In recent months, Australian investigative crime podcasts have prompted arrests, reopened police investigations, and cast new eyes over long-dormant case files. In December, Chris Dawson, the subject of The Australian’s Walkley Award-winning podcast The Teacher’s Pet was arrested on a charge of murdering his wife Lynnette Dawson. In November, the police investigation into Maria James’ murder, examined in the ABC’s Trace podcast, was reopened.
But with the heightened attention and official action, more and more commentators are worried about crime-as-entertainment getting too big: could it affect trials, and is it damaging to the victims?
Another of The Australian’s award-winning true crime podcasts, Bowraville, moved the NSW government to challenge double jeopardy laws in the courts, but its host Dan Box — who has since moved to London to work for the Sunday Times — told the Oz in October he was worried about crime reporting becoming entertainment.
“There’s almost that sense of ‘come back next week for the next revelation’,” he said. “We shouldn’t do that, because these are people’s lives. It’s not entertainment. Short of war reporting, it’s probably the most emotional kind of reporting you can do in terms of the damage you can do to the people you’re reporting on.”
But Monash University’s Dr Andy Ruddock, an expert in media audiences who has written about crime in media, told Crikey that while news outlets’ interest in crime was not new, the popularity of podcasts has intersected with the media’s ever-increasing need to grab audience attention.
“Stories of true crime were fundamental to the development of the news industry as we understand it today,” Ruddock said. “Journalists need to reach audiences, they need to get people interested in social issues through compelling stories. Crime has always been a tool to do that and win audience attention.”
Ruddock said podcasts, as with any audio content, were a “wonderfully intimate” medium for storytelling. “You can really lose yourself in it,” he said. “The radio has always worked. Audiences have always loved radio because it gives a feeling the person is actually talking to you.”
Fitting a narrative
Stories such as that of Lynnette Dawson in The Teacher’s Pet, the murdered children in Bowraville, and Maria James in Trace, all tell a story beyond the individuals — of police incompetence, domestic violence and institutional racism. Ruddock said the kinds of crimes and victims that get air time or newspaper column inches are ones that fit a narrative for the storyteller.
“Certain types of murders and certain sorts of victims are seen as being more tragic than others — it’s not necessarily an overt bias, but it’s easier to bring an audience in if it fits a narrative. It’s either particularly shocking because it isn’t something that’s supposed to happen, or because it indicates systemic violence or issues,” he said.
Writing about the phenomenon for academic journal Crime Media Culture late last year, British criminologist Professor Elizabeth Yardley said popular true crime podcasts including Bowraville followed a hierarchy of victimization, which prioritised women and children as victims:
The genre [plays] a regulatory role in setting the boundaries of appropriate femininity and ideal victimhood. Men are portrayed simultaneously as aggressors and protectors, whilst the experiences of minority groups have been marginalized and are absent from the genre. Considering these points in the context of the six serialized true crime podcasts, interesting findings emerged. When considering hierarchies of victimization, it could indeed be argued that the podcasts continued in the vein of their true crime predecessors to an extent.
Yardley said that while none of the podcasts she looked at featured adult, ethnic minority men as murder victims (even though they are disproportionately represented in homicide statistics), the genre also challenges these hierarchies. “Bowraville drew on the narratives of Indigenous communities who felt that the disappearances and murders of their children were not being given the attention that they deserved solely based on judgements about their lives … [the podcasts] reproduced and critiqued ideal victimhood but also posed questions echoing critical criminological enquiry as to who has the power to create and shape representations of victims, and in so doing introduced the context of broader structures and inequalities.”
As to the problem of whether these crimes should be used as entertainment, building audiences and bringing in advertising, Ruddock said the responsibility lies with audiences as well as the media gatekeepers.
“The problem that these podcasts raise is that we’re very conscious of the fact we want to be informed and educated but we also want to be entertained,” he said. “The uncomfortable thing is someone is dead, and probably died horribly. But we listen because we get pleasure from it, otherwise we wouldn’t be listening.”
As well as the moral question of crime-as-entertainment, there is the question of whether blockbuster podcasts affect the administration of justice. Following Chris Dawson’s arrest last year, commentators including Dawson’s lawyer were asking whether he could get a fair trial given the extreme interest in his case.
The discomfort needs to be balanced with the genuine public interest in telling crime stories, Ruddock said.
“The rationale of making these things is legitimate,” he said. “There is a public interest. I can see the art and value in them. But when you put these things together as entertainment, that is a problem for all of us to think about, not just the media.”