A proposed series of programs about Paul Bernardo by the fifth estate has divided the staff of the CBC’s flagship investigative TV program and outraged women’s rights advocates, who say it is unconscionable that the serial rapist and murderer might be given a national platform.
Producers envisioned that the episodes, part of a bid to shore up the program’s falling ratings, would include interviews with Mr. Bernardo and his ex-wife and accomplice, Karla Homolka, according to a source.
But some of the staff criticized the plans after they learned of them last month. “I’ll confirm there was a staff meeting, and I’ll confirm there was a discussion about a proposed Bernardo series, and that I was opposed to it,” said Gillian Findlay, one of the program’s three hosts.
The source, a CBC employee with knowledge of the staff meeting, told The Globe and Mail that many of those who attended expressed displeasure at the idea. The Globe has granted anonymity to the source because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The show is under pressure to boost ratings after its overall viewership declined 16 per cent last season, according to an internal strategy document seen by The Globe and Mail. The average audience for any given minute of the weekly one-hour show, broadcast on Sundays at 9 p.m., fell to 326,000, with average viewing time dropping by two minutes from the previous season, to 20 minutes.
Mr. Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the abduction, sexual assault and murders of Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15, in 1991 and 1992. (He did not face trial in the 1990 death of Tammy Homolka, the sister of his then-fiancée.) He also admitted raping more than a dozen women between 1987 and 1990, for which charges were withdrawn as part of court proceedings.
Last year, he applied for parole for the first time and was denied.
The proposed series, which the source said could include as many as four episodes, would be at the centre of a push for what the strategy document calls “engaged viewers,” who might discuss it on social media.
In response to questions from The Globe, Catherine Legge, executive producer of the fifth estate, said in an e-mail: “As you might anticipate, we would never comment on any story that is still in the formative stages. That said, the bar for any story must meet the public interest.”
One women’s rights advocate said the proposed series could retraumatize those who were sexually assaulted by Mr. Bernardo. “We focus on the three murders – which we should – but there’s also at least a dozen or more sexual-assault victims who are very much alive, who are going to have to relive this, not to mention the family members of the women who were killed,” Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based public educator, said in an interview. “I don’t want to speak for them, but I cannot imagine them finding this to be a beneficial conversation. To have their lives thrown back into the spotlight.”
In an e-mail seeking an interview sent to a Toronto activist and obtained by The Globe, a fifth estate producer compared the proposed series to popular true-crime documentaries. “We’ve seen the benefits of recent documentary series re-visiting historic and culture-defining criminal cases like the O.J. Simpson double homicide trial and the two Lorena Bobbitt trials," the e-mail said. "Despite an intense media spotlight on stories like these at the time, we’re discovering that re-examining the case through today’s lens is especially enlightening.”
The e-mail notes that the intent is not “to further sensationalize these crimes. ... The multi-episode program we are producing will focus on the crimes, but more importantly, we will explore the impact and lessons learned in the quarter-century since Bernardo’s and Homolka’s arrests and trials. This will be a fresh perspective. We are exploring the lasting impacts on everything and everyone, including the victims, police, the legal community, the media and society in general. As you can appreciate, many issues related to the crimes still echo all these years later.”
Ms. Lalonde said that, while the goal may be laudable, the series would do more harm than good. “This idea that, in the MeToo era, there’s value in revisiting the story – looking at police negligence for example, legal system failures, survivors not being believed, culturally – we can absolutely have that conversation without focusing on Bernardo. There have been literally millions of stories shared over the last two years of MeToo that could have been launching points for conversations around those very things. Centering it around him just feels like sensationalizing a case, and really jumping on the true-crime bandwagon.”
The Toronto activist and educator Jane Doe called the proposed series “intellectually dishonest. It’s an attempt to provide a feminist context for a serial killer and rapist.”
Deb Singh, an advocate with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape, whose staff declined a request to participate in the series, said she was at a loss to understand how it could be beneficial. “I’ve learned a lot of information about one of the most heinous criminals in Canada,” she said, speaking of the coverage of Mr. Bernardo’s crimes and their aftermath. “But has any of that information taught people about ending sexual violence? There’s a million cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, how come they’re not picking up any of those stories?”
Ms. Legge, who became executive producer of the fifth estate in April, presented the strategy document to staff last month. It outlines how the program would attempt to rejuvenate its ratings as it launches its 45th season on Sept. 22.
The document outlines a three-step process to build appointment viewing: a challenging task as audiences gravitate from scheduled broadcasts to on-demand. “Step 1: We find engaged viewers through social media who are already deep in conversation. Step 2: Instead of joining it with one story, we promise a cluster of stories from different angles that expand the conversation. Step 3: ‘Investigative’ directs the conversation, creating news – and social buzz by taking it where few media go, to accountability.”
Another page of the document notes that Sunday at 9 p.m. is known for premium television, and that luring viewers away from services such as HBO requires "HIGH QUALITY, DRAMATIC TWISTS + TURNS.”
The document also notes that another goal is to build relationships “with Canadian influencers.”