Sunday, October 24, 2010 | Categories: Episodes
On Cross Country Checkup: covering the Williams case
The conviction of the sex murderer revealed horrific and disturbing details ...some say far too many. But in a democratic justice system that relies on transparency, how much is too much?
What are your thoughts on the case, the coverage and the effect on you and your community?
With guest host David Gray.
It has been hard for anyone to avoid news of the Russel Williams case, even if you were trying.
His descent from military commander to petty thief to sex murderer defies explanation.
And media outlets across the country have chronicled every moment of it.
Pictures, stories, videotapes, excruciating details.
The wall to wall coverage has offended a lot of people, and provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of some of our countries biggest newsrooms.
Over the last several days op-ed pages have been full of explanations by editors as to why they chose to cover the story as they have. The CBC is no different.
Each rationale merely a condensed version of the debate journalists have been having across their desks.
Publically, editors have defended the graphic coverage saying that in a free and open society the functioning of the justice system must be transparent to all.
Maybe so. But do we need to read about those truths over our morning coffee, or hear about them while driving our kids to school?
Is there a way to make the details publicly accessible but not splashed across the front page and the start of newscasts?
Or, is this simply sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the things that rightly should trouble us all.
And, while we're asking questions, is there perhaps another, colder aspect to all of this.
Are we really so shocked by these images, anymore?
A lot has changed since the days of the Paul Bernardo case.
The hours before and after the nightly news are filled with glossy, franchised depictions of gore, sex and violence all in the name of entertainment.
Of course, this is different. This is real.
Which leads us to today's question on the show. What is your reaction to the coverage of the William's Case?
Do you worry that the widespread dissemination of details can have a negative effect on us all ...that, made public, they lead to a de-sensitization?
Or, is the opposite true. Does it lead to increased sensitivity, to people living in fear unnecessarily ...and then perhaps new laws and rules being enacted based on what is in fact a rare and extreme case.
We want to know your thoughts on the coverage, the case itself, and the effect it may be having on you and your community.
Already, some communities are responding. The city of Belleville, closest to where it all took place, held a healing rally Friday to try to bring the community together. Some women have said the case has made them install blinds on their windows. Some members of Canada's armed forces have said because Williams was a colonel, it makes them wonder if they'll still be respected when they go about the community in their uniforms.
Our topic today: "What's your reaction to the coverage of the Williams case?"
I'm David Gray ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 137 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.
I feel strongly that the entire populace has a stake in what happened and also what has been done about it. We ought to be well-apprised of the most important details, although what is important is open to debate. However, the Armed Forces is one of our great tools to maintain democracy for Canadians. It is a rigidly hierarchical entity where the officer corps expects much of its members because they lead both each other and the more numerous non-commissioned members,sometimes into nasty and dangerous situations. For this reason, the military, and its mostly adoring public, should know the gory details to a healthy extent and the outfall as well. The lower ranks need to know that their leaders expect a great deal more, not just in one's public performances, but also in private. Our duty to each other, citizen and soldier alike, doesn't stop when we go home at night.
Comox, British Columbia.
Sad and sick as all these revelations are and while they diminish the stature of the man, do not his military medals stand out all that much more by the contrast? I would like to know this man's military history. What war action if any did he see, how many men did he send to their deaths while in any position of command and did this adversely affect him? Has Russell Williams' personality or psychological profile changed from when he first entered the military? Did he ever suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome? Is his lack of remorse a reflection of the degree of his mental sickness? We need to understand what happened, not to erase it and pretend it never happened. Let's not confuse his shame with our shame.
If you choose to read this email on air, I won't hear it. I am so sick of the media over-exposure of this horrific crime that I refuse to listen to any more. Shame on you for turning this incident into yet another broadcasting opportunity. The moment I heard the topic I turned off my radio.
Russell Williams was pronounced guilty of a crime and must be sent to prison to pay for it. But how can we be certain he was not mentally ill? And if so, how can it be appropriate to punish a man who may have been driven by a mental malfunction rather than evil intent?
I am wondering about his wife. Does she lose his pension?
