Paul Barclay, Hedley Thomas, Rachel Franks, Felicity Packard, Hedley Thomas, 24 August 2019
PAUL BARCLAY: Hello, and welcome to the National Museum of Australia and the Canberra Writers Festival. I’m Paul Barclay from ABC RN’s Big Ideas. It’s wonderful to be here on this Saturday morning.
Who amongst us has not been captivated by a gruesome, a daring, an incongruous crime or outraged by an apparent miscarriage of justice, fascinated by a cold case? Today we are discussing and indulging our penchant for true crime.
This is part of an ongoing series with the National Museum of Australia on some of the defining moments and themes in Australian history. Thanks to the Canberra Writers Festival for joining forces with the Museum.
A quick glance at the books we buy, the TV shows and movies we watch and the podcasts we listen to gives you a pretty clear indication that true crime is a guilty pleasure for many of us. There have been countless infamous crimes and criminals in Australian history. Some recent, some old, some well-known, others all but forgotten.
The criminal slaughter of Indigenous Australians by early settlers as seen in Myall Creek, the antics of Ned Kelly, the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for a crime we now know wasn’t committed at all, Australia’s Great Bookie heist, the murder of Colin Winchester — a notable crime here in Canberra, the gruesome Pyjama Girl murder of the 1930s. Why are we so fascinated with true crime? Does our interest in crime stem perhaps from our convict past?
We’re going to discuss this and more with our terrific panel of guests. On my immediate left is Rachel Franks, an award-winning writer who holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction.
Next to Rachel, we have Hedley Thomas, national chief correspondent with the Australian newspaper, investigative journalist with more Walkley Awards than you can possibly imagine. And, in more recent times Hedley is responsible for the terrific podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, which investigated the disappearance and suspected murder of Sydney mother, Lyn Dawson.
And on the end of the panel we have Felicity Packard, a leading screenwriter and producer. Her credits include Underbelly, Wolf Creek and Janet King. Please make our panellists welcome.
Felicity, you’ve written a heap of screenplays based on true crimes. Have you always been a fan? Is that what got you into it?
FELICITY PACKARD: I love a good story. I think that’s where my interest would always stem from, to begin with. But, yes, I’ve always liked true crime. I’ve read it a lot prior to my becoming part of it professionally. Not that I’m a true criminal, but drawing on it.
Yes, I’ve always liked true crime. I remember watching my mother read In Cold Blood and asking her about it. I must have been about 10 and I was just astonished about the crime as she described it. And then that you could write a book about it and that it could be as thrilling a book as The Lord of the Rings or Narnia, or whatever else I was reading at the time. And so, yes, from then on I’ve always been interested.
PAUL BARCLAY: Actually, interesting that you should mention that book in particular because what Truman Capote was doing In Cold Blood was rather than entirely condemning the criminals and the criminal act, even though it was an unspeakably awful crime, he was trying to get into the minds of the criminals.
What motivated them? Who were they? And, in a way, extending a degree of empathy, if that’s possible, to them. Is that kind of essential when you’re writing up criminal characters?
FELICITY PACKARD: Absolutely. I think that’s what we very much brought to Underbelly. That was always our intention. People can argue the case on this not to glorify the criminals, but just to represent them as people.
What we always hoped to achieve was when you’re with the police investigating officers you are hoping that they would win and that they would thrive. And when you’re with the criminals you had a sneaking sort of hope that, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope they win’, or at least that you understand what they’re about.
We try to present them as explicable at some level and not judge them. Because I didn’t think the show needed to do a lot of judging because so clearly what they were doing was stupid, illegal, abhorrent. I think that a lot of the time their actions spoke for themselves.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, we will, of course, come back to talking about this in more detail. Fascinating series on a fascinating and, as you say, hapless bunch of criminals in many respects.
Hedley, the news media and we journalists and editors love crime stories. As well, it would appear, so does the public because they’re buying the newspapers that the crime stories are appearing in.
I mean, we should, by rights be turning away from all of this tawdry detail. ‘Oh, I don’t want to see it.’ But, actually, the opposite is the case. Why do you think we love this stuff so much?
HEDLEY THOMAS: Look, I think everyone has a different reason for being attracted to true crime. I asked my wife — because she was instrumental in getting me involved in a podcast investigation — I said, ‘Darling, why are you listening to so many true crime stories via podcast?’
I got an interesting answer. My wife had been an avid reader of many different types of literature, but she had a scare when she was out walking on one of the bush trails near our home in Brookfield in Brisbane. That was a scare relating to a man who was, she thought, stalking her.
As a result of that, she said, in part, she was listening to true crime because she wanted to understand more about criminal minds and how women might potentially be able to protect or defend themselves. Then she went to the next level and did an Israeli mossad martial arts course — I think krav maga or something — and started throwing me around and practising all sorts of manoeuvers on me.
