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Violent Delights

By Thomas Ponissi


Header Image:

Thomas Ponissi, Hear No Evil (2022) — photoshop, digital — a variation on Pierre Subleyras, Justice (c. 1730s) — painting, oil on canvas; public domain.


When we listen to true crime podcasts, do we hear the dog whistles underneath?

 

Prologue: Juanita, a true crime story

It is a tale as old as time — or, at least, an experience endemic in our digital age. Several weeks ago, a family member recommended a podcast to me.


Their suggestion could not have been more astute. As soon as I pressed play on ABC Radio’s Unravel True Crime: Juanita, [1] I was hooked. The series investigates the unsolved 1974 disappearance of Juanita Nielsen, a Sydney newspaper editor and anti-gentrification activist; rumors have long swirled about the complicity of organised crime and state corruption in Ms. Nielsen’s demise. Against this backdrop of misogyny and class oppression, Unravel immediately endeared itself to me as the perfect urban folklore for today’s interconnected cultural, political and economic struggles, with Juanita herself a prescient feminist icon. [2]


Then came a plot twist I hadn’t anticipated: when I finished episode six of Unravel, the remaining two episodes of the season were no longer available. Some rudimentary online sleuthing of my own later, and I discovered an editor’s note on the Unravel website, stating:


“Following publication, new information came to light casting serious doubt on some of [a key source]’s claims. […] Episodes 7 and 8 have been temporarily removed from the ABC website and podcast platforms in order to address concerns about the accuracy of [such] claims.” [3]


This decision was in response to a wave of criticism regarding the credibility of the series’ findings, [4] which has unfortunately tarred the entire season’s reputation. [5]


As a feminist, I am grateful that I was directed to the story of Juanita Nielsen and the dispossession of low-income and marginalised residents in 1970s Sydney. However, was a true crime podcast the right medium to tell this story? As an audience member, I am fundamentally unsatisfied. I didn’t get any sense of closure; by virtue of editorial redaction, I couldn’t even hear the last quarter of the season. If Unravel sought to give clarity to its subjects, it succeeded only in muddying the waters further. [6] Forget the happy ending; here, there’s no ending at all.


Education or entertainment?

It is important to distinguish true crime from journalism. [7] True crime, with its earliest forebears in colonial American ‘execution sermons’, [8] not only predates contemporary journalism, but also favours “narrative forms more commonly associated with fiction” than with formal reportage. [9] Works frequently focus on extreme cases of violence against women, [10] using popular media to appeal to sensationalism and moralism [11] — even if the genre has at times been made “respectable” by prestige pieces like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. [12]


This American genre [13] is increasingly being replicated in Australia with homegrown hits such as The Teacher’s Pet and Bondi Badlands, despite domestic media law being generally hostile to potentially-defamatory content. [14] True crime podcasts are consistently the most popular genre on audio streaming platforms, [15] and most people’s knowledge and perceptions of the legal system is derived from what they’ve gleaned from the media. [16] Thus, the proliferation of so-called ‘infotainment’ [17] — particularly from noninstitutionalized media actors, such as ordinary citizens, [18] producing content that carries “the risk of dubious reliability” [19] — underlines a need to look more sceptically at this “far-reaching and profound” phenomenon. [20]


The use of dramatic conventions or novelistic techniques is common in narrative non-fiction, [21] imbuing creatives with considerable — and potentially problematic — power. In Australia, it is harder to access source materials, so actors are often hired to voice transcripts; this leads to producers making “judgments about tone, emphasis and emotion” that take on an innately curatorial, not strictly documentarian, dimension. [22]


True crime works are increasingly seen as “an alternative to the courtroom, with its producers the self-appointed avengers” of injustice. [23] Not only does this imply a non-existent dual legal system; it reduces complex, often traumatic events into products ready for easy consumption. Media lawyer Susan Weiner writes:


“By ordering disorder, the structure of the [true crime] narrative itself appears to bring crime under control. […] No matter how convoluted the investigation and trial may be, the writer who captures the story will always provide an ending.” [24]


While true crime can theoretically be both entertaining and accurate, the genre tends to paint a fairly skewed picture. A 2017 study of popular American true crime media found that not a single work featured an “adult, ethnic minority” male victim, despite this being the demographic most affected by homicide. [25] We ought to heed the warning of scholar-activist Elsa Barkley Brown that “a linear history will lead us to a linear politics”, neither of which “will serve us well in an asymmetrical world”. [26]


