Too much information?
Posted on October 20, 2010
For those who haven’t been following the case of Colonel Russell Williams which is being heard in an Ontario court this week, and who are therefore wondering what on earth a picture of women’s underwear is doing on my blog, the picture on the left is one of the evidence photos that the court has opted to release to the press. And I’ll be honest, I thought long and hard about the appropriateness of using this photo here, but given the fact that this is probably one of the least shocking images that’s been published by those covering this story, and being as this piece is about the sheer amount of information and imagery that’s been allowed into the public domain about this case, I decided to go ahead and use it.
But I won’t pretend that the question of whether or not to use the picture hasn’t caused a bit of a dilemma for me, as has the issue of how much of the information I’m discussing here I should actually link to. In fact I did consider not putting any links into this piece, but at the end of the day I’m a blogger, and it’s my belief, and it’s also written into the unwritten bloggers’ code of conduct, that all sources used should be acknowledged, and all quotes used should be attributable. So, to cut a long story short, there will be links. But please be aware, there isn’t a trigger warning in the world that’s big enough to stick on some of the information that’s available about the Williams case, and some of the links in this piece will take you to some of that stuff.
Now with all that out of the way: who the hell, you’re probably wondering, is Colonel Russell Williams.
Well, up until February of this year, Colonel Russell Williams was a highly respected and much decorated Colonel in the Canadian Air Force. He was the base commander at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Canada’s largest and busiest airbase, a man who, during his distinguished career, had been entrusted amongst other things with flying the Queen, Prince Philip and other foreign dignitaries around when they’d visited the country.
On Monday of this week however, Colonel Russell Williams pleaded guilty to 82 counts of breaking and entering and attempted breaking and entering, two counts of forcible confinement and sexual assault, and to the murders of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd.
By the end of the week Williams will have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years.
In a move that’s led to much debate in the Canadian press, the judge in the case decided to allow the media to live blog and live tweet from the courtroom: they were allowed to take smartphones and laptops into the courtroom with them. The media was also allowed access to, and given permission to publish, more information than courts would usually allow into the public domain.
So for instance, google Colonel Russell Williams and you can find on the web (or on the Daily Mail website) some of the thousands upon thousands of photos Williams took of himself posing in the bras and pants he removed as trophies from the homes of the women and girls he targeted (many of whom, incidentally, hadn’t even been aware that they had had their homes broken into, their underwear stolen, or a man masturbating over their beds or their clothes or whatever, until after Williams had been caught – in some cases as long as two years after the actual offences had been committed).
Similarly you can google Colonel Russell Williams and read step by step accounts of the two sexual assaults, as well as quite shockingly graphic accounts of the two horrific murders, including such details as the victims’ last words, or what exactly they’d said to him when they were pleading for their lives.
Did I mention that Williams recorded everything he did? By which I mean, did I mention that aside from the thousands upon thousands of photos he took, Williams also filmed the assaults; he filmed exactly what he did to those poor women, and then stored all of the films, and the photos, and the underwear, back at his house. And he kept a log of all the crimes he committed. Thankfully it was decided that there was no justification for showing the films in court, or the photos of the assaults and murders, as it was deemed that descriptions of what they contained were enough.
The question that’s now being asked though, following the torrent of quite disturbing information that’s been released, is why? Not why did he do it – obviously that one goes without saying and he’ll no doubt be the subject of much psychological and criminological analysis for years to come; but why so much information? What public good can possibly be served by those of us on the outside knowing so much of the detail of this case? After all, Williams confessed to his crimes, he pleaded guilty, the court could quite easily have sentenced him without needing to hear all of this evidence.
As the Toronto Star said yesterday:
“Prosecutors had a full confession on the table and could have swiftly put the shamed military commander behind bars. A life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years is guaranteed no matter how much the public learns about the string of sex crimes, and a flood of information won’t change the outcome for Williams or his victims.”