So there are, I think, very credible studies showing that more women than men are interested in true crime. Certainly more women listen to true crime podcasts than men.
I think that’s also in part because they can sometimes imagine themselves being the victim and relating to the female victim. And they want to understand how they can avoid that. They want to empathise and, I think, put in place structures that could better protect themselves.
For the rest of us, it’s probably a combination of voyeurism. We, I think, in society, sometimes imagine ourselves being pushed to a point where we could lash out. People who are otherwise normal can have road rage and what can that sometimes lead to? A sudden loss of control of temperament and someone dies in an inexplicable road rage incident.
Now, that could be a murder, but the person who perpetrated it may have been otherwise a complete pacifist. So, I think sometimes there’s just a fine line between someone becoming a killer and being an otherwise very upstanding member of society. I’ve seen that in our own neck of the woods, actually.
PAUL BARCLAY: Rachel, colonial Australia came into being basically because of it being a penal colony, so we have a convict history. Do you think this does help to explain our interest in true crime?
RACHEL FRANKS: I think so. I think the idea that in the early days of our modern history everybody knew a crook. And, before we had this massive genre of true crime — that we sometimes call ‘entertainment’, sometimes we call it ‘education’ — there was no other distraction in the colony.
So, you were either incarcerated or you were part of the business of incarceration. So it was a crime event that broke those monotonous routines. And, the punishment, in particular, that came after those crime events — everybody in the colony would be lined up to watch.
You read the diary entries of the early colonists and they’re sort of saying ‘to witness the right end of their comrade’ on the scaffold or being whipped almost to death. That, I think, has carried through because even though such punishments weren’t necessarily entertainment, as some people have argued, there is this idea that we can go and have our own engagement with processes of punishment and we can engage with a really serious conversation of who, how and how much.
I think that this is a really important difference between true crime and crime fiction. So, I’ve come to true crime only in the last few years. I used to think, as I nestled up with my Dashiell Hammett books, why would you read true crime? You know the end, usually, before you pick up the book.
But there are all these other opportunities to comment on the world around us, and as Hedley says, to learn about crime in society. While some stories might make us more anxious, there is some comfort, particularly for women, in knowing that our anxious responses to some of the things that are happening on our streets are not necessarily unreasonable and we’re not necessarily alone.
PAUL BARCLAY: I mean, there’s the pursuit of justice that follows a particularly heinous crime. The fact that we want somebody to pay the price for having committed that crime. But there’s a thin line, isn’t there, between that and revenge, retribution, vengeance. Was there a fair bit of that going on, particularly in colonial times that justice was swift and rather brutal?
RACHEL FRANKS: Absolutely. In colonial Australia, any criminal trial, even a trial that was going to result in judicial execution for the accused, if it was over two days in length, that was a matter for great comment and debate in the press. Why is this taking so long? And why is the judge so slow? Often, there was this need for immediate closure.
Without any of the sophisticated investigative techniques that we have today, certainly no forensics in early Sydney. One person, who pretty much 99.9 per cent of the population at the time was convinced had committed a murder, was able to explain blood-stained clothing with a nose bleed. And because there was no way to prove otherwise, you had to accept that as the truth.
So, in amongst those pursuits for justice, and occasionally revenge, there’s this pent up frustration of not always being able to close that story off with a neat final chapter. A nice conclusion of justice has been done. There’s a last headline in the newspaper and everybody can go back to doing what they were doing before their community had been disturbed by that crime.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. I mean, all killing is tragic, Felicity, but the murder of women who are beautiful-looking and photogenic does tend to play into social and cultural prejudices. I think in Australia of crimes like the shocking rape and murder of Anita Cobby in the 1980s. I don’t know whether you’re aware of that?
FELICITY PACKARD: Oh, yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was fictionalised in the film The Boys. I mean, she was a former beauty pageant winner, as the reports at the time made clear. So, we saw her face in newspapers and television at the time.
I mean, somebody’s looks obviously should be completely irrelevant when it comes to such a tragedy, but they’re not. How do you think we explain that? Why the murder, I suppose, of someone who’s beautiful seems more horrible than someone who’s not?
FELICITY PACKARD: I think that’s a very deep kind of Stone Age question about how we respond to faces and what we as a species value. For better or for worse, youth and beauty are very valued in our society. So the murder of that, the killing of that, seems somehow worse than somebody who is not beautiful. I’m speaking as a TV writer. You cast people who look good.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, that’s right, isn’t it?
FELICITY PACKARD: That’s just a truth. It’s a very sad indictment that we do always seem to get much more upset about youth and beauty being killed, than age or lack of beauty being killed.
PAUL BARCLAY: Do you agree, Rachel?
RACHEL FRANKS: I think it’s really complicated and I think it taps into ideas of potential. And, especially the younger a victim is, we start to focus on what that person was yet to do. I think that that’s why we find all crimes against children particularly heinous because we can’t help but think what might have been, had that child or that young person lived and gone on to do whatever it was that they were meant to do to change the world.
