Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 2: Defining moments – True Crime Panel

The reason for my second choice for the day – a panel discussion on true crime – may not seem quite so obvious as my first, so I’ll explain. I don’t read a lot of crime, but I do watch it, and I have a slightly more than passing interest in true crime. I loved Truman Capote’s In cold blood, I also love Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief, and I have watched all of the Underbelly television series (for which one of the panel members, Felicity Packard, wrote). Is that justification enough?

Picture of the panelThis session was recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program, and the host of that show, Paul Barclay, moderated the panel. The panel members were

  • Hedley Thomas, investigative journalist who has produced a highly successful podcast The Teacher’s Pet about the disappearance and probable murder of Lynnette Dawson.
  • Felicity Packard, screenwriter on Underbelly and other successful television series.
  • Rachel Franks, academic specialising in true crime, including from Australia’s convict and colonial eras.

Paul Barclay commenced by commenting on our penchant for true crime, and that it can be a “guilty pleasure” for many. These crimes range from the criminal slaughter of indigenous Australians in colonial Australia to twentieth century crimes such as the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, the famous Pyjama Girl case, and Canberra’s most famous one, the as yet unsolved murder of Colin Winchester.

Felicity Packard, on what interested her about true crime, said that the story comes first. She loves a good story, but she has also always been interested in crime. She wants to get into the minds of the criminals, not to glorify them, but to represent – and understand – them as people. She also said her aim was not to judge them. Their actions speak for themselves! Fair enough.

Hedley Thomas, on why we love true crime, said that his wife liked it because she wanted to understand crimes against women with a view to identifying how women might protect themselves. More women read, watch and listen to true crime, Thomas said. They tend to empathise more and want to protect themselves. For “the rest of us”, there’s voyeurism, but also an awareness of the fine line, of how easily we could lash out ourselves.

Rachel Franks, on whether our convict origins contribute to our interest in true crime, felt that yes, it was a contributing factor! Everyone back then knew a crook, she said! Crimes broke routines, and people followed them closely in the newspapers.

The conversation then discussed:

  • the role of the pursuit of justice, and of revenge, in our interest in true crime.
  • women as victims: why we are more interested in crimes against the young and the beautiful, and why, even, we see such crimes as more heinous. Packard saw the focus on beauty as a sad indictment on society, and Franks said the focus on the young dying taps into the notion of loss of potential.
  • the fact that some crimes captivate people more than others, such as that of Allison Baden-Clay, whom Thomas knew personally: this story captivated us, he suggested, because they were an ordinary suburban couple (on the surface at least).

Barclay asked Packard what she’d learnt about criminals, given she’d spent time with many during her research for Underbelly. Her answer was enlightening, though, I suppose, not surprising. First, though she clarified that the crimes she dealt with were mercantile, rather than domestic/personal ones, and were from “organised crime” (though she’d call them “disorganised”). These criminals are characterised by lack of impulse control, greed, a sense of entitlement, and a determination to protect their patch. She did not see these criminals as particularly loyal or as part of a brotherhood, as Mafia movies suggest. She saw some loyalties, but these tended to be self-interested and short-lived.

Regarding whether it is easier or harder to write fictional versus true crime, Packard said that with true crime you have the bare bones but huge knowledge gaps. She therefore needs to invent – but in good faith. She’s not making documentary.

Barclay asked Franks about colonial Australia and particularly about the 19th century baby-farmer crimes. Franks explained that baby-farming grew largely as a response to the stigma faced by unmarried mothers. Often these “baby-farmers” would neglect or even kill outright these babies. A particularly heinous couple were Sydney’s John and Sarah Makin from the 1890s. They apparently killed 12-13 babies, and yet few of us know this story. The outcry over the Makins’ case resulted in some changes to legislation, such as banning the paying for babies, but it took much longer to reduce the fundamental cause, the stigmatisation of unmarried women.

Franks said that the main value of true crime is that it forces us to have a conversation about it, including how did the crime unfold, what policies or behaviours supported it or allowed it to happen.

Different true crime spaces (for want of a better word)

Barclay asked whether some crimes are too horrible to adapt for television. Packard said that child murder and sexual abuse (particularly child sexual abuse) are too hard to turn to entertainment, which is the space she works in.

Thomas’s space is different, investigative journalism, specifically in cold case crimes. It’s painstaking work, as journalists don’t have police tools, and difficult because the people involved are elderly or even deceased. His Teacher’s Pet podcast brought more people forward. So, he said, if he used the podcast model again he would start broadcasting it before he finished it (which is something filmmakers/documentary-makers can’t do.) Media, Thomas believes, can play an important role in ensuring justice. It’s incumbent on journalists to try to make a difference.

