Cleo Smith
Cleo Smith and her mum Ellie Smith (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

There’s a particular kind of media news story in which one outlet reports, with a sense of faint disgust or even dismay, that another outlet has chosen to pay a large amount of money for an interview with a newsworthy non-celebrity.

Thus The Australian report “Outrage as Nine network pays more than $2m for Cleo Smith interview” at the end of last week, which contained the usual characteristics of such stories — the unverified claim that $2 million was involved, speculation that it included a plan to interview four-year-old Cleo Smith, the namechecking of “talent agent Max Markson”, and lamentation from an anonymous “senior executive” that such money could be better used in other journalistic ventures.

It also contained the immortal phrase “staff at Nine are expected to be appalled by news of the Cleo Smith deal”.

While The Australian’s track record of reporting actual events is pretty poor, it’s hard to fault a claim that someone is expected to be appalled — even if the person doing the expecting remains unidentified, a nebulous passive-voice expector, perhaps with a very low threshold for what constitutes a state of being appalled.

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But regardless of the identity of this mystery expector, Nine staff might at least be puzzled, if not disgruntled or even annoyed at the decision of Nine management to allegedly devote $2 million to interviewing the family of an abducted and successfully retrieved child, given there’s no way the network could possible recoup such an investment from additional advertising. What fascinating insights will be obtained from Smith’s family — their sickening horror at her abduction, their immense relief at her being found safe — that might spark a revenue surge is also unclear.

Not that the story of the trauma isn’t compelling — it’s a traditional morality fable, a little (white) girl taken from her family by a stranger, but recovered by brilliant detective work, the kind of story we all want to believe in, even without the racial overtones introduced by the Indigenous status of the accused.

The threat of the stranger to children and to women, and protecting against or somehow thwarting that threat, persists as a staple of our media.

That’s why it’s not just our news and current affairs programs, but our drama series, that are littered with dead women and kids, or women and kids imperilled, snatched, held captive, sexually assaulted, murdered, awaiting a brilliant detective to outwit the (invariably genius-like) murderer and provide resolution, if not a breathing body, by the time the credits roll.

The inevitable point this leads to — as recent tragic events in New South Wales have demonstrated yet again — is that strangers are a relatively minimal threat to women and children. They are in far greater danger from their families — their partners, their parents, their step-parents or carers — than any lurking other.

A 2019 study found that between 2000 and 2012, 284 Australian children were murdered by family members. The number of those assaulted or abducted by family members is, of course, dramatically higher. The gender split of filicide offenders during the period was almost even: 52-48 towards men, although male offenders outnumber female offenders most years. The rate of Indigenous offending was significantly higher than non-Indigenous offending, though the tiny number of Indigenous cases makes for great volatility.

The perverse thing about the way we focus differently on different threats is that one is much more within our control than the other. There will always be people who pose a threat to the rest of us, because they’re unwell or just evil, but they represent a random threat, dependent purely on time and circumstance.

We can improve our criminal justice system to keep them locked up when they offend, we can lift conviction rates for sexual assault and other violent crimes, we can have strict gun laws to prevent their access to lethal weapons, we can encourage police to focus on warnings signs, but there will always be bad people free in society capable of assaulting or killing a random person in the wrong circumstances. It’s an inescapable random factor of society.

The comfort of the Cleo Smith narrative is that when such an horrific random fate strikes a normal family, society can somehow intervene and prevent the worst outcome. It’s a comfort against the essentially random nature of life, where a small but real risk of violent death will always exist.

What’s not comforting about the majority of deaths of children is that they are not random but significantly preventable, because they reflect social and economic systems at work. They are the result of education systems, media environments, cultural values, socially imposed roles, economic outcomes and inequality, the consequences of colonialism, the operation of the criminal justice system and institutions like welfare services and the Family Court.

These are all artificial systems that can be adjusted by a community, and to a lesser extent by government. Some of those adjustments may also diminish the threat posed by random stranger threats, particularly sexual assault. But they involve complex policy areas, often coupled with poor research base (we’re still trying to develop a statistically reliable measurement process merely for violence against women and children) and deeply contested policy spaces.

The simple fable of the lost white girl is altogether more appealing than the hard struggle of addressing the real threats to families. There are no talent agents flogging that yarn, few TV executives clamouring for the rights to it, but the many journalists who do understand where we should focus when it comes to violence against women and children indeed have a right to be appalled about where our preferences lies.