Isn't it curious that the military must declare if they are gay or lesbian but not if they are psychopaths. The horrible crimes of Russell Williams in no way affect my view of the military. I have worked with our service men and women in Germany and have the greatest respect for what they do, especially now in Afghanistan. Williams is a criminal with a warped mind. Best he stay in prison forever.
I found some of the media coverage to be too graphic and inappropriate, considering the audience who inadvertently may see it. On the Toronto Star's web page, there was quite a graphic picture as soon as one logged onto the site. I am an elementary teacher who had just the week before advised my grade 5 class that they could always go to Thestar.com to find a news flash for a school assignment. As well, putting such pictures or articles on front pages of newspapers that will be on display in public paper boxes and news stands infringes on those who do not wish to see such details.
I have found that some of the coverage of print media has been particularly offensive. Some newspapers in the country put photos of Mr. Williams in girl's underwear on the front page. This sends the message that anyone who crossdresses or is transgender is a pedophile, rapist and potential murderer. This sort of message only promotes hatred towards those groups. This has many people in the transgender community concerned.
Ms J. Ottawa.
Coverage of the Williams case borders on obscenity suggesting a voyeuristic hunger for the salacious. That Williams was a military man and his victims attractive, white women has led to a bombardment of phrases such as "evil incarnate" "depraved" "horrific" and on and on. While, yes, horrific for the families and friends, this case certainly pales compared to Picton's crimes. But I guess prostitutes and natives don't count when it comes to the media, after all, if it can happen to the white, middle-class, it can happen to anyone. The coverage was sadistic and unwarranted.
Frank A. Pelaschuk
I was shocked and appalled by the coverage of this case. I cannot see the value of this level of scrutiny. In this day and age, surely any media outlet can simply set up a website dedicated to a story of this sort, where those people who really need to know, can read and watch to their heart's content. I believe that no one's interests are being served when events of this kind are broadcast in such graphic detail.
Vancouver, British Columbia.
The heroes of this story are the men who reported the sighting of the SUV. Without that info, it may have been a long time before Williams was charged. The press reports gave this minimal attention.
Myna Lee Johnstone,
Although I agree completely with publishing details of horrific cases such as that of Russell Williams, I am disturbed by the images splashed on some of the front pages of our local papers. Protecting the victims should be paramount prior to publishing a killer in victims clothes. How would you feel if you saw Mr. Williams wearing the panties of your pre-teen daughter who might be still recovering from a recent sexual assault. Put your self in the shoes of the victims and their families. The television and radio media did an excellent job but shame on the papers.
I am shocked to hear Ms Blatchford saying it was her job and the job of all reporters to report the news without filtering. Well that is a complete oversimplification. For example, in her words she would not publish the horrid details of a or every car accident that happened complete with photos of all of the detail. Why did some news venues publish so many photos? It was juvenile voyeurism, no more, no less. Mr Williams is a sick sick man. We would not publish photos of a physical deformity why do we publish photos of his mental depravity? Mr Williams is probably sick; so are those reporters and their editors who publish the sensational photos of the work of this sick man. Imagine how you would feel if Mr Williams was wearing your mother's or sister's undergarments on 'The National' or the front page of your newspaper. The prosecuting attorney is also to blame here. Clearly he basked in the spotlight and enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame when he repeated that the public must see all the details so we don't forget. That was pathetic: All we need to know is that this man was a murderer and he was deranged. For example, he had a collection of 'x' hundred panties he stole and somehow enjoyed wearing these trophies and taking photos and videos of himself. What more do we need to 'see' to understand the case?
I am a survivor of childhood incest who spent more than a decade healing from abuse by my father, who was a career military man. Hearing and seeing so much about the gory details of this case has triggered some unpleasant memories and many tears. Part of my emotional healing has involved forgiving my father. As far as I know, babies are not born sociopaths and psychopaths. Recognizing that fact was part of my healing process. I had to be willing to think about what happened during my father's childhood that turned him into a sexual predator. I would like to see Christie Blatchford or another talented writer or broadcaster report on Russell William's life to provide a cautionary tale about what happens when we don't cherish our children.
Surrey, British Columbia.