PAUL BARCLAY: Hedley, some crimes absolutely captivate the public. We’ve spoken about this particular crime I’m going to mention — the brutal murder of Brisbane mother Allison Baden-Clay by her philandering husband back in 2012. Do you think that has a particular resonance because they just seemed like a normal average middle-class suburban couple?
HEDLEY THOMAS: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. And, again, Allison Baden-Clay was a very wholesome, very nice, friendly, likeable woman. I know that because I knew Allison and I knew Gerard.
In fact they lived very close to me in Brisbane and their daughter played with our daughter and we would see them at social occasions at their place and ours and the local school barbequing sausages and fundraisers and so on. We saw a couple who appeared on the surface to be very involved in the community. Gerard more so because he was into everything, the chamber of commerce and rotary and lots of local events. He was always there leading.
It turned out that Gerard was leading a double life. He had multiple relationships with women in and outside the area. He was also a very abusive husband to Allison, who when we look back, she was actually starting to shrink in terms of her personality and her presence in what was a pretty tight-knit community.
It was like this bubbly vivacious woman was just getting smaller and smaller as, what I’m sure was the gaslighting and undermining of her continued leading up to, sadly, her slaying. Her body wasn’t found for some days and I remember talking to Gerard while she was missing because we were all in the community looking for Allison.
At that stage, she was a missing woman. My wife and daughter were walking the hills. We had police divers in our waterhole looking for a body and Gerard was at home with his daughter. He wasn’t doing anything while the rest of the community was looking for his wife and people were starting to get a bit upset about this and starting to raise questions about his potential role.
We spoke about that and I didn’t twig to the fact that this beard that he had grown was actually grown to disguise these incredible scratches that had been inflicted as Allison must have been fighting for her life, probably while he was strangling it out of her.
PAUL BARCLAY: God. Yes, absolutely shocking and to be that close personally to a murder being committed it must’ve given you and your family pause. Because we tend to ‘other’, don’t we? Murder, we tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s other people, other worlds are involved in that’, but actually, it’s so close to home.
HEDLEY THOMAS: It was just totally too close for me to accept an opportunity to write a book about it. I’m glad that a much better book was written by my very good friend and colleague, David Murray.
I remember going to see Gerard at the time that Alison was still missing and he was staying with his parents. He was keeping his head down. He was not doing any interviews. And I’d gone to talk to him just as someone who knew him, not as a journalist, but giving him some feedback and advice and saying, ‘Mate, when are you going to actually do something?’
I left that home thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.’ I want to believe him. That night I had the very worst dream. I don’t know how much you can read into this, but in my dream, it was like I was back at his table and he was talking to me and saying that he had nothing to do with Alison’s disappearance. But his lawyers had told him he couldn’t talk to journalists or anyone. He was keeping his head down.
As he was saying that to me, this little box that was between us opened up and all of these black wasps started coming out and buzzing around his face and mouth. My wife said, ‘That probably means in your mind subconsciously you feel he’s opened Pandora’s box and all this evil’s come into the community.’
I don’t know. It could’ve been anything. I haven’t had a worse dream since.
PAUL BARCLAY: You spend a bit of time, Felicity, with criminals. I suppose, as an occupational hazard when you’re writing about them, you get to spend some time with them as part of your research. What have you learnt about crime and criminal activity? Do you think — from researching it, speaking to criminals — are there any takeaways for you from that?
FELICITY PACKARD: Yes. I just need to first clarify that the crimes that we’re writing about in Underbelly are very different from the ones that Rachel and Hedley are talking about. Well, I shouldn’t speak for Rachel. But, Hedley, the crimes that you’ve been talking about are domestic crimes. And, that’s not domestic in the sense that they are any less heinous. They’re more in many ways.
With Underbelly they were mercantile. Yes, lots of people got killed in multiple seasons of Underbelly, but the criminality — even though it spiralled into revenge and silliness — always began from a point of view of trying to make money — usually through drugs, but not always. Sometimes through prostitution and other criminal means.
So, the criminals I was meeting, it’s organised. We always used to joke it’s very disorganised crime, rather than organised crime. So, that’s one of the DNA things of Underbelly is that it’s an organised criminal activity. The criminals I met, what they had in common mostly was a lack of impulse control, I would say.
Leaving out the road rage incident. Most of the time if you get very cross with somebody and you think, ‘I’d like to give them a thump.’ You might think, ‘I would like to give them a thump’, but I’m not going to because it’s wrong. I could go to jail, they might thump me back. Their brother might come around and thump you.
We have a whole lot of rationales which we are able to go through very quickly. They don’t. They think, ‘That person has annoyed me, I will thump them’ and then they thump them, or if you have a gun you might shoot them, or that sort of thing.
