Piers Morgan, ITV, 7th February 2019
I watched this programme from my hospital bed, hoping to see a resource that I might recommend to my criminology students, for the unique selling point of this programme was Piers Morgan interviewing a convicted killer. Students are invariably fascinated by serial killers, and I am always keen to demystify them and puncture the inflated reputation of those who commit these nasty and evil crimes. Hannibal Lecter is about as realistic as Heracles and Orpheus.
‘Confessions of a Serial Killer’ was promoted by Morgan on his ‘Good Morning Britain’ programme, where his female colleague asked him ‘Were you not scared to be with him?’ Morgan did not admit to fear but did explain that he was inches from this dangerous killer, who might easily have attacked him and inflict damage before the guards could intervene, for there was no protective screen. This evil killer had a fantasy aged 16, Morgan explained, which he acted upon when he killed five random young women and girls in just a few weeks when he was aged 20.
Tension was further built up by interviews with people who knew the killer: he had “the darkest eyes I have ever seen”, a mask of evil as he hung around the launderette eyeing the women even though he had no washing to do, “he was evil, Satan personified”. Bob Telfer, the local DA at the time of the killings, spoke of a “horrific psychopath”. Viewers who expected to see the brave Morgan confront a hulking brute and monster may have experienced a sense of bathos when Giles Bernard shook Morgan’s hand at the start of the interview. Bernard has been in jail for 45 years, and is much older and smaller than Morgan. He is also articulate, polite and softly spoken. Morgan starts his programme with a facile question: “Did you ever see ‘Silence of the Lambs’? What did you think of it?” The audience has been primed to expect a tale of perverted genius, but will be let down to discover a story of an ordinary old man who had been an incompetent youth and committed five horrible, sordid murders.
The programme failed from the outset to establish basic facts, nor were the interviews conducted with an informed, critical approach. For example, Morgan says that Bernard escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty. Wrong: Bernard escaped execution because there was a moratorium on capital punishment in the USA from 1967 to 1977, not because of his guilty plea. When the (then) local sheriff stated “We did not know about serial killers then” Morgan did not question him further. Plenty of police departments and criminologists did then know about serial killers: in the news in 1960s USA were the Boston Strangler and the Zodiac killer, but Morgan failed to explore the point.
Morgan stated that Bernard had a good, loving childhood, with no problems, and gave no further exploration of his background. The interview should at least have addressed Bernard’s dropping out of high school: Why did he drop out? What did he do after leaving school? The audience learns that Bernard was married with one child, but there is no analysis of the circumstances of his relationship. It does not excuse his crimes, but the interviewer should have probed for any significant pressures on the youthful Bernard who had failed in his education and was living in a trailer with a wife and new child. Bernard admits that he was functioning badly in his relationship and disintegrating as a person, and that his wife knew he had problems, but no attempt was made to examine this.
The murders were nasty and wicked, but they were also executed without any degree of competence. Bernard was certainly not an ‘organised’ killer, and was totally different from the fictitious Hannibal Lecter. One aspect of the case I should like to have seen explored is the competence of the police. How were the first murders investigated? What forensic evidence was discovered? Could the police have identified the killer sooner, given that his M.O. was so sloppy.
Morgan pressurises Bernard to apologise, but he finds it difficult: “I don’t feel I have the right. I mean, do you get a letter in the mail from the person who killed your daughter?” This answer is perceptive, in that Bernard recognises that restorative justice is difficult for the victims and a “sorry” might seem glib to the injured families. But Morgan presses on and invites Bernard to apologise on camera: “I really don’t know what to say, truthfully. What do you say to somebody, that you murdered a member of their family?” If the production team had done their homework, they would have researched restorative justice and have known that speaking to the families on camera in a popular TV show could be a lot worse than useless. But I felt that Morgan was more interested in sensational, headline-grabbing TV than in securing closure for the injured parties.
As my students would have been able to explain to Morgan, two basic and divergent philosophies of punishment are retribution and rehabilitation. Retribution focuses on the crime: the punishment should be determined by what the offence ‘deserves’, the punishment should fit the crime and should square with the culpability of the offender. Retributive systems are essentially look backward to the offence and are more likely to be able to accept the idea of a death penalty. They are not really concerned with the penitence or contrition of the offender. Rehabilitative theories of punishment are forward looking: what has the offender done since conviction? Is he remorseful? Has he addressed the problems and behaviour that led him to offend? Has there been a change for the good in the character or soul of the offender?
Morgan focuses on the dreadful crimes, and talks to Bernard as if he had just been convicted. But the Bernard he interviews is quite different from the disturbed and uneducated youth who killed five young women. Of the two men, Morgan and Bernard, the convict has more insight and empathy than the interviewer: he says ‘I don’t feel I have the right to apologise’. Bernard as a 65 year old is quite different from that 20 year old youth, but what has happened in the last 45 years is omitted from Morgan’s interview. Bernard is not asking for forgiveness or release on parole, but towards the end of the programme says: ‘It unsettles me a little bit that you have such a monstrous view of me’.
Morgan concludes by saying ‘He can’t explain it in any way that brings any kind of closure to the families.’ I wondered how good Morgan would be at explaining the indiscretions of his youth. I certainly squirm with embarrassment when recollecting some of the things I did as an undergraduate, though I can honestly say that there is nothing that would be of interest to the police today.
I was very disappointed in the programme, though it might have some value for criminology students if I set it as a task: ‘Critique the programme “Confessions of a Serial Killer”’. ITV would do well to replace Morgan with a criminologist. Another idea that might have made the programme more interesting might have been to invite Bernard to interview Morgan. The convict certainly displayed more insight that the journalist.