Crime and broadcasting

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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A man beaten with a crowbar by thugs during a home invasion, a shot-gun goes off, one of the alleged “perps” is killed, there’s a “takedown” hours later by a SWAT team.

For the briefest of moments, I could have sworn I was still in New Jersey visiting my expatriate Newfoundland parents, that I was watching “Action News” out of Philadelphia.

But no siree, Bob.

I was, indeed, back in peaceful Newfoundland, sitting down in front of the boob tube taking in our own “Here and Now.” And that tough-looking character with the tattoo near his eye and another on his neck was a Newfoundlander, charged with murder, and this was coverage of the latest frightening example of extreme  violence in the City of Legends.

Welcome home!

We’ve been told fairly consistently over the years by cops and the Justice Department types, as well as the MUN crowd who study these matters, that the crime rate hasn’t really escalated to any great degree in Newfoundland.

As the theory goes, the medium of television has become obsessed with the bang-bang stuff, and the public merely perceives, as a result of a ratings grab by those yellow journalists, that we’re getting as bad as some of the satanic locales west of Port aux Basques.

Now, there’s no doubt court news and the justice beat have become a relatively new staple of local television news.

Forever and a day, it was part and parcel of newspaper work.

The print types had a monopoly (when I was still on my first typewriter, there was always someone assigned to the court beat at The Evening Telegram and The Daily News).

And I have to take some of the credit, or blame, depending on your perspective, for the nightly collection of police sirens on television.

One of the first decisions I made when taking over as head of the “Here and Now” newsroom, way back in ’89, was assigning a reporter full-time to the provincial and federal court system.

It hadn’t been tried before, and it turned out to be a successful move (if I do say so myself, reflecting once again here my extreme bias and massive ego).

There was an abundance of great stories in the corridors of the courthouses, and it seemed patently foolish to let the print guys and gals have those yarns all to themselves.

At least that was my philosophy, and I ignored the scattered detractor within the CBC operation, mostly news snobs who believed cops and robbers were beneath both themselves and the public broadcasting mandate. (Ironically, we had been derelict in our responsibility by largely ignoring a significant segment of society.)     

There’s a difference between then and now, though: I wasn’t comfortable allowing one story after another from court to dominate the news package.

Yes, court news was an integral part of the news-gathering operation, but there were other, equally important beats as well (to say nothing of what I felt was an obligation to include a healthy, nightly dose of analysis and contextual journalism, largely missing these days for consumers of the supper-hour programs). 

But — and it’s a significant “but” — there’s another, even more important change: I can’t ever remember during my time as a reporter and television producer when so many of the crimes being reported were as consistently vicious as they now appear to be.

Back in the ’70s, it was banner headline time if an armed robbery occurred in which a knife was used. Now, it’s commonplace.

I can recall covering the aftermath of an armed robbery at a Royal Bank outlet in Kelligrews — Shannon Murrin, one of Newfoundland’s more infamous and colourful outlaws, was the culprit — and it was the story of the year. We weren’t used to it.

But now there seems to be an uncomfortable dose of violent crimes, particularly on the Avalon. Perhaps it’s due to an escalation in drug trafficking. Perhaps it’s the price we’re paying for oil and our “have” status. I don’t really know.

But there’s “something happening here,” to quote an ancient rock song, that has given Newfoundlanders reason for concern.

So rather than adopting an “Action News” look-alike, delivering one story after another of too often the most minor of cop stuff (even fender-benders sometimes make the lineup), maybe the television crowd should be doing more to investigate the reasons for such a stunning litany of shocking crimes.

It’s certainly a hot topic of discussion (everybody and his mother were yakking about that botched robbery).

And that’s reason enough to take the crime story deeper. 

Having said all that, guns and knives weren’t on my mind when my flight landed in Newfoundland from the States a couple of weeks ago.

I was just glad to be home, and enjoyed that same tingling of relief I seem to get whenever I realize we’re on our final descent into St. John’s. 

And the local gangsters will never take that away, even if, for a few seconds, they had me thinking I was still hanging out near Philadelphia. 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Justice Department, The Evening Telegram, Daily News CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Philadelphia, New Jersey Legends Port aux Basques Kelligrews

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  • David
    July 31, 2011 - 11:20

    Well stated. The question that remains is; what are reasons the ganstas of Philadelphia came to be and is it related to the growing conditions that allow the ganstas here to suddenly exist on a smaller scale? What went wrong south of the border is an imperitive question for Canada as a whole to wrestle with. Dr. David R.F. Day