So, I think lack of impulse control. Greed. A sense of feeling that they’re entitled to this, that they’d worked hard. And that this was their patch and what they had gathered through hard graft — be that illegal means — they felt that they wanted to then protect it.
PAUL BARCLAY: There was no sense — I mean, you get this, I suppose, coming through the mafia movies on the TV — that there’s like a brotherhood and a code?
FELICITY PACKARD: Oh, no.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s every person for themselves basically, isn’t it?
FELICITY PACKARD: I mean, most of the time, yes. Yes, people used to say about the original Underbelly, which is the gangland war in Melbourne, that it was two tribes going to war. It wasn’t. It was 200 opportunists.
Yes, of course, there were loyalties. There were clear loyalties and sometimes those were very tested. But, most of the time people were swapping sides, or they would work for whoever offered more. I’ll give you 20 grand to kill them, or I’ll give you 50 grand to kill the person who gave you 20 grand to kill me. It’s like that.
So, decisions are made very quickly, but also very slowly sometimes. It’s not clear cut. It’s not the Corleones and those clear lines. It wasn’t like that.
PAUL BARCLAY: I was curious, too, when you are writing a script based on real people and real crimes and then you’re filling in the blanks — the stuff that you don’t know with fictionalised dialogue and so on — is that easier to do, or harder than writing something that’s entirely fictional? Which you’ve done say in Janet King and in Wolf Creek? What’s the more challenging scripting process?
FELICITY PACKARD: That’s a very good question. The wonderful thing about working from real events is that you have the bones of your material there. You have the characters who you’re going to work with and you have the events and the time frame and the time period, which is fantastic.
So, you have those, but then, there are huge knowledge gaps. There were so many knowledge gaps in every series of Underbelly where we just didn’t know what had happened. Well, a lot of the time you didn’t know. Somebody had ended up dead, but there was a lot of dispute about who had killed them. Because many, many of the murders in the gangland war have still never been prosecuted, because probably the people who’ve done them are dead.
So, there’s a lot of knowledge gaps there and you’re then beholden to — if you change things or you make stuff up — you have to do it in good faith that you are as close as possible to the truth as you can be. But having said that, Underbelly is not a documentary.
The wonderful thing about making something up out of whole cloth is that you can go wherever you like, but that’s also the terrifying thing — there are no boundaries, it all rests with you. You don’t have that kind of structure. So, I think it cuts both ways.
PAUL BARCLAY: Look, we’re roaming over, Rachel, a few prominent crimes and criminals of the past and I want to go back to the era that you’re more familiar with — the early part of colonial Australia. I mean, there are some terribly brutal crimes from this period. Remind us of the baby farmers of the 19th century, which involves missing babies and murder.
RACHEL FRANKS: So, I think the baby farmers are possibly the worst people to have emerged in the colonial story and the criminal story of Australia. So, baby farming was quite a common practise in England and we brought it out to Australia. It was a response to society’s intolerance for the unmarried mother.
So, you had lots of illegitimate babies and nowhere necessarily to house them without poor women losing their employment or bringing shame on their family, or any of the other things that put pressure on a young woman with a baby but no husband. So, to help fill this social need, arose the baby farmer.
Baby farmers would take in infants on this kind of quite strange reverse hire-purchase type system. So, you would take a baby, an upfront payment of say three to five pounds, which is an extraordinary amount of money in colonial Sydney, in colonial anywhere in Australia.
Then, the mother would pay a few pence each week for the upkeep of their baby. So, this is in an era where, say, in New South Wales you have infants making up three per cent of the population, but they are being murdered at 55 times the rate of adults.
There was actually one of our early newspapers, the Evening News, ran a weekly column called ‘How the Babies Go’. It’s a list of all the dead babies found in Sydney each week. It is absolutely horrendous.
So, you have these baby farmers who actually offer the promise of taking care of your child and, for some women, the hope that when they were married or when they were a bit more formally established and financially secure they could go back and take their child.
Now, two particularly notorious baby farmers in the 1890s were John and Sarah Makin, operating in the inner west in Sydney. Now, like some baby farmers, they certainly had a lack of resources to care for all these extra children that they had on top of their own 10 children that they were looking after.
There were charges of incompetence, not just against the Makins, but certainly many baby farmers. There was negligence. And then there was also wilful murder.
What makes the Makins so absolutely terrible is they managed to monetise every single step of this process. So, they would take the premium from the mother. They would continue taking weekly payments even after the child had died and had been buried with trash in their own backyard.
When they were unable to tell a mother that the baby was still alive they would then take an extra couple of pounds to give the baby a nice funeral, knowing that shame would prevent the mother from actually turning up. They’d then pawn and sell the baby’s very few possessions, again, just commercialising infant murder.
