Stephen’s blog

Stephen William's Blog
BuiltWithNOF
See No Evil II

WRITER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST, SOLIPSIST, FALLIBILIST

His book would be more like The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer, or In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. As if impelled by an urge toward self­destruction, he actually bandied around Mailer's and Capote's names, setting a standard for himself that no one could reach with a first book. Reviewers judged him by that standard and found him wanting. ”Truman Capote he’s not” said the heading on the review transmitted by the Canadian Press. (Although I doubt anyone who works for Canadian Press has ever read Truman Capote.)

Something else was wrong with Invisible Darkness: Williams apparently couldn't decide whether he had a theme. In his prologue he reported that in the period 1980-1996 "well over a hundred unsolved sex slayings of young women" had occurred in upper New York state and southwestern Ontario, within 160 kilometers of the Niagara Falls area where Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French were killed. He then wrote: "Some criminologists think so many remain unsolved because no one in law enforcement will even consider the idea that women are involved with the sex and death of other women."

That sounded like a theme, and maybe a moral. But the idea rarely reappeared in the body of the book, and Williams says today: "I don't think Karla represents any thing I don't think she represents a trend."

Howard Engel, reviewing the book in “Maclean's” (he, too, compared it unfavorably with Capote and Mailer), found the thematic approach puzzling, as though Williams were "still confused, standing in the center of a prodigious mountain of material and unable to find his way through it."

Williams did find his way through it; what he didn't figure out was where, if anywhere, it pointed him. Perhaps all a reader could say for sure, having read the book, was that the police had misjudged Homolka and botched the case against her. This may have annoyed those who were responsible for the kindness to Homolka. Possibly it was one reason for the troubles that have befallen Stephen Williams in the past eighteen months.

On January 6, 1998, the heading on Heather Bird's column in the Toronto Sun said ”Ban Broken on Homolka Tapes?” She reported that Stephen Williams had told her in a telephone conversation that he had seen the forbidden tapes. She also cited certain passages in his book were apparently based on a viewing of the tapes. Williams immediately denied that he had seen them, and that he had said he had. In her column the next day Bird wrote: "So, did he or didn't he see those tapes? I honestly don't know. But I do know that he told me he did."

The Mahaffy and French families remain anxious to have the tapes destroyed and have been pursuing that goal in the courts and elsewhere. Their lawyer, Tim Danson, had been suggesting that the Ontario Provincial Police look into the source of Williams's knowledge. Heather Bird's column gave the police a reason to do so, and they began an investigation of Williams that lasted for much of 1998. In October they finally charged him.

Williams, pleading not guilty, argues that the charge is ridiculous: some lawyer or a police officer "would have had to have shown them to me. Why would any professional, with their career and pension at stake, bother to do such a thing?" On the other hand, someone, or several people, gave Williams information privately. And it maybe that the police and the attorney general's department want the identity of such persons and hope Williams, in the course of defending himself, will tell how he knows what he knows. Otherwise, it's hard to see any point in the charge.

Bringing the charge against him now, three years after the book was published, means reviving a passage in Ontario history that most people want to forget. For the Mahaffy and French families, it may be disastrous. Far from burying the tapes, the Williams case likely will focus renewed attention on them, ensuring they will be seen by more people. And though Williams doesn't welcome the irritation of the case, or the time he has lost to it, the Crown has raised the profile of his book. As Alan Young says, "It seems to me the officials have done Stephen a big favour. They are going to take a fairly obscure book and make it famous. Stephen's book came out when the public was sated, and I don't think it sold particularly well. Now people are going to say, 'I want to read the book the government is afraid of.' "

Young argues that the case against his client should have to be proven by direct evidence: a witness who saw Williams watching the tapes, or a confession from Williams that he did so. But the Crown bases its argument on what literary that critics call internal evidence. While Williams says he drew his evidence from other sources, the prosecution will argue that Invisible Darkness contains twenty seven passages based on facts he couldn't have obtained without seeing the forbidden tapes. The main witness against Williams is his own book.

The case won't come to trial before October, but on June 21 Young will present a motion arguing that the book should be excluded as evidence. To use it in court, Young says, "imposes a tactical burden on the author to reveal sources."By entering the book as evidence, the Crown forces Williams to appear and perhaps incriminate himself. Young believes the tapes should be permanently sealed, but if the book is used in court he will need to show the tapes to compare them with the book and the Crown's claims. If his motion to exclude the book succeeds, however, he probably won't need to bring the tapes into court.

The larger issue concerns Williams's right to keep the identities of his sources secret. As Young says, "I want to establish a qualified privilege in which writers are constitutionally entitled to take their sources to the grave." And in that way, Regina vs. Stephen Williams raises an issue that journalists and their lawyers have been talking about for decades.

The power of the courts is grounded in compulsory disclosure. To take from them the right to subpoena evidence and prevent them from forcing witnesses to answer questions would be to strip them of their ability to function. For example, the many cases brought against tobacco companies in the United States during the past ten years would have been impossible if the courts had lacked the power to make them produce internal documents on such matters as the habit forming power of nicotine. No journalist would dispute this, but many journalists say: make us the exception, because the work we do is so important that we should be placed outside ordinary rules.

Canada offers journalists no such protection at the moment, but there is a possibility that a judge, sometime soon, will decide that the Charter of Rights should be extended to cover the silence of reporters. In such matters Canada often follows the U.S., and in recent years thirty American states and the District of Columbia have passed one version or another of a law to shield reporters from the need to disclose their sources on command,

Journalists tend to see this issue as a matter of life or death for free speech. In an affidavit prepared for the Williams case, Tom Goldstein, Dean of Journalism at Columbia University, describes himself as an absolutist on journalistic privilege: in his view, journalists who have promised anonymity should never be compelled to disclose their sources. If they are forced to do so, he believes, the sources will vanish and "journalists who should be fiercely independent would instead become writers for publications that resemble house organs for government." June Callwood, in her affidavit, says something stronger: "If writers or reporters are forced to ... reveal their sources, then journalists become agents of the government and the police." And Patrick Watson's affidavit says that if our institutions do not recognize the value of the journalist-source relationship, then "a free press cannot endure."

These statements have slipped the surly bonds of reality. For most of the history of journalism there were no shield laws and, despite what Goldstein suggests, many newspapers were not house organs for governments. Nor were they agents of the police; and, despite Watson's contention, a free press has long endured without shield laws.

There are strong arguments on the other side. A shield law draws a line between journalists and citizens that has not previously existed-it officially places them in two separate groups, and puts the journalists on the side of licensed professionals (such as lawyers and doctors) whose communications with clients and patients may legally be kept secret. This could lead to provincial and state licensing boards. giving power over the careers of journalists to bureaucrats and creating, over time, two classes of journalists, those who are officially recognized (therefore protected) and those who aren't.

However Canada sorts out the shield law issue, the Williams case looks like a threat to free expression. PEN Canada is correct in its claim that this kind of arbitrary action "creates a chill which will inhibit other reporters from pursuing similar investigative projects." So anyone who worries about the freedom of the press will be concerned about the fate of Stephen Williams in court. Those who find him hard to admire should remember that Alfred Dreyfus, the French army captain who was convicted of treason on forged evidence in 1894 and freed only after a long public campaign, was considered a rather annoying fellow by just about everyone who fought for him. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that when he was finally released from Devil's Island and returned to Paris, his defenders found him so irritating that they kept telling him to mend his ways.

"Stop it!" he finally told them. "Stop it - or I'll confess."
 

Contact for Stephen Williams:
stephenwms@sympatico.ca
 

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