“What is it about murder that allows us to turn it into feel-good entertainment?”asks multi-award winning crime author P.M. Newtown. “We seem to have separated murder from reality,”she said.
She was part of a panel discussion, The Perfect Victim, discussing our obsession with violent crime, and whether fictional violence influences the media’s coverage of real crime.
“There’s an old newspaper saying ‘when it bleeds it leads’, and when it comes to violence of any kind, it’s going to be big in newspapers,”she said. “When you watch TV programs like CSI or read crime fiction it’s just bang bang bang results, and it creates a different expectation of how involved a police investigation is.”
Newton would know. She served in the NSW Police Force for 13 years in various departments including sexual assault and major crime. She left the police to travel and live overseas, before settling back in Sydney to write Australian-based crime novels.
Fellow panel member Clive Small is also a former police officer. He served for 38 years, and led the investigation into the infamous backpacker murders. After retiring, he joined the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Now a full-time author, his latest book Milat: Inside Australia’s Biggest Manhunt was released this month.
Small said media focus on the Milat case was both a hindrance and a help to the investigation. “The publicity spread fear, and caused thousands of people to phone in with what they thought might have been helpful hints for the police. Not all were, but among them were some little gems that were critical,”he said.
Writer Michaela McGuire said public involvement in the Jill Meagher murder went too far. “The Age website had an interactive crime scene map. People were playing detective, and they were encouraged to do so by the media, like it was a fun game. I wasn’t quite sure why that was necessary,” she said.
McGuire and Newton praised Tom Meagher, Jill’s husband, for his White Ribbon Campaign essay. “He pointed out that what happened to his wife was abhorrent and rare. The reality is that violence lies with people’s husbands, brother, uncles, the people you live with, and people that you loved, not the random stranger or the super smart serial killer,” Newton said.
The media focus on this one horrific crime eclipsed the fact that thousands of violent crimes are committed against Australian women every year. In fact, one Australian woman dies every week in an ‘intimate partner homicide’. Yet the media focuses on the rare and extraordinary crimes that make great headlines and get online clicks; people want to hear stories with a perfect victim.
Jon Page, co-owner of independent bookshop Pages & Pages, relates crime fiction with romance novels. “They have rules, they have structure, and nine times out of ten, things are resolved at the end. People want that predictability. The crime fiction that fits this pattern sells well,”he said.
He said Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy novels were a game-changer. “There’s a very shocking scene in the first book. Other authors saw that formula work, and it became almost a competition to one-up that book,”he said. “Writers now have to up the ante to break through to the desensitised audience.”
P.M. Newton said desensitisation led to the development of the serial killer character in crime fiction. “In early crime fiction, the hero detective follows clues to track down this mad dog at the end. Now, books want to put you in the head of the mad dog so that you can experience their pleasure as they perform terrible acts on women. That’s quite a remove, and I find it really disturbing,”she said.
Clive Small pointed out that some convicted murderers like Ivan Milat do commit crimes for personal satisfaction, but it’s important to realise that there’s not just one profile for a serial killer. “Some are professional hit men motivated by business propositions,”he said.
Newton and Page suggest there should be more crime fiction that focuses on the aftermath of a killing, or on the affected families. “The death of one person should be enough to look at how it shatters a society,”Newton said.
The panel suggested the media can influence the public’s response to reports of violence. “In NSW, we’ve seen three young men die in Kings Cross as a result of male violence. The media ran with the story, the politicians ran with it, and there was a change of law,”Newton said.