reporting of any Canadian city. Its most obvious parallel, in fact, is New York City, where crime-beat reporters become celebrities in their own right. The Montreal-based weekly tabloid Alio Police, with its heavy diet of grisly crime stories, sells hundreds of thousands of copies, and while Auger’s paper, the tabloid Journal, isn’t as racy as it once was, it still, on a good day, makes its sister tab The Toronto Sun seem as grey as The New York Times. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, radio reporter Claude Poirier seemed to make the news as often as he reported it: he was called in more than two dozen times to mediate hostage-taking incidents, usually at the criminal’s request. Poirier, who favoured gold jewelry and elegant pearl-grey suits, also persuaded more than 80 criminals to turn themselves in—once, with a kidnapper, by proposing that they have a glass of cognac together. JeanPierre Charbonneau, who today is a Parti Québécois MNA and speaker of Quebec’s national assembly, so upset key members of Montreal’s underworld that in 1973, someone walked into the newsroom of his paper, Le Devoir, pulled out a pistol and fired a shot that hit him in the arm. And Steve Kowch, who now lives a more benign life as program direc-

tor of Toronto’s CFRB radio, began crime reporting at age 17 in the late 1960s, and became something of a legend before the age of 25. In a series for the Montreal Gazette on gun training, he revealed that some police opened beer bottles with the sights of their .38 specials, while others stuffed candy wrappers and matches into shotgun barrels. Steve mastered the beat despite the fact he was so young, he once confessed ruefully, that his mother called an editor to “ask him to keep me inside: she didn’t want me seeing things I shouldn’t.”

In any newsroom, crime reporters are a different breed of cat: they’re more of a throwback to the hard-living way reporters were depicted half a century or more ago in movies like The Front Page. Reporters who cover cops and crooks often take on similar coloration—they talk quickly and use lots of wise-guy slang, dress even more loudly than they speak, and tilt aggressively to the right on law-and-order issues. Auger differs from that stereotype. Carefully spoken, grey-haired, a subdued dresser, he’s a devout family man who likes to spend his downtime beekeeping and making honey. Unlike a lot of reporters whose main sources are cops, he works the other side of the street just as assiduously, and is renowned for never betraying or revealing a source. A twopart series he just finished on the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and its efforts to control Montreal’s drug trade, for example, was filled with information from sources in the gang.

It till sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood movie or TV show—until you remember that there’s no director around to yell “Cut!” at dangerous points. Hang around on the dark side too long, and there’s a risk of being seduced. In the 1970s, the Journal fired a reporter who planted a false story to assist a local gang—and the reporter went on to become a member of the gang before eventually turning police informant. An English-language reporter who wrote some terrific stuff on the city’s crime scene in the ’80s eventually lost his own way, got strung out on cocaine, was arrested, assaulted a cop and went to jail. Those who don’t succumb face other dangers. Someone like Auger could never fully relax: his phone number has been unlisted for years and his driver’s licence gives only his address at the newspaper. He has long made a point, following advice from the police, of taking different routes to work to make himself harder to track.

That makes for a pretty isolated existence—but the paradox is that to be effective, crime reporters have to keep hanging out amid the people most likely to do them harm. Journalists are often admiringly described by peers as “tough” or “brave” simply because of a willingness to ask CEOs or politicians probing questions. But Auger reminds you of what those words really mean.