I strongly believe that it is very important to expose individuals like Russell Williams who have misused and misappropriated their authority and their trust in violating their victims. Mr. Williams hid behind a veil of hierarchy created and rightly earned in the Canadian military. He was however unable to hide from himself, his fetishes, and ultimately his reflection in the mirror. He was eventually overwhelmed by his pathological urges and will have a lifetime to blame it all on someone else. Whether there is corruption in the hierarchy of the church, in residential schools, or in the finer brass of the military, it must be exposed and discussed and there must be accountability. In the short stories of Somerset Maugham, the brilliant author repeatedly exposes the very fine line dividing our very human capacity for good and evil. I believe that we must be reminded of his wisdom in our otherwise very tolerant and increasingly grey society. There is black and white and good and evil and Russell Williams crossed the line. We should talk about it.
Lac Brome, Quebec.
My concern here is not regarding the lurid sensational aspects of the case being pervasive in the media, as there is already no shortage of commentary, for and against. My concern is that with the Williams case - and typically this seems to be case with crimes of violence and sexual offenses - little attention is given to sociological aspects of crime in society. The media and society generally, usually portrays people such as Williams as deranged maniacs with little to no consideration given to the type of society that spawns such individuals. That Williams' actions were horrific goes without saying, but like most perpetrators of violent acts, he is a male and males by far are responsible for the vast majority of violent acts to females and other males. Why this is the case is a question we should be exploring and if the answers implicate the positions of men and women in society and media gender portrayals, than there there will be grounds for seeing individuals like Williams as more than just the isolated acts of deranged individuals. Once we see past the individual, we may be more able to work toward the prevention of violence to all.
I have been saddened and at times very angry at the lack of analysis around the larger story of the Williams' crimes - which is about violence against women. Why are we not talking about this glaring part of the story and the far too familiar story of violence against women that too many of us have either experienced directly or those we love. Women are not safe anywhere. This crime is not a surprise. What is a surprise is our denial about the root cause of the violence and our inability to see that this is part of a culture of violence against women.
Christie Blatchford is an excellent journalist. I agree with everything she said on air. As a Canadian I am proud of the coverage provided by Canadian media. They struck a fine balance in reporting this case. We should know what goes on in our courtrooms. We should know the depths of depravity a seemingly respectable individual is capable of sinking to. We should know that our justice system will appropriately punish such individuals. We should know that we have outstanding interrogators such as Detective Sergeant Jim Smyth in our midst. Thanks to the media we now know these things. I nominate Jim Smyth for the Order of Canada.
I am very happy the way this event has been covered. I especially enjoyed viewing the skilful interrogation which lead to the famous confession. I get my news from radio, TV and internet. There, journalists provide warning that the following coverage will be graphic, not suitable for young audience and such like. But, when newspapers display a picture of a man in woman's underwear on their cover, there is no forewarning. I don't mind, but I understand people who do.
Since when does the media care how we react to their reporting? If they really cared, much wouldn't be broadcast, the Williams story included. Here is how coverage works, one station reports on it because another station reported on it. And you report on it because the other two did. That's it. Numbers. Ratings.
I saw none of the coverage because of my mute button. I heard none of it because of my volume button. I read none of it because I didn't buy papers that had it on the cover. I heard what Williams did. One report was enough for me. I am an educated Canadian and will receive my news on my own terms. And that, for now, is the Internet.
Armstrong, British Columbia.
Do you, the media, really want to perform a useful service? Give us the stats as to how often, when and how these atrocities happen, so that we can arm our children with the best protection possible. In plain terms, show us how to prevent these types of crimes to the best degree possible.
In my view, what's most disconcerting in this case is the failure of Canadian Armed Forces failure in the detection of psychological anomalies among its high ranking officers. Williams clearly succeeded in deceiving of all measures in place that assist the Canadian Armed Forces in such assessments and one can't help but make fairly accurate assumptions about these assessment's ability to detect psychological issues amongst officers. My question is what kind of measures (in the form of regular psychological assessment) are currently in place at Canadian Armed Forces and what is being done to fine tune their effectiveness in the light of these heinous crimes.
Richmond Hill, Ontario.
I feel the public needs to know we are not living in a 'Father Knows Best' or 'Leave it to Beaver' world. The more aware people are of their surroundings and the possibilities out there, the safer they will be. Possibly if people felt more able to report untoward behaviour, these situations wouldn't escalate to these horrific levels. The media hasn't gone far enough They should tell the public what they should do if they feel someone around them is losing their grip.