Regarding the impact of media on fair trial, Thomas said it depended on whether you are talking to defence or prosecuting lawyers! He also said that accused people can apply for a judge-alone trial to avoid prejudicial jury, but overall he believes that jurors are sensible and can be well instructed by judges. Packard talked here about the court process still being in train when the first Underbelly went to air. Free-to-air broadcast of it is still suppressed in Victoria.

Barclay asked about the impact of the series on the criminals. Mick Gatto was concerned and didn’t enjoy the notoriety, Packard said. Those who were played on screen by someone attractive were less bothered, and those on the looser end of illegality enjoyed the notoriety (and did quite well out of it!)  Overall, though, she said it’s a nasty brutish world, in which every male is dead or in gaol by the time they’re 35. There are glamorous moments but they’re brief.

Franks works in the history space. She said that crime shows can teach us to be most frightened of the serial killer but for women the greatest danger is at their front door. These are the stories that need to be told. True crime can be high-jacked for entertainment, but the serious stories – indigenous massacres, and domestic violence for example – can be reframed as history, or documentary.

And, just to make sure we all knew we were in Canberra, we finished with the point that the murder of Colin Winchester is a great story that needs to be investigated and told.

It was a fascinating session. I particularly enjoyed its teasing out the different “spaces” in which true crime operates. It’s a more complex “genre” than I had realised.

14 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 2: Defining moments – True Crime Panel

  1. True crime doesn’t actually float my boat: I listen to all kinds of British crime novels (latest passion, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie), But this report raises my interest. I would not have expected to see you there, ST ! 🙂

    • No, it wouldn’t have been top priority M-R but as I wrote in my first post, there was the logistics thing – and I also have a particular interest in Felicity Packard, as she’s Canberra-based and I’ve met her socially a few times. I am not a devotee of true crime but there are some stories that interest me, largely because what they offer us in understanding human nature.

      • That flummoxes me. Why do we get an understanding of human nature through people who commit horrid crimes ? I mean, it’s not the nature we would want to know, surely ?!

        • Ah, good question. I suppose I’m interested in all sorts of human nature. What makes a person a criminal? Do they have any sense of humanity? Can they be rehabilitated? Can understanding them more help us prevent someone turning to crime, or help us turn them away from crime? If, for example, they have poor impulse control, what can we do identify this when children are young and improve their self control?

  2. I watch series on crime but don’t read a lot of it. I would find this session interesting. I enjoy seeing the process of how crime is solved. The small details that crop up and I love the board where all the information is placed and put together to form a picture in the police station. The forensics fascinates me too. I don’t need to see the actual crime committed, just the aftermath of how the puzzle is put together and solved. Cold cases are fascinating.

    • I’ll take that as a compliment Lisa. I wasn’t interested in true crime until I read Truman Capote 10 or so years ago, when I learned that like most things there’s true crime and there’s true crime.

      • It was meant as a compliment! Truly, as soon as I see the word crime anywhere in a post’s tags, I delete it from my inbox without reading the review. This isn’t as mean as it might sound, I subscribe to dozens of blogs and I couldn’t possibly read them all anyway, so it’s just one of the culling strategies that I use.
        But I read Truman Capote and I disliked that too. But not as much, I grant you, as I loathed Elizabeth George and that other American (woman) writer who spatters blood all over the page!

        • Thanks Lisa – it’s a big responsibility for me to know that you’ll read something like that because I wrote it!! Seriously though, I have similar culling strategies too – we must have them, mustn’t we.

          I have never read Elizabeth George (though I’ve watched Inspector Lynley), but I don’t think she is true crime, which I do think it is (or, can be) a bit different

          I have read two books by American women crime writers: Sue Grafton for an American reading group in the early 1990s, and Amanda Cross who writes/wrote gentle, as I recollect, campus-based crimes. Her female detective, Kate Fansler, if I remember correctly, drank sherry. But I’ve only read one each by these writers.)

        • I read a crime novel last year, the name of which escapes me now. But it was less of a crime novel and more about the authorities’ crime in the way that they responded (or rather, didn’t respond) to Katrina.

        • Yes, I think there’s crime and crime, isn’t there. I say I don’t read crime, but I really mean I don’t seek out crime, or read crime series, but each year I probably end up reading something that involves crime in some way.

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