David Hill: Remember Coral Burrows? No, didn't think you would

COMMENT

Here is a small wager. There is almost certainly no mention of Coral Burrows in today's news. If it takes you a half-second to recall to whom I refer, you won't be alone.

While the search for the Wairarapa 6-year-old went through that week last year, the media told us everything. Everything - events, emotions, implications. Many New Zealanders became vicarious members of Coral's family.

The search reached its conclusion. And within a week, this terrible breach in nature almost vanished from the screen, the pages, the airwaves.

It reappeared briefly when the case came to court, and the wretched figure of Stephen Williams admitted his guilt. Since then, except for news of his transfer to another prison, and a couple of thoughtful, useful newspaper features on other figures involved, it has disappeared again.

Here's another wager. The whole case will now vanish from the public arena until the next, sickeningly similar set of events comes along. And the speed of its disappearance will be part of the reason why such events keep happening.

The culprit will disappear also. He'll be classified in people's minds as a monster. We'll be able to comfortably dissociate ourselves from him and ignore him - until he applies for parole or is released.

Is he a monster, or is he a person who did a monstrous thing? Years back, he was the same age as the small girl he killed: was he a monster then? What made him behave like one? In spite of the media coverage at trial time, we don't and won't really know. Even wanting to know will be seen by some people as a form of bleeding-heart, liberal bleating.

In the meantime, our ignorance will keep the myths and prejudices going. He's in prison, so he must be having a good life in a taxpayer-funded hotel. If he's released into the community, other children will instantly be at risk. Sensible, real-life sentencing means we should keep him locked away for ever.

In cases like this, ignorance may be self-indulgent bliss, but it's also irresponsible. We're not going to stop the sort of violence that killed Coral Burrows and which has killed too many other New Zealand children until we try for a long-term understanding.

One possible way to do this would be to become better informed on what happens to someone like Coral's killer in prison. How is he being punished and/or rehabilitated? What's happening to him in the months and years after his sentencing?

I'd love to see a responsible media outlet keep us informed and develop our understanding by committing itself to following an offender like Steven Williams through as much of his sentence as possible, for 12 ... 15 ... 20 years if necessary, giving the public an annual report on what is happening to him as time passes, even following him through the period after any probation or release, if that's feasible.

I believe it could be done without compromising justice and the prisoner's rights. I hope it could be done without distressing the victim's family.

It would be a major undertaking, no doubt about that. It asks an industry obsessed with the fast-breaking to handle the slowly-unfolding.

It wouldn't make for dramatic or sensational journalism, which means that TV would probably lose interest early. But it would be genuine in-depth journalism. It would require vision, perseverance, responsibility. I'd like to think that the best sections of our media have those qualities.

Why bother? Because, as Arthur Miller pointed out, a good media outlet (he in fact said "newspaper", which is significant) is like a nation talking to itself, and New Zealand's record of violence against children is something we need to talk about at length.

Also, because such sustained coverage could make people more aware of what the justice and prison systems are really like. It could reduce some of those prejudices and misconceptions I mentioned earlier. It might challenge the assumption that killers such as Steven Williams are just monsters, and that by labelling them as such, we can remove ourselves from any feeling of involvement or obligation.

It might even make people realise that locking these offenders up and throwing away the key isn't sensible sentencing or anything to do with the real world. It's really the soft option - walking away from the crime and the criminal and leaving them for others to sort out.

As long as such ignorance and self-delusion on our part continue, deaths like that of Coral's will also continue.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 23 Jul 2014 11:02:48 Processing Time: 880ms