An Interview with CBC Uncover’s Justin Ling

CBC Uncover Justin Ling

On the latest season of CBC’s Uncover, host Justin Ling investigates the tragic story of a serial killer preying on gay men in the Toronto area. Ling, an investigative reporter who is also publishing a book on the subject, began reporting the story more than four years ago, first as an investigation into the disappearances of several gay men in the Toronto community. The nature of the story, however, changed fundamentally in January 2018, when Bruce McArthur was arrested for the murder of eight men and police began to re-examine more than two dozen unsolved murders since 1975. What had been a sad and mysterious story about these missing men was replaced by the horrific knowledge of their fate.

While Uncover: The Village is centered around this series of killings, Ling is effective in extending the show far past the tropes and limitations of the true crime genre. Through the use of archival tape and Ling’s investigative skill, the show presents a fascinating and much-needed history of Toronto’s queer community, their efforts to cope with and combat the violence committed against them, and the failures of the Toronto Police in protecting one of the city’s most vulnerable populations against a series of solvable murders.

I spoke with Ling about the show and his reporting process. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You started reporting on this story over four years ago. Did you know from the start that you wanted to tell this story as a podcast?

Ling: Not at all. When I first started on this story, I imagined it as a single feature. I wanted to tell the story of these men, hoping it would garner a bit of new attention. I thought it would be a pretty quick turnaround, maybe a month of work. It ended up being a two-year process.

To some degree, I thought this would be an enduring mystery that would never quite get solved. I spent a lot of time looking through missing persons cases and unsolved homicides, and I didn’t see any cases that jumped out as being connected. Then two weeks after my story came out, another man went missing and suddenly this was all thrust back into the news. By that time, podcasts were starting to become a more widely-used platform and so I pitched it to a couple people. I said listen, I know there’s not a lot of audio here, but I think this lends itself quite well to the podcast format. But it wasn’t until after McArthur’s arrest that everyone was buying into it and the offers started coming in to do this as a podcast.

What was frustrating was that, by the time McArthur was arrested, I thought the most important part of the story was over — they had caught him. I was resistant to the idea of doing a recap of this one case that had already gotten a significant amount of news coverage. So when the CBC started talking to me about reporting on these older cold cases, that really jumped out to me.

From there, did you know what direction the podcast would head in?

This season was a bizarrely hard story to tell. We start with McArthur and his victims and look at what happened there. Then, from episode 3, we go back to 1975 and look into other cold cases that appear similar to McArthur’s. For those cases, we talked to friends, family, and retired cops and really tried to build a profile of the village as it was back then — to understand what went wrong and what some of the police biases were. The season then pivots into presenting a bit of queer history and looks deeper into one specific victim’s case that says a lot about how these cases were investigated and how they were dealt with in the media. So yeah, this season goes in a lot of different directions, but I think that’s the beauty of a podcast — you get so much runway.

You do a great job of situating these murders within this specific queer community in Toronto, in order to point to the ways the police failed. I think good crime reporting uses specific tragedies to shed light on larger societal issues, whereas bad crime reporting can often just be exploitative of people’s suffering. I’m curious how you approached reporting this story, especially speaking to the friends and family of those who were killed.

Well, I’ve covered crime, but I should say I don’t love true crime storytelling. There’s a time and a place for it, and some people like it. That’s fine. But too often it veers into sensationalism and entertainment, as opposed to important public interest journalism. From the get-go, I kind of just said I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to go kick someone’s door down just to get a quote. I wanted to go out there and find the people who wanted to talk, and I didn’t feel like forcing them to relive something if they didn’t want to.

One thing I appreciated about this season of Uncover is that you really take time to explain the history of Toronto’s queer community. Did you think it was important to create that context for listeners?

It’s really important. The average person doesn’t know that history — which is that, in 1981, the Toronto Police raided a bunch of bathhouses and arrested around 300 people. The riots that happened afterwards are usually referred to as Canadian Stonewall. They were massive riots that overtook the city, and which led to some of the most systemic change for the queer community. Some people on our team had no knowledge of that history, so we said, OK, we have to tell that part of the story.

Around the McArthur story, you would often hear casual readers or just acquaintances say, “Why are they complaining? Homosexuality had nothing to do with that. Why are they so mad at the cops?” Well, I think this podcast really underscores how short-sighted that view is. In a five-year period, around 14 queer people were violently murdered in the city and half of these cases went unsolved. And as those investigations were supposedly ongoing, police were raiding bathhouses and arresting gay men for having consensual sex. I think you have to really understand what that does to a community’s psyche. And I think unless you’re actually going to stop and look at these things, you won’t understand the present day.

You’re also publishing a book about these events. What has the process been like writing your book versus making this podcast?

Sometimes it feels like it’s all kind of snowballed into one giant project. I mean it’s been tough, but they also complement each other. A lot of the interviews I’m doing for one project benefit the other, and it’s the same with all of the research. On the flip side, time management has become very important. They’re two massive projects, two very difficult and big undertakings. I’m quite tired [laughs].

In addition to creating this season of Uncover, you’re a co-host of CANADALAND’s OPPO podcast. What brought you to radio?

My first job was actually in radio. I’m from Cape Breton Island, a small town on Canada’s east coast, and when I was in high school I got a job at the community radio station doing their newscast. I absolutely loved it. So yeah, I think I’ve always really liked audio. But then in starting my career, radio didn’t really seem like an option for what I wanted to do. I went on doing a lot more in the newspaper realm and online. It wasn’t until podcasts came around that I finally thought, OK, you know what, I can get back into doing audio and do it the way I really want to. So far, I’m really enjoying it.

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Lars Odland is Podcast Review’s Managing Editor