When I was a photographer for the local newspaper in Halifax I was accused of being a sicko many times by bystanders at car accidents. My reply was "at least I'm being paid. You're gawking for free". As far as I'm concerned the media would be patronizing if they decided it would be in our best interests not to know something because it might be upsetting. As far as I know, all the media warn their audiences that their material may be upsetting, so all people who really can't stand the material can keep their heads in the sand. I found the coverage titillating, silly, fascinating and scary. As a result my concerns about safety of my daughter are greater than before and that's not a bad thing. The only fault I can see with the media is that there hasn't been enough coverage on how such a freak can emerge and be camouflaged for so long. Except for a very superficial review in the Globe and Mail this weekend, there hasn't been a lot of material on how this could have happened and perhaps how it can be prevented.
Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I have been deeply disturbed not by the extent of coverage per se, but by the lack of critical analysis of the case and the amount of defending of the Canadian Forces that has underlined most stories I have heard on CBC radio. This was most evident the day that Stephen Harper expressed his true feelings on who the victims were, when we said: "The Canadian Forces are the victim here, as are the direct victims of these terrible events." Military first, direct victims second. But women? As your previous guest noted, violence against women is not just about a bunch of isolated whackos. Violence against women is pervasive and is encouraged in a culture of violence that is in many ways a product of a history of military force around the world.
Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
The one thing that concerns me about the detailed coverage is a fear that others who are going down a similar path will want to emulate this man's action.
Christine de Groot,
I disagree with the veteran police officer from Calgary who felt that the interrogation of Williams should not have been aired.The techniques used by Det. Sgt. Jim Smith were like those of a chess master: strategic, patient and progressive and ultimately incapacitating. I saw no "hot secrets of interrogation," only the systematic work of a very respectful officer who had done his homework. Because Smith was able to extract the confession and other valuable information, the families of Col. Williams' victims were spared the additional pain of an extended, combative trial. The response of Williams was also remarkable. We would all be spared a good deal of distress and money if every violator did what Williams did, which was to tell the truth, blame no-one else and accept the consequences. There is merit in having the public see that aspect as well.
Howe Island, Ontario.
My response is as a Certified Addiction Specialist in sexual addictions. My concern is that the picture of him in women's underwear confuses the difference between fetishes (which may be non-problematic behaviour for some people) and predatory violence, sadistic rapes and murder. Sexual addiction impacts at least 10% of the population and is a very difficult, shaming addiction for anybody to deal with. I fear that the fetish photos will increase shame, link fetishes to crime and drive underground those who need to seek help.
For me,the big missing aspect in the coverage of the Williams case, was some follow-up on what can be done in the way of prevention of violence against women. Do we just continue reporting murders of women without looking for a societal effort to reduce these murders by making sure boys and men are helped to deal with anger and or mental illness that lead them to commit violence against females.
Quesnel, British Columbia.
I think the media coverage has been excellent at providing the factual information of the Williams story. It's ridiculous to think that journalists need to censor information that's already made public by the investigators. Audiences need to start taking more responsibility in determining what they would like to hear and see. If you don't like what you hear or see in the media, turn the channel or look away. Too often horrific stories receive backlash because they make people feel uncomfortable. Audiences should feel uncomfortable. It's okay to feel fear and insecurity. It's what you do with these feelings that matters.
Press coverage of Russell Williams crimes were detailed enough to help us understand the facts. But, I sought more editorial or op-ed analysis/suggestions to work with the facts and then explore why and how such an individual would commit such a crime. With rare exception the print and radio media did not attempt to tackle the larger questions about the human condition as manifested by Williams' behaviour.
I want to know much more about Williams. I think he should be prevented from escaping into suicide. I think he should be interviewed and tested by psychologists and psychiatrists with a view to examining his life and his thought processes in great detail, until we can understand how this kind of behaviour begins, and how to change it. I do not believe that in his fantasies he escalated into murder. I expect he has been fantasizing about it for a long time. The thought is father to the deed. I want to know how this kind of behaviour starts, when it starts and why someone so capable in life did not ask for help to overcome his impulses. As for his "humiliation" or that of his family, maybe by publishing those pictures on the front page of The Star, some other guy like Williams will think twice before he decides to murder someone. Maybe the Williams case coverage will make some women wake up and take a good look at the man they are living with and their secrets. Human beings love to stick their heads in the sand. It is a grave error.