According to one of the officers involved, “the purpose of presenting such graphic evidence in court, was to give a clear picture of Williams if he ever applies for parole, which he can’t do for 25 years.”
While Adam Boni, who “worked as a federal prosecutor before turning to criminal law defence in Toronto…says the Crown may have wanted the public to know as much as possible to ensure that the scope of Williams’ crimes is understood. “It is clear that the Crown is wanting to provide the community with a very graphic snapshot not only of the types of crimes committed but of the psychology that was at play in the commission of these offences,” he said
The Star also quotes Ontario Provincial Police Det. Insp. Chris Nicholas, the lead investigator in the case, as saying: “Today the nation is getting a good dose of reality of just how evil people can be.”
To be honest I’m really conflicted about this. On one hand I do think it’s important for people to understand the horrific acts some people are capable of perpetrating against others. But on the other, I think there is such a thing as too much information, and I think the Canadian court and the Canadian media have come close to crossing, if not crossed altogether, the line between a public’s need to know and the individual’s right to privacy and dignity – in this case obviously the individuals I’m talking about are the two murder victims, who were afforded absolutely no dignity in their final hours, but who could maybe have been granted a bit more dignity than the courts have allowed after their deaths.
What has impressed me about the Candian media’s reporting though has been their willingness to ask these questions of themselves, and also their willingness to both have the debate with their readers and to warn readers about the graphic nature of the imagery and accounts they’re publishing.
Here’s CBC News for example:
“For the past week or more, journalists at CBC News have met in small groups, anticipating covering the Col. Russell Williams court proceedings.
We knew the hearing would be disturbing, and we knew we would have access to more material than usual in these kinds of proceedings. It is rare we get permission to report live from inside a courtroom. How would we cover it?
But really, the first question is “Why do we cover it?”
We cover it because we can be your eyes and ears in a courtroom, and we are committed to as open a justice system as possible.
We cover it because there is a strong public interest (and yes, maybe some of it is prurient) as well as a real need to understand how someone in a position of such authority, a senior member of the Canadian armed forces, could also commit these crimes. And no one seemed to suspect a double life.
The reality turned out to be more shocking than any of us knew.
The juxtaposed images of a man in full military uniform and the same man in young girl’s lingerie is an extraordinary illustration of someone who lived a double life.
Ours is a minimalist approach; we want to reflect reality using as few details as possible. So we showed one full photo of Williams posing for his camera in women’s underwear, and others that were cropped to the head and shoulders, to convey his demeanor. And remember, the photos we have access to, provided to Canadian media agencies by justice officials in the interest of openness, are benign compared to the exhibits those sitting in the courtroom have seen.
On another note, I have just followed all the testimony about the death of Cpl. Marie France Comeau, presented Tuesday morning.
What you have read is only a fraction of the detail supplied. We continue to struggle with the right balance in what we choose to post and air. Some of the choices are governed by our journalistic principles and purpose as a public broadcaster; some by our own very human reactions.
Esther Enkin is the executive editor of CBC News.”
Incidentally, on the Daily Mail piece I linked to earlier there was no warning given to readers about either the content of the piece or of the photos, whereas the Canadian press has consistently carried warnings such as:
“Editor’s Note: Readers may find photos in this gallery to be troubling. As part of our coverage, the Citizen is posting photos that capture the essence of the crimes of Colonel Russell Williams without being gratuitous. We are doing this because we believe it is vital that the true nature of his crimes be revealed to contribute to an understanding of the proceeding against him and his sentencing.”
“A note to our readers: Citizen reporters and editors are live-blogging from the Belleville courthouse, where Col. Russell Williams pleaded guilty on Monday to numerous criminal charges, including two counts of first-degree murder. Please be advised that some of the testimony revealed in court, and reported here, is expected to be extremely graphic.”
The Ottowa Citizen
But anyway, what do you think? Do you think the court was right to release so much information and that the Canadian press were right to publish it all, or do you think that there is such a thing as too much information, and that there are some details we really don’t need to know?