– The editor of a major Australian daily newspaper would have been described as a benevolent dictator if he was in any way benevolent. In fact, he was a blowhard who loved the sound of his own voice almost as much as frightening and sexually harassing his staff.
It was morning conference and he was turning red in the face (which made an interesting contrast to his blue nose) as he lambasted the night desk’s decision to use the photo of murder victim on page one.
The victim was Asian. “No one gives a shit about them,” he explained to his team, which was no longer listening.
He was too stupid to understand that he was a stereotypical representative of a minority (in his case, cheese-eating dinosaur with varicose veins).
And yet the blowhard had said what in many newsrooms remains unspoken. A victim’s worth (and therefore news value) is defined through a clumsy system of selective judgements and inbuilt biases.
In the media business there is no equality – only stories – and mainstream ones at that.
There are thousands of crimes carried out every year in Australia. They leave victims traumatised, offenders institutionalised and individuals marginalised. Yet few gain any media traction and fewer resonate with the public.
To grab attention the crime must follow a certain pattern. The victim must be blameless, attractive, nice, innocent, preferably youngish and living a “normal” lifestyle. Some level of sporting prowess or a brush with celebrity is a bonus, while slim is always in.
Fatties, oldies, ethnic minorities and poor people need not apply – unless they are related to a footballer or eaten by a crocodile.
This is because rich, young, pretty and famous people are inherently more worthy. And who wants to see a picture of some old buzzard in the paper just because they got themselves dead? Spoils one’s breakfast, you see.
Is it really so superficial? Well, no. To hold public interest the crime must not only spark sympathy but empathy.
A multiple fatal train crash in Africa is worth four paragraphs. One in London is worth page four – page one if Australians are on board, double page spread if they happen to be sporting identities. And for a soapie star, that’s a wraparound special edition.
This is because few of us have been on an Indian train and therefore fail to relate to a subcontinental derailment. On the other hand, most of us are at least familiar with the London Underground. So it could have been us on that train or someone we know living in Britain.
Which brings us to matters of murder.
In these cases the victim as much as the offender is instantly judged and the verdict is usually permanent.
There is often a desire to blame the victim – if it can be seen to be their fault then we in our white-bread (or gluten-free) worlds are just a little safer.
This brings us to two cases.
Both involve women who were victims of horrible, random and fatal attacks – Jill Meagher in September last year and Tracy Connelly last month.
Both were loved. Both are missed. Ms Meagher was a married woman grabbed on the street as she walked home. Ms Connelly was killed in her van as she plied her trade as a street worker.
The outpouring of sorrow and outrage that followed Ms Meagher’s murder was remarkable, touching and bonding. Thousands marched in a community-driven anti-violence vigil. The offender, Adrian Bayley, was caught by some of the best detectives in the state and sentenced to 35 years’ jail.
Perhaps Ms Connelly’s story would have been lost if not for some thought-provoking articles wondering aloud if her death was seen as less important because of her occupation.
The answer is probably yes. But this may not be purely based on an arbitrary moral verdict.
Ms Connelly reportedly became a sex worker to support her drug habit as well as her partner’s. This meant she placed herself in dangerous situations almost unimaginable to mainstream society.
There is sympathy but little empathy. It shouldn’t have happened but it couldn’t happen to us because we don’t have sex with strangers in vans.
Jill Meagher was attacked and murdered as she walked down a street on her way home. That could happen to any of us so we became connected to the crime.
Sometimes a crime can be so horrible that we throw up defences to protect ourselves. Even in the Meagher case cruel rumours spread that her husband Tom was a suspect. If so it would have been a “domestic” and we would still be safe on our streets.
In November 1997 Jane Thurgood-Dove was shot in the driveway of her Niddrie home on front of her three children in what appeared to be a professional hit.
She was also the victim of false stories, including claims she was a secret witness in an armed robbery case or was having an affair with a major Melbourne gangster.
If we could find an explanation that “blamed” the victim, then perhaps we could feel safer. The thought that a “normal” mum returning from a school run could be targeted would leave us all vulnerable.
In fact, Jane Thurgood-Dove had done nothing that made her the subject of a murder plot.
It was a terrible case of mistaken identity. The hitmen were told to kill the blonde woman who lived in Muriel Street, drove a four-wheel-drive and lived three houses from the corner.
But there were two corners on Muriel Street and two young mothers who lived on the same side of the street, three houses from each corner. Both drove four-wheel-drives, both had school-age children and both had blonde hair at the time.
One was Jane Thurgood-Dove. The other was Carmel Kyprianou, whose husband Peter had been the subject of a previous murder attempt.
Two of those involved in the mistaken identity murder have died, while the man beloved to have ordered the hit – a former lawyer known as Mr Laundry – has never been charged.
The one area where public curiosity outranks empathy is when the murder victim is a well-known gangster. Then it becomes a spectator sport with many anticipating the next bloody instalment.
These underworld wars excite great interest as they are played out in public, Hollywood style. Some of the players were so well known they became recognisable by their first names – such as Carl, Tony, Jason, Roberta, and Alphonse.
Some were stopped in the streets for selfies and autographs, showing the line between life and art has become hopelessly blurred. It would have been more Logies than Lugers if the body count wasn’t so real.
(Certainly newspapers reported a spike in circulation, which leads us to suggest that in the present depressed market, the editors-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun should tool up and declare war. This would result in increased circulation while the inevitable staff casualty rate would cut down on redundancy payments.)
Many thought police gave tacit approval to the gangland war – working on the principle that if they kept popping each other off it would save the coppers the trouble of prosecuting them.
And there were no innocent victims, right?
When Jason Moran was shot dead at the Essendon North Auskick on June 21st, 2003, there were children (including his own) who witnessed the murder.
And sitting in the van with him was Pasquale Barbaro, who was also shot dead although he was never the target of the hit.
And there was Christine Hodson, who was shot dead on May 2004 simply because she could identify her husband Terence’s killer.
Gangland identity Carl Williams later told police that when he paid the hitman $150,000, he asked, “What happened with the sheila?” The killer allegedly responded, “That’s not for you to worry about.”
The irony is that during the underworld war “bad” victims received more attention than the “good” ones.
The investigators working on Jane Thurgood-Dove’s murder had returned to on-call work and could only look at the case during rare downtimes.
The gangster murders resulted in the establishment of the Purana Taskforce, which became the highest-profile (and most expensive) investigation in the state.
So while we make judgements on victims in newsrooms and from our lounge rooms, homicide investigators do not.
In their St Kilda Road office is a code: “No greater honour will ever be bestowed on an officer or a more profound duty imposed on him when he is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being.
“It is his duty to find the facts regardless of colour or creed, without prejudice and let no power on earth deter him from presenting these facts to the court without regard to personality.”
There can be no better example than the murder of gunman Victor Peirce, who was shot dead in Bay Street, Port Melbourne, in May 2000.
In police circles he was hated – and with good reason. He was one of four charged and acquitted with the October 1988 ambush murders of Constables Steven Tynan and Damian Eyre in Walsh Street, South Yarra.
A detective named Jim O’Brien was part of the Ty-Eyre Taskforce that arrested Peirce. He also headed the Purana Taskforce that investigated the alleged cop killer’s own murder.
It would have bee easy to write this one off as karma. They didn’t and eventually convicted one of those involved. Meanwhile, the homicide squad remains determined to find the killer of Tracy Connelly.
Just as they were with Jill Meagher – John Silvester
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