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Crime and punishment and the Canadian way

Over at the Prime Minister's Office, such as it is for now, they monitor the media pretty closely. Take the pulse of the nation kind of thing.

Time was, the PMO paid close attention to this newspaper, CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson and The National on CBC. Prestigious, serious publications and news broadcasts. But not so much in recent years. These days, the big local TV news shows are studied closely along with national or big-city radio phone-in shows.

The sort of newscasts that always open with a crime story and feature appalled locals declaring that they felt they lived in a nice neighbourhood, but, now this happens. Something oughta be done. The sort of phone-in shows that feed off the fears and resentments, usually of men, the sort of men who feel there oughta be a law to ban or enforce this or that.

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Thus, the PMO knows how to sell policies and initiatives that speak to fears, resentments and the suspicions of a great swathe of Canadians. (Trust me on this stuff about the PMO, I have it from an excellent source.) And hence the emphasis on crime and punishment that we are likely to see in the (apparently) forthcoming election. A lot of people have vague fears about crime. They feel less secure and safe even as some experts point to statistics that say violent crime is declining.

Crime-and-punishment stories make for excellent television. Big emotions and blood. The answers seem easy. That's why the PMO plays close attention. Two big-ticket items airing today and tomorrow help illustrate the issue of crime and punishment and the Canadian conundrum on the matter.

The Gangster Next Door (CBC-TV, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is an alarming portrait of a portion of British Columbia traumatized by gang violence. We're told at the start that the image of laidback, beautiful British Columbia has "taken a beating," told that quiet neighbourhoods have turned into gang-war zones and that the gang war involves young men from middle-class families.

From there, what emerges is a pretty terrifying snapshot of the last few years and the brutal, seemingly random violence and killings that were the hallmarks of a drug-gang war that escalated sharply in 2006 and became internationally notorious after the multiple murders called "the Surrey Six slaughter" in 2007. It was worst gangland slaying in B.C. history. Two of the six victims were innocent bystanders.

The documentary (produced by David Brady) is excellent television - gripping, detailed, colourful and emotionally charged. We get a picture - 130 organized-crime organizations in B.C., the "greedy young gangsters" at the core of the situation, members of the UN gang and Red Scorpions, the brutal killers still living at home with their middle-class parents. We hear from the cops who are emphatic about the huge scale of the problem. We see take-downs and crime scenes.

There is much to take away from it. Possibly the remark that some of these gang members are " kids in search of family and leadership." But what many people will take away is the sight of Eileen Mohan, whose son was an innocent victim in that Surrey Six slaughter, raging against the justice system, saying of the gang members, "Judges give them priority, against us. They have more rights than we do."

Thing is, it's that remark and Mohan's understandable sorrow and rage that will linger. It works as a powerful tale on TV, but don't we need to ask if it's the whole story - the one with nuance? Ask yourself if it is necessary to go beyond the emotionally charged story.

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My Friend the Bank Robber is what the fifth estate (Friday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is called this week. It is the fifth's Bob McKeown's very personal take on the life and crimes of "the always fascinating, charismatic, and confounding Stephen Reid." That's Reid the bank robber. McKeown says, "I've known Stephen Reid since we were both in our early 20s ... Our lives have intersected many times since then. In a way, his story is also mine."

It certainly is a gripping and, ultimately, deeply saddening story. We get the full tale of Reid's career as an expert robber, prison escaper, reformed convict, best-selling author, and apparently happy father and husband. We also hear some bits of Reid's talks about the justice system, in which he suggests that it is more useful to society to sentence a bank robber to five years in jail, not ten.

But that is in the past. What happened to Reid is as shocking as his rehabilitation once seemed glorious. Secrets are shared here. Reid's wife Susan Musgrave appears at times to be as devastated as Eileen Mohan is in The Gangster Next Door.

Both stories make an extraordinary package, a series of insights into how we view criminals and what we expect a justice system to do for them, and for us. Watch both and as you watch remember that the PMO plays very close attention to these stories and how viewers react to it.

By the way, and not unconnected for Friday viewing - seeing as we mentioned the PMO here and all - take note of an APTN special. Last week APTN National News led the story of how Bruce Carson - a former PMO staffer and senior adviser to the Prime Minister - allegedly lobbied the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to get water contracts potentially worth millions of dollars for an Ottawa-based water company that employed his fiancée, the former escort, Michele McPherson. APTN Investigates (Friday, APTN, 6 p.m.) goes into further details on the story.

Check local listings.

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