So, I think, of all the terrible things that you read about colonial crime, which often seems much more horrendous than today because people had very different murder weapons. So, if you look at your average colonial newspaper you’ve got lots of axe murders and blunt-force trauma and all these really terrible things, but I think that the baby farmers are without doubt the worst because there was just so much premeditation. Everything was planned. And to lie to all of these women.
PAUL BARCLAY: The thing that amazes me about this is how utterly shocking it is, but also how few of us know this story. It’s as if it was so terrible that we instantly, as a society, wanted to forget that it had even happened.
RACHEL FRANKS: I think, finally, after this happening for decades, there was a real sense of collective responsibility. So, you have an abandoned baby in a train or in a park, there is nobody immediately to blame. Sure, the government did all the right things and they had poster rewards and they wanted information leading police to a definitive conviction as to who was responsible.
But, in the Makin’s case, people were doing drainage work in their backyard and one of the men found a little bundle. He thought it was a cat so he reburied it. But the next day they found another similar bundle and it was seen that it was actually a small child.
So then, the police came in. They did a methodical dig of their backyard and then started going to other houses that they’d lived in in Sydney and digging up all these babies. So, there were 13 that they were confirmed to have been responsible for. There was a huge public outcry.
PAUL BARCLAY: I bet.
RACHEL FRANKS: Finally, such a terrible set of crimes forced people to take action. So, legislation changed. You could no longer adopt for a fee and all of these sorts of things. Unfortunately, it’s taken much longer for society to be more accepting of the unmarried mother.
I think that this story was so dreadful that people wanted to forget. They wanted to move on because everybody in some sense had contributed to that — whether you helped to perpetuate the stigma against the unmarried woman with a child or whether you, sort of, thought they had 30 babies in the house next door, but didn’t really say anything. All of these sorts of things.
I think this is one of the really important aspects of true crime. A lot of people dismiss it as voyeurism or cheap entertainment with dodgy blood-stained covers and all of those sorts of things. But I think that if we say we are scared of crime, or we are worried about crime in society, it actually has to be a much broader conversation than that.
True crime texts, films and podcasts give us an opportunity to enter that space and have a conversation about, not just the crime event, but what happened. What set of circumstances or policies or pieces of legislation actually allowed this thing to unfold?
So, it’s not just the punishment and the aftermath of crime, but the chance to reflect. And, can we change that?
PAUL BARCLAY: The causes of crime. I actually think the film Spotlight does a very good job of that looking at the abuse by Catholic priests overseas. I’ll come to Hedley’s Teacher’s Pet in a moment. But it also raises the point, Felicity, the story of the baby farmers, that there are some crimes that are almost too horrible to adapt to the screen. Do you think?
FELICITY PACKARD: Absolutely. I was just thinking that’s a hard one because that’s a hard sell on TV. Just thinking as a producer, you could possibly make a film out of it, but asking people to sit down for eight hours of that, it’s just so grim.
RACHEL FRANKS: I think there was a stage play many years ago and I think it was a short run.
FELICITY PACKARD: It’s interesting though. I think we use child murder and sexual abuse a lot in TV. We say, ‘Oh, look at this terrible crime, therefore, we must find the perpetrators.’
But, if you’re actually taking true crime seriously and you want to do that crime, I think that there are some which I think are hard. Child abuse is a hard thing to turn into entertainment. Yes, which is, certainly, I mean, the stuff I work in falls into that broad category of entertainment.
I think there are some stories, even big crime stories currently which I think would be very hard to put on television.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. Indeed. So, Hedley, you’re a little bit different from the other two panellists in that you’re an investigative journalist really with a bit of an agenda, in that, for you, investigating say, a cold case, is hoping that you can come up with something that is critical in terms of reopening this investigation.
Well, this is exactly what you have managed to do with your podcast, The Teacher’s Pet. It’s one of, if not the most successful, true crime podcasts in Australia. It examines the disappearance of 33-year-old Sydney woman Lyn Dawson in 1982.
Just give us an idea what drew you to this story in the first place? And for those who don’t know, a brief outline of the story.
HEDLEY THOMAS: Yes, thanks, Paul. And, this is where, in the nation’s capital, Canberra — where I’m sure you’re all accustomed to hearing politicians give evasive answers or sometimes not answering the question — I’m going to be very careful, because since December last year there have been very serious criminal proceedings on foot.
And I am very necessarily restrained from talking too much about the evidence that was part of The Teacher’s Pet podcast because the accused, Chris Dawson, does deny any wrongdoing and he has a presumption of innocence. So, I’m just not going to go into that material.
But I do want to talk a bit about the process and what I as a general rule would try to do in an investigation, such as the one I did, and in future ones. It’s really a painstaking exercise — as much as it can be as a journalist, without the tools that police have with warrants and so on — to try to assemble as much documentary material as possible. That could be in the form of witness statements, transcripts of evidence that has previously been tendered in, for example, inquests and so on.
