24 March 2005

Would they have said she had an Albertan or Jamaican accent?

When a buddy of mine went off to graduate school about 20 years ago, he marveled at the subtle and ever-present tendency among the politically correct Torontonians to treat Newfoundlanders as being a special case.

By special, I refer to a case where a criminal suspect was described by local media as being "a Newfoundlander". When he called the news director to inquire he was told that the word Newfoundlander was included in the description of the suspect because it would help identify him.

It wasn't a question of funny dialect or a cute accent. Nope. This guy was described as a Newfoundlander solely based on appearance.

Do we look different from other white people?

My buddy, who at the time had a pronounced St. John's accent, may have stood out a little different from the others in a crowd once he spoke. But then, most mainlanders would have mistaken him for Irish, as they often do. In my own case, the only mainlander who ever identified my home province by my speech was my future father-in-law. Then again, having spent his career as an army signaller, he got used to hearing the flattened vowel sounds and clipped words that almost every other mainlander I encountered just missed. With anyone else, I could pass, as the saying goes.

Today, we have the second story in The Toronto Star about a woman originally from Newfoundland charged with several criminal counts for having unprotected sex with a male acquaintance despite the fact she is HIV positive. The woman didn't disclose her medical condition. This happened at Camp Borden one of the oldest and largest military bases in the country.

Oh yes, and the woman hasn't lived in Newfoundland for at least 18 months. She would be accurately described as being a woman from the small town near Camp Borden where she actually lived. I doubt she hopped a CanJet flight every weekend just to get laid.

The Star's coverage has quickly descended into gossip, reporting on the woman's attire, her rumoured presence at parties dressed in nothing but boots and panties and everything else you can think of.

Here's the lead from yesterday's story, the one that first reported the story:

"CFB Borden—By most accounts, Jennifer Murphy was a party girl. But according to military investigators at Canadian Forces Base Borden, she kept a terrible secret: She had AIDS. Murphy, 31, has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault after allegedly engaging in unprotected sex at CFB Borden, Sonia Verma reports..."

Here's the lead on the Day Two story:

" Rumours swirled yesterday at Canadian Forces Base Borden as stunned residents tried to make sense of allegations that a woman knowingly spread HIV by having unprotected sex with a soldier. "A lot of the guys are thinking, `Oh my God.'" said Tara Perry, who is stationed there with her husband while he completes a military course. Isabel Teotonio and Sonia Verma report..."

Ted Blade's of CBC radio's On the Go interviewed The Star reporter this afternoon who has been on this one from the beginning. The thing that stood out most of all was the ease with which this reporter descended into the salacious details of this woman's allegedly "promiscuous" activity. The reporter even went so far as to comment on the woman's "bizarre" or unusual behaviour in court during her first appearance.

When Ted asked why the woman was in court, the reporter couldn't even explain the fundamentals of the court process: appear in court to be charged, enter a plea and set a date for trial. If it wasn't that, then there may have been a preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to send the matter to trial. The reporter was obviously there for the skin, not the law.

Three things struck me about the story and The Star's less than stellar coverage.

First of all, there is no independent confirmation that the woman is in fact HIV positive or that she failed to disclose her condition to the men she knew in the biblical sense. That stuff will come out at trial - months from now.

Second, there was the obvious "ethnicism" in the alert issued by DND cops. They issued a general physical description and then added the women they sought for questioning had an "east Coast" or "Newfoundland" accent. They wouldn't reveal her name so as not to violate her privacy rights. Pull the other one, there Corporal.

Having spent more than my share of time around Canadian Forces personnel and having been to places like Camp Borden, or Camp Barriefield or Camp Petawawa or even at Halifax and Shearwater, a 31 year-old attractive blonde with a Newfoundland accent is nothing rare.

Les tetes de viandes - either in their traditional Red Cap version or in the National Investigative Service (NCIS) model are not famous for being too swift. The NIS guys, more commonly known as NCIS, like the US Navy version have been known on occasion to more closely resemble a television Jethro other than the one currently played by Mark Harmon.

Third and perhaps most curious, The Star reporter seems to have missed that the Canadian Forces is one big small town. An attractive woman who is friendly suddenly appearing among a bunch of testosterone charged males will set most girl-friends, wives and significant others into a suspicious mode at best. With the mostly male soldiers spending a lot of time away from home on courses and on deployment, homelife gets pretty strained. Suspicions and insecurities set in among men and women. it isn't too hard for the group to pull together and try to undermine an individual who is perceived as a threat to their world.

This may or may not be the case here. It is a possibility and The Star reporter, didn't give me any sense she was even vaguely aware of the possibility she might be getting something less than the straight skinny. In any event, even if this woman spent most of her spare time horizontal, inverted, vertical and sideways with every available person of any sex in Borden, that certainly does not make her guilty of the charges against her. It is irrelevant to the story - unless the goal is solely moving newspapers.

What I heard from The Star reporter was a load of gossip that is unsubstantiated at best. While it makes racey copy, it may ultimately prove to be of questionable accuracy. It wouldn't be the first time the meatheads cocked-up an investigation.

The woman deserves her day in court and for all the evidence to be presented.

And at some point, someone needs to send the meatheads back to their classes on stereotyping and tolerance. I seriously doubt they would have been able to issue a public alert that described anyone of any other ethnicity in the way they did in this case without having The Star rip them to shreds for racism.

As for this reporter being interviewed, I got a bit confused as to which Star she wrote for.