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Australia’s tabloid media — long specialists in crime reporting — suddenly find themselves struggling over the three big crime news stories of the moment: domestic violence, institutional child abuse, and attacks on women. 

The criminal faces in stories like the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children and abuse at St Kevins College are not what the outrage media — and its audience — expect. And, within the news media, there’s a fear that hard reporting of criminal acts will feed the increasing preparedness of juries to use defamation to punish media.

The media has always been selective about what makes a crime newsworthy. Violence has always been central. As they say proudly in commercial television (and more quietly at the ABC): “if it bleeds, it leads.”

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The violence helps sketch the picture of a clearly identifiable villain — a disturbing “other” that threatens social stability: gang rapists, drug addicts, paedophiles lurking on the internet.

Toss in “ethnic gangs” and “soft on crime” judges and you’ve got the perfect mix of outrage to feed the ageing demographic of tabloid mastheads and commercial television news.

But when the “villains” once were footballers or teachers at religious schools, it’s harder to fit them into this traditional newsworthy paradigm. 

Take the immediate reporting of Rowan Baxter’s murder of Clarke and their children in Brisbane last Wednesday.

In headlines captured on the day (while the facts were, admittedly, still coming to light), FoxSports wrote: “Ex-NRL player Rowan Baxter dies alongside his three kids, estranged wife in Brisbane car fire tragedy” while the Daily Mail humanised the killer with “Ex-footy star who died in burning car showered kids with love”.

They’re phrases that rely on softening through neutral positioning (“alongside”) and reliance on the passive voice. It’s a caution that brings confusion to clarity.

By Thursday, FoxSports had pivoted. The “ex-NRL player” became “family killer Rowan Baxter” (with reports that he had never played an NRL game).

The Daily Mail replaced its headline (although still with “star” status): “From trips to the beach to loving bedtime stories: How an ex-footy star portrayed himself as a loving dad who would do anything for his three kids — before killing them all in car fire horror”.

And by Saturday, The Australian, at least, was back on the front foot, front paging its report on the crime that it said “lay bare the shocking reality of Australia’s ongoing scourge of male violence”.

Meanwhile, some of News Corp’s leading commentators spent the week struggling with the ABC’s Four Corners expose of abuse at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne’s Toorak.

While mistreatment of children would be thought a staple for the outrage media, News Corp has found it difficult to get a handle on, in part because of its instinctive hostility to the ABC and the ex-Fairfax mastheads (who largely broke the institutional abuse stories). 

It also reflects the company’s peculiar relationship with the Catholic Church. The media were a major sectarian battleground of mid-20th century Australia. The SMH and The Age rarely — if at all — employed Catholics until the 1960s.

From Keith on, the Murdochs provided them opportunity. Although Australia has moved on, these old struggles are still embedded in the DNA of many News Corp opinionistas. 

Conservate Catholics — like convicted paedophile and (still) Cardinal George Pell — are seen as reliable allies in the company’s continuing culture wars. Just as News Corp prosecutes its holy war against its enemies, it stands by its friends.

There was a third story last week that helped explain the media stumbles over the new face of newsworthy crime. Actual NRL footballer Jack de Belin (stood down while he faces a charge of “aggravated sexual assault”) is suing The Daily Telegraph for defamation after it described him as, well, an “accused rapist”. 

It’s an argument that, if found appealing by a jury, would restrain the media from reporting on any criminal charges other than what’s actually said in court (and is legally protected) perhaps until all appeals are exhausted. 

More than the threat this poses to press freedom, it would undo much of the work of campaigners against violence on women to have the media treat these crimes as worth reporting.

It would re-enforce a caution that would encourage violent men with more of the initial soft handling that Baxter was given.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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