And working out all the potential interviewees who may remember something, to have known somebody, had some connection, perhaps through university or school or workplace. And having them feel comfortable enough to relate their experiences, their recollections and their ideas.
In doing that, you build relationships which often lead to those people contacting you again and saying, ‘Hedley, you remember we had that chat a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t think of something else that came up? Well, I’ve remembered now. You really should go and talk to Sue as well because I bumped into Sue the other day and she remembered when this happened.’
So, you go through this exercise over many weeks and months. And with a podcast you’re recording many conversations as well — face-to-face and over the phone. And then getting to a point where you want to start actually scripting the story, and working out how you can position the story so that it’s as fair as possible to the truth of what you’re examining, as well as the person or persons who may be accused.
It’s really difficult in a cold case, or a case which has not been solved over some three and a half decades, because some of the people are elderly and some of the people are deceased. Some of the people whose statements you’re relying on are also deceased. So, it becomes a real balancing act and a very challenging and, I think, at times, incredibly frustrating pursuit.
PAUL BARCLAY: Perhaps we should say the body of Lyn Dawson has never been found. Is that correct?
HEDLEY THOMAS: That’s right.
PAUL BARCLAY: No murder weapon has been found.
HEDLEY THOMAS: Well, that’s true and that’s also assuming, as I should add in for fairness, that there was a murder. So, there’s an alleged murder and there’ll be, I’m sure, a view of some people that Lyn Dawson may be alive, for example. So, again, but I don’t want to talk about that kind of level of detail.
So, I did as best I could with The Teacher’s Pet in trying to assemble all of that material and talk to as many people as possible who I thought could be relevant. Then the podcast started unfolding in May last year.
PAUL BARCLAY: Then once the podcast went to air presumably many people then got in contact with you along the way to give you new pieces of information?
HEDLEY THOMAS: That’s true. And, I think, it’s caused me, when I do a future investigation involving a podcast model, to want to deploy the same kind of technique, which is really to start the series before I’ve actually finished it.
So, if it’s going to be, say, a 10-episode series, to not actually have all 10 episodes done on the day I decide to release episode one because what people can listen to and then respond to is really important. They need to be able to respond while the series is unfolding.
That’s what I’ll do with the next one I, hopefully, will produce. I’ll perhaps have a handful of episodes written and ready to be broadcast. Then as listeners are hearing them, they might be complete strangers to me, I’ve never heard of them, but they’ll have some information and they’ll want to impart it because the voices that they’re hearing are causing them to finally want to unburden themselves of something they know.
FELICITY PACKARD: So wonderful — flexibility of a podcast.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes.
FELICITY PACKARD: That’s fantastic.
HEDLEY THOMAS: Filmmakers and documentary makers go, ‘Oh my God, I cannot imagine being able to do that.’
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, I mean flexible and organic, but also kind of terrifying at the same time because we’d like to have control over what we’re producing, don’t we, Hedley? It’s kind of like, ‘Oh my God, we’re —’
HEDLEY THOMAS: Utterly terrifying as it’s unfolding because you’re racing to get the next episode.
PAUL BARCLAY: I need to ask you this question because my lawyer friends might say that someone accused by the media of committing a serious crime like murder, will never be able to get a fair trial because of the prejudicial media coverage that comes from the most listened to crime podcast in Australian history.
Is there a danger that despite all of your fine investigative journalism that a podcast like yours could jeopardise a future case?
HEDLEY THOMAS: Well, I think defence lawyer friends of yours probably say that and prosecutor lawyer friends disagree with them.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s a fair distinction.
HEDLEY THOMAS: If I were a lawyer I would probably be a prosecutor. But, without commenting on this case, let’s take a very notorious case. Let’s say — sorry?
QUESTION: Lindy Chamberlain?
HEDLEY THOMAS: Yes, okay. Well, in Lindy Chamberlain’s example, I think she clearly suffered a very grave miscarriage of justice.
But I think that in many jurisdictions in Australia, including in New South Wales, an accused who is involved in an allegedly serious crime that has been notorious and the publicity has been extraordinary, that accused has the right to apply for a judge-alone trial. Thereby avoiding any potential prejudice that a juror might bring from listening or reading or watching a documentary about something.
So, I think that that is a really important point. Often, the defence lawyers, when they’re making these arguments to you, Paul, and to me, don’t actually acknowledge straight up until you point that out and they say, ‘Well, yes, okay, fair enough’.
But they always have a right to a jury trial and that should be their first right. I think the problem with the argument that notorious publicity sabotages the ability to have a fair trial is that quite often the really widespread and extraordinary publicity is the product of extraordinarily notorious set of murders, for example, or set of sexual assaults, brutal rapes.
The publicity is not usually extraordinary as a result of a fairly one-off offence or something. So, it follows that, if the argument is continued, that the worst alleged criminals could actually be potentially given a leave pass from trial because of the inevitable extraordinary publicity that was attached to their crimes.