I feel the Canadian media did an excellent job of covering this story You where always made aware of what was going to be broadcast on CBC and you could decide whether you or your family where in an appropriate situation to recieve what was going to be broadcast. You also knew when the paper hit the mail box whether you possiably needed to hide that paper until the kids where in bed. If the top story of the day was the Leafs winning streak rather than this trial can you imagine how the victums and thier families would feel, they would think that we did not care. I know if it was my family I would want the public to know what this man did. I also feel the public are not focusing enough on how he was able to get to the level of a killer before the police where able to catch him. Maybe if there was more media on the break-ins or the assults he may have been caught before he killed Marie France or Jessica and their families would have been saved this horror
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
I too have been gripped by the unfolding story this week. Sometimes it seems obsessive. Yet, I have to wonder how this helps me. I am not comforted. I know that I, my daughters and women in general are vulnerable and continue to be potential victims by other evil people. I guess the only comfort I have is the knowledge that such an vile person is behind bars. Other than that, this seems to be another example of how powerless we can be. I wish the Comeau and Lloyd family peace.
It is not the job of the Media to censor what the public reads, sees or hears. It was not the media who committed these crimes in the manner they were done. If anything the media highlighted the fact the police did not take seriously or follow up closely the stealing of ladies' underwear. Nor did they appear to vigourously follow the sexual assaults. The lady who said she watches CSI but claims that is not real life is in great danger. Evidently she is going to wander through life with her head down, believing art is made up and isn't based on life. The Williams and other cases should give us a heads up attitude. While we don't have to be suspicious of everyone around us, we should be aware people are very complex animals and we should pay attention to things that do not add up. Have these cases not convinced mothers never to take their eyes off their children? Not convinced families to be alert to possibly inappropriate invitations to young women? All people are responsible for their own safety and you cannot guard against what you do not know exists.
McBride, British Columbia.
The fact that serial killers will be watching the coverage should be considered and exact details of how the victims were murdered should be blurred to avoid becoming "how to" instructions. The media has yet to comment that the Tories were right about reported crimes - less than 25% of the break-ins committed by this serial killer were reported to the police. Thank goodness the Supreme Court has had the good sense to exclude lawyers from interrogations.
I would like to know how we can possibly shield ourselves or our children from a person like Russell Williams, when his very intelligent wife didn't seem to have any idea of the type of person that he turned out to be. Supposedly they used the same computer, he had boxes of pilfered garments in both of their houses and yet she didn't seem to be aware. How could this happen?
I also think there were too many details and that is was really unnecessarily sensationalized. What I want to talk about though is these women who keep claiming they are scared to talk to people or take a walk. Are you serious? This is an obviously rare occurance. I am a woman and I don't walk down the street scared or assume random strangers are going to do bad things to me.
Radio and Television may be "passive" media, but they do have an off button. I got as much detail as I wanted this week and that was less than as was available. I could be as informed as I wanted and then turn off the radio when I'd had enough. We have to take responsibility ourselves for this. If we think too much detail is reported, it can only be because we, as a society, want that, or even need it. Second, on the point of the caller who said that such a sensational case of random violence has the danger of taking the focus off the real issue of violence against women: one had nothing to do with the other. This was a case of a psycopath. Unless you are in a women's studies class, I don't think everything needs to be examined through that lense. Lastly, on the idea that simply having the radio on we can inadvertently expose our children to such graphic details as were reported this week. Yes that is true. But this is definitely not limited to such a rare case as this. I had to do far more explaining this week to my kids about the newborn left in a Calgary dumpster. Our world is mostly good, but some bad things can happen. Either be ready to explain it all, or wait till the kids are in bed to watch the news. We have to take personal responsibility for what we consume and that certainly includes media. I think it is good that these details come out, as it leaves no question of what happened. Far worse for things to be covered up and if it's too much for an individual at any time, then turn it off.