To Know or Not to Know

Is it ever legitimate to tell – and sell – stories about Crime? I am a journalist and broadcaster sometimes working on ‘Crime’ programming and I ask that question every day.

And so I should.

will head and shoulders
Will Hanrahan

Questioning the purpose of our TV programmes has to be a daily occurrence.

Much of my creative work is now spent making documentaries about crimes and criminals. Various documentary titles have been launched by my TV company, firstlooktv. Titles like Evil Up Close, ‘Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer’ and my latest series ‘Stalkers who Kill’.  There is a demand for the material – viewers, mostly women, watch in their millions across the globe and Criminologists aplenty are on hand to comment on a case or a growing Crime trend. Today that ‘trend’ is Stalking or perhaps ‘Catfishing’ – masquerading behind an Online Avatar or identity.

Yesterday it was something else, tomorrow yet more crimes will be visited upon us.

Crime touches all of our lives.

Take a trip to the website of most Universities and you will find a Criminology department. Go to the bookstore and you can browse the bulging fact and fiction shelves for Crimes and Criminals.

There is a queue of broadcasters wanting to know more about FirstLook’s next ‘crime’ series.

But should I pander to this market? I have sleepless nights asking that question. Does my programming serve a purpose, or is it voyeuristic and exploitative?

Well, here’s why it is not.

There are three ways this programming is purposeful. The first is that it acts as a warning to us all of what dangers we, or our loved ones, face. Forewarned is forearmed.

The second is an old maxim we hear when we study Law and/or Journalism. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. If we keep secret the crimes of those who do us wrong, should we fail to let the world know how those wrongdoers were caught, and how they have been punished, there is no transparent justice.

And without Justice, where is the hope? Life would be short, nasty and brutish without the Law and without the Justice ‘machine’ that regulates it.

But the third and most important purpose is about the victim. They have suffered, they may be dead. They have been wronged. Their story  should be told. Indeed, it is the victim’s voice that that should be the loudest. And if they cannot make manifest their sound, then it is for us to do so for them.

Programme-makers and journalists; we are the witnesses to what happens to victims of crime. We are the story-tellers. the role we play, the task we fulfil is legitimate.

I always try to dialogue with family members of those who have suffered. A typical exchange with one parent began with me asking, am I right to make this programme about your daughter? If you say ‘no’, I will not make it.

He said, and this was the hardest part of all for me;  ‘It is up to you. You seem to be battling with your conscience, what does it tell you?’

The parent then sent me photographs of the wonderful young woman who been killed by an ‘ex-partner’ Stalker. ‘Gemma’ was ‘complex’, her sister later told me. ‘Different’ from the norm, and very loud.

I decided Gemma would have wanted the programme to be made. The family advised me and were given a copy of the script before we edited. Gemma’s voice would be heard through an actress, her story would be told and the family is steeling itself to one day watch.

A lady in California has become a regular email correspondent with me. ‘Carla’s’ daughter Leslie suffered the same fate as Gemma – killed by an ex-partner. Leslie was so enmeshed in the will of her one-time boyfriend that she even put up bail for his release from custody. He was awaiting trial for the kind of abuse Leslie had suffered.

He killed her three days later.

This is part of a note from Leslie’s mother – a mother who is determined not to let the memory of her daughter fade.

‘ I just want everyone to know that Leslie was a vibrant and strong person. She had a charisma about her that affected everyone she met. She lived, loved and laughed hard. If she was your friend she would do anything for you. Leslie’s friends took off work and attended the trial everyday they could. Leslie lived in Yolo County and worked in Vacaville…both city councils took a day off from doing any business in her honor. There were over 350 people at her service, the church parish was packed with standing room only.’

So, so far my conscience is clear. But there is another perspective.

Some family members react negatively to the idea that their murdered loved-one should become the focus of a TV documentary. One evening., the brother of one murdered innocent became mildly abusive to me for suggesting such a programme. His family had suffered, his brother’s life had been taken. His grief is still raw and will probably remain so for a very long time – perhaps forever. If having a go at me in anyway makes him less angry with what has happened, then I will pay that small price.

However, that same night BBC THREE aired a documentary about the remarkable young man Breck Bednar. Breck’s life had been violently taken by an odious man now serving life. The killer had used the internet to groom his victim;  he had hidden in the labyrinth of the Web – the platform of choice for 21st century Stalkers.

Breck’s mother, the inspiring Loren LaFave, worked with us one our series Stalkers Who Kill.

breck with mom as a baby
Lorin and her then newly born son, Breck.

Michigan born-and-raised, she moved to London and decided to stay given how safe it was compared to home.

“There are too many guns around in the States and I hate guns, so we stayed in England.’

But the internet knows no national boundaries and, masquerading as a New York-based FBI agent, Breck’s killer slowly won the teenager’s confidence. Lorin could not have been more assiduous about warning her son of the dangers of trusting people on the internet. She even called in the Police. They felt powerless to intervene. Not enough evidence of Harassment perhaps?

Or, in my view, not enough knowledge about the predictable escalation in violence which becomes a pattern of online and offline harassment.

Faced with the criticism from the family of the other young man killed, the one who had urged me not to make a documentary about his brother, I stepped away. However, their son and brother had suffered the same fate as Breck; the same patten of emerging harassment via the internet. Would more knowledge of the detail of how these crimes happen have been helpful? I think it would. What evil happens in the world should be known of. If we are informed, we can make rational choices.

Making TV programmes will not bring our loved ones back – but watching them will ensure some people are sufficiently briefed to help protect others. Lives may be saved.

That is the view of those who helped make our latest series, and it is mine too.

Stalkers Who Kill airs on CBS Reality across Europe in Spring 2016. It has been produced by FirstLookTV and DcD Rights.

The National Stalking Helpline, established in part by an advisor we have worked with – Tracey Morgan – can be found here: http://www.stalkinghelpline.org/

The Breck Bednar Foundation which promotes safer gaming online, can be found here: http://www.breckfoundation.org/

If you are on Facebook, search for CaliesCarnival and see how the work of a group of women is helping support a little girl whose mother was taken from her.

Is it legitimate to tell – and sell – stories about Crime? For me, yes.

I’d rather know than not know.