I think that’s not right. I believe jurors are really sensible and they can be very well-instructed by judges to just put out of their minds, everything they may have heard or listened to.
PAUL BARCLAY: Well, I think this is right and, I mean, the jury is a concept that predates mass media, certainly predates social media, and has proven to be remarkably resilient to the contemporary times when such matters have been discussed.
Look, I wanted to talk, actually, Felicity, because I think that with the first series of Underbelly, wasn’t it the case that many of the characters, many of the culprits in that series — [Tony] Mokbel and so forth — were about to appear before court at about the same time as the series was being screened? Did you come up against some of these issues yourself?
FELICITY PACKARD: Absolutely. Carl Williams hadn’t even pled guilty while we were in production. I was in court the day he pled guilty. Mokbel was on the run. He was overseas living it up in Greece.
Yes, and the series one has actually never gone to air on free-to-air in Victoria still, because it had a suppression order put on it about 10 days out from going to air. Channel 9 had conniptions. It’s a funny story.
The suppression order came up because a relatively minor criminal character who was already in jail doing 20 years for the murder we depicted him doing, which was episode 12, was coming up for trial for another murder.
So even though he was already in jail for murder, the fact that we were going to depict him on screen doing the murder for which he was already in jail, could’ve jeopardised his right to an unbiased trial in the future. So, it had a suppression order put on it. It went to air everywhere else, but not in Victoria.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s amazing. Never been screened on free-to-air TV.
FELICITY PACKARD: Never been screened in Victoria, no.
PAUL BARCLAY: They don’t know what they’re missing. But the other interesting thing about Underbelly is that, and I know the first two series — perhaps I just prefer the first two series to the rest, I don’t know — something about the Mr Asia syndicate and the Carlton Crew stories that appeal to me for whatever reason. But, I think of people like Carl Williams and his ex-wife Roberta, and Mick Gatto and Tony Mokbel. As a result of your series, they’ve become, in a sense, figures in popular culture.
Perhaps because of the ability of the actors who played them in the series to bring those characters to life? Do we know what they made of the fact that they became, themselves, celebrities? Have they ever spoken about that?
FELICITY PACKARD: Not to me. We were in contact with Mick Gatto during the lead up to that series because he had been on remand for a year a couple of years earlier for the murder of Benji Veniamin, which he was eventually acquitted because he said it was self-defence. But, he’d spent a year on remand.
So, he’s a very powerful figure in Melbourne. He’s a very rich man with a lot of contacts. And so we were in contact with him. I think he was very concerned about how that particular incident would be represented and wanted to see the scripts, which we never show anybody the scripts. So, we didn’t go there.
PAUL BARCLAY: So, he didn’t enjoy the notoriety is kind of what you’re saying.
FELICITY PACKARD: No, I don’t think he did. This sounds glib, but if you think about it for yourself, it probably holds true. I think a lot of the people who were still alive — because a lot of them were dead, of course — who were shown on screen, if they were played by somebody attractive, that really helped.
It sounds facile, but it’s true. The people we represented who were on the loose end of legality did quite well out of it, I suspect. They enjoyed the notoriety, yes.
HEDLEY THOMAS: I just think Felicity’s really brave for refusing requests from gangland alleged figures for a script. No, you’re not getting it. Oh, okay.
PAUL BARCLAY: Actually, that reminds me of a story when I was beginning my journalistic career I was offered a job to host a Q&A session following the screening of a film called Ghosts of the Civil Dead, which was a film about a dystopian version of a modern private prison. This was back in the 80s and I had to host a panel discussion.
I was a very young radio journalist at the time and one of the members of the panel discussion was somebody who’d recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. He wouldn’t stop talking on this panel discussion and it was my job to shut him up and I didn’t shut him up. Needless to say, he dominated the discussion.
There must have been comments though, aimed at Underbelly, that you glamorised and made celebrities out of hardened criminals?
FELICITY PACKARD: Oh, absolutely. We got that all the time. And, look, I can’t deny that some of them come out looking pretty glamorous. I would always say, though, if you watch the Underbelly series, and any of our series, the criminals in it — if you’re a male criminal in Underbelly you’re dead or in jail by the time you’re 35.
Almost without exception, they are dead or in jail by the time they’re 35. It does not last. We didn’t realise this until perspective gave us the ability to look at it. Every series, the criminal timeframe is about eight to 10 years. So nobody lasts.
Again, Michael Corleone. No one in Australia is like that. It doesn’t work like that. Certainly not in the world’s we were depicting. It’s fortune’s wheel. Rise and fall. And usually fall pretty hard until, like Carl Williams, you’re dead and in jail.
It’s a nasty brutish world. So, yes, there were glamorous moments, but it’s brief and unappealing if you actually watch through to the end.
