(A version of this story was originally published in The Vancouver Sun in 1997 when Clifford Olson was applying for parole under Canada’s “faint hope” clause. I’ve resisted the temptation to update it — although if I can find a piece I wrote about how Olson changed Vancouver for the uglier I’ll post that too.)
Clifford Olson almost ended my journalism career.
I was working as a student intern at the Vancouver Province and the child-killings were such a huge story that the paper had hired two new reporters specifically to cover it. The story was everywhere and I was trying my best to avoid reading a word about it. I even made a point of discreetly slipping upstairs to grab a pop whenever the other journalists started talking about the unpublished and unpublishable aspects of the case. I knew how many kids had been murdered, but I couldn’t see any reason to wallow in the details.
Then, one night as I was about to leave the newsroom, the editor approached my desk and asked if I’d like to put in some overtime. He barely had time to finish asking the question. Overtime – more money and the chance to do another story, the chance to prove I had what it took to be a professional journalist. I was thrilled. “What’s the story?”
“Clifford Olson,” he said and, thinking back, I suspect he felt he was offering me a present. This was, after all, the story of the year.
And before I had time to think about what the word would mean to any future career aspirations out popped: “no.”
I’m not sure which of us was more stunned — the editor or me. “What do you mean, no?”
At this point I realized I was committing the journalistic equivalent of treason, but it was too late to back down. “I mean no.” When he’d said “Olson,” the only image that ran through my head was doing one of those horrid stories that involved phoning up one of the parents and asking them some inane question about how they felt in the hopes that they’d burst into tears. Their kid is dead, how do you think they feel? I didn’t care if it meant my job – or my career – I was not going to phone a grieving parent for a quote.
The editor, who still appeared to be in shock, asked me why I was refusing an assignment.
Since I was certain I no longer had a job the words just flew out. “Because I think the coverage of the case is obscene. It’s sensationalistic and sick and I don’t see why –“
And then my boss did something I have never seen a grown man do before or since – he stuck his fingers in his ears and he started to hum. He didn’t remove his fingers until I stopped my speech and started to laugh.
“I will take that from a member of the public,” he said. “I will not take that from a member of my staff.”
I was stunned to discover that I was still a member of his staff. Then he told me the Olson story was important — and obscene — and reassured me that I wouldn’t have to interview anyone. The assignment was a simple “match” – which is a polite journalistic term for plagiarizing someone else’s news story. In this case the story was from one of the TV newscasts where Olson’s wife had announced she was not returning the $100,000 that Olson had been paid for the location of the bodies.
I wrote the story. But I decided that night that I never wanted to be on staff at a newspaper because I never wanted to be forced to write the type of story that dozens of reporters are covering this week.
In the years since his arrest Olson has become the great Canadian bogeyman. He’s the poster boy for any campaign to bring back capitol punishment and, in one of the most ghoulish election stunts in Canadian history, his face even turned up on campaign billboards in an attempt to dump Liberals who had voted against abolishing the “faint hope clause” that allowed him to fly back to B.C. and put on his big show.
That’s why there is nothing about this trial that is likely to make anybody happy besides Olson. The police could have flown him out in the same sort of contraption Hannibal Lecter was strapped into in Silence of the Lambs and most people would still complain that he was being treated too humanely. I half expect the jurors to ignore whatever instructions the judge gives them about their duty and not only refuse his chance of early parole, but put forward a motion to hang him.
If Olson is your test case when you’re examining the Canadian justice system it’s easy to declare the system a farce. After all, even Olson has recognized that no jury in the world will ever let him out of jail. But what’s easy to forget as Olson leers from the pages of the paper is that there is something particularly unique about his case beyond the heinous nature of his crimes. He was not only found guilty, he confessed and, after receiving that $100,000 I hated writing about, he even acknowledged where the bodies were buried.
Imagine how neatly the justice system could be run if every criminal were so obviously and proudly guilty. But the reason “faint hope” clauses and parole boards and appeal processes exist aren’t just for the enjoyment of Olson, but for the protection of people like David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.
There are plenty of serious problems with the Canadian justice system, but using Olson as the example of a “typical” criminal case is about as dubious as claiming that everyone in jail was framed by the Saskatchewan RCMP.
As for the way the media is reporting on the Olson circus, it’s hard to tell if they have a choice — not just because of the crimes, but because of the way the event has been politicized. I’m certainly not outraged by the coverage the way I was when he was caught – but maybe that’s because the world has gotten scarier since then and obscene murder stories are now a standard dish on the media diet. I suppose we should all be grateful that Newsworld didn’t go to court to demand the chance to broadcast the trial. After all, if this were an American case it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t be dominating the airwaves on CNN.
But just because it’s on the air – or in the papers – doesn’t mean you’re obligated to pay attention.
I wonder how many of the reporters assigned to sit in that Surrey courtroom wish they could just stick their fingers in their ears and hum.