PAUL BARCLAY: Also, Rachel, the most dangerous place, in fact, in terms of criminal activity, is the home. Basically, domestic violence is the most common form of violence in Australian society. Which kind of raises the question does true crime teach us to be afraid of the wrong crimes?
RACHEL FRANKS: I think sometimes true crime is very good at helping us with confirmation bias. You know, things that we find quite revolting in the world we can go to a bookshop or a library and we can find somebody who shares our worldview and has taken the time to write about it and we can read those stories and those views. Again, going back to the points we were making earlier, we can feel less alone in a world where crime is all around us.
But I think that often if you were to look at all those bookshelves, the thing that we should be the most frightened of is the serial killer. While the serial killer has a capacity to energise the press, I think, and energise us like no other type of killer today,it really is that, for a lot of women, the most dangerous part of the world for them is at their own front door.
I think even though those stories are extraordinarily difficult and painful to tell, if we are going to make true crime meaningful and allow people to have that sense of ‘I’m not alone’, then they are actually stories that we do need to unpack. But, potentially, not under the true crime label, if that makes sense.
I think true crime is very easily hijacked as entertainment, but it’s quite adaptable and we can put another label on it and it suddenly becomes much more serious. We can call it history or biography or something else.
I think that for those crimes where people are suffering now, so, for example, I would never label crimes around frontier violence and the hurt and trauma against Indigenous Australians as true crime. I would always call it history because we are at a lot of risk of re-inscribing trauma for people.
I think there’s a skill to tell these stories in nuanced and compassionate ways. As Hedley was talking about earlier, we must be careful as producers or re-tellers of these stories, as well as consumers.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. Hedley, I’m just wondering, does the media in a sense play an even more important role these days in terms of uncovering possible miscarriages of justice revisiting cold cases?
I mean, we are seeing so many documentaries and podcasts series now that are re-looking at crimes that were committed, looking at people who are incarcerated, looking at cold cases that have just been sitting on the shelves. For many of them, new life has been breathed into appeals for people to be released because of miscarriages.
Do you think this is something that the media should be playing more of a role in?
HEDLEY THOMAS: Paul, I think it’s vitally important that the media is playing this role and increasingly playing the role. I’m sure that across Australia there will be many hundreds of cases that could potentially still be solved with media scrutiny. Many of those cases once had a bit of media scrutiny.
When the alleged murder or rape first occurred and police issued a media release and asked witnesses to come forward. Anyone know anything? But then, sadly, these cases tend to become a little stale and they fall between the cracks.
It’s incumbent on journalists — hopefully encouraged by friends and loved ones of a woman or a man who has been harmed or killed — to take that on and try to make a difference. Try to use whatever they can, whether it’s a podcast, whether it’s a documentary film, a series of stories, to bring the perpetrator to justice, because what more important role could there be?
If you want to both ensure that people are engaged and informed, thereby making your own media outlet viable, but also serving a public interest, then I think it’s vital.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. We are almost out of time. I did want to touch on, at some stage during this discussion, and we’ve got hardly any time left, the murder of Colin Winchester here in Canberra. This was the murder of the most highly ranked police officer in Australian history.
There was a man convicted of the crime. David Eastman spent almost 20 years in prison and his conviction was only last year, overturned. Felicity, you were telling me that being in Canberra, you know.
FELICITY PACKARD: It’s a big story in Canberra, yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s a big story.
FELICITY PACKARD: Yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: And gripped many people here and that apparently you don’t live too far away from the man in question, who has been released from prison.
FELICITY PACKARD: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a great story. I think it’s a story crying out to be told, to investigate. Or do a podcast. Over to you, Hedley.
Somebody murdered Colin Winchester, the second most senior police officer in Australia, in his driveway in Deakin. I mean, it’s just gobsmacking. And the person who was convicted was wrongfully convicted and it’s been overturned.
But someone knows something about that. I think it’s a great story to be told and to be investigated.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was also actually interesting with one of those cases where he was eventually acquitted on the basis of questionable forensic evidence. Now, this has been a recurring motif in Australian cases over here. I think, actually, Lindy Chamberlain was originally convicted —
HEDLEY THOMAS: The so-called foetal blood, which was rust overspray or something.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. Oh, look, I could keep talking about this all day, showing how much we all do love talking about true crime, even some very gruesome true crimes as described by Rachel.
Look, it’s been a fantastic conversation. I do need to apologise to you. We don’t have time for Q&A. I needed the whole hour for my radio program and we’re running on a tight schedule. But I think that the panellists, if you can nab them afterwards, may be happy to have a word to you.
Thanks very much for coming along today. It’s been a great conversation. Thanks to our guests. And thank you to you for coming along today. Thanks to the Canberra Writers Festival and the National Museum of Australia.
Have a wonderful day. If you’re heading off to other sessions in the festival, have a wonderful Canberra Writers Festival. See you around.
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Date published: 28 November 2019