Perhaps there is merely correlation, not causation, in the concurrent surge in popularity of true crime over the past half-century and in public demand for punitive, carceral solutions to crime. [27] However, some researchers believe that the more realistic true crime content is perceived to be, irrespective of its actual veracity, the more likely consumers are “to perceive crime rates as higher… and to favour stringent punishment of criminals”. [28] Framing crime through a strict innocence/guilt binary strengthens punitive sentiment [29] and encourages us to be “suspicious and cynical”. [30] We occupy and guard the panopticon all by ourselves.


Crime as a commodity

The current wave of true crime content is a distinctly modernist and late capitalist phenomenon; [31] its emphasis on the “uncertain, [the] unsolved, [the] unresolved” is a proxy for the “precariousness and the vertigo” of the twenty-first century. [32] Fascinatingly, despite the perpetual crises of our plague-ridden and militarised times, the genre is an addictive comfort to many.


True crime represents an uneasy coalition between humanity’s innate morbid curiosity in the macabre [33] and what Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin describes as the three goals of open justice: education, judicial accountability and public confidence. [34] There is a prima facie utility in the “shared learning experience” of true crime content, particularly when it’s affordable or free. [35] There appears to be something refreshingly populist in the genre’s focus on “obscure, overlooked cases”, featuring protagonists to whom justice was historically denied. [36] Works are “testaments [of] and correctives to the original legal trial”; [37] the co-directors of Netflix’s Making a Murderer even label their work “a ‘social justice’ series, rather than a true crime one”. [38] Contrary to traditional media’s “gatekeeper relationship” with the public, [39] modern true crime also seems to democratise discourse and blur the line between producer and consumer. [40] By encouraging active engagement, the role of the audience member is transformed. [42]


However, there are consequences to turning audience members into ‘armchair detectives’. [43] Only last year, TikTok user and transgender woman Sabrina Prater was accused of being a serial killer after posting a video of herself dancing in her basement. The reasoning behind this unfounded and blatantly transphobic conspiracy theory explicitly echoed the beats of true crime sleuthing. This behaviour may be inspired by true crime, but it belongs “in the realm of surrealism”. [44]


More so, the apparent empowerment of victims and consumers alike is merely a mirage. The characters central to these narratives are rarely given a voice or tangible interest; [45] it is mainly those behind the scenes who really benefit, professionally and financially. [46] Some US states have so-called ‘Son of Sam’ laws, which prevent criminal offenders from selling their stories, [47] but there is no comparable prohibition on third parties profiting from these stories, nor a requirement to get the consent of those depicted. [48]


Unsurprisingly, the true crime genre was turbocharged during the Reagan era; [49] it represents the ultimate neoliberalisation of criminal justice. Today, the true crime industry is booming: true crime-themed tourism, hospitality, apparel, even a CrimeCon. [50] In “an increasingly competitive digital environment”, it is a reliable cash cow; it is no wonder, locally, Fairfax, News Corp and Nine are “investing heavily” in the genre. [51]


Some claim true crime is too complex to be told via traditional media, [52] but I suspect that the shift to long-form storytelling is to ensure that “there is no end to the speculative opportunities” that generate content. [53] Note the language in this comment on a Reddit thread about one popular podcast:


“It’s easier to believe that [Suspect 1] did it for kicks than to believe [Suspect 2] did it for honour. Wait… maybe [Suspect 2] did it for kicks. God damnit [sic] I’m back at square one for the millionth time!” [54]


True crime enables “fetishistic disavowal”, a process of continually acting as if one doesn’t know, in order to perpetually ruminate — and consume. [55] If there is no resolution to a story, demand is unsatisfied; supply can be maintained. The beat goes on.


Coda: Serial, a true crime story

My immersion into the genre came with Juanita, but it was actually the American podcast Serial that ushered in the true crime digital renaissance. [56] Produced by Serial Productions, the first season focused on the potentially false conviction of Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.


The fastest podcast to reach five million downloads, [57] Serial premiered in 2014, won a prestigious Peabody Award in 2015, and led to a retrial for Syed being ordered in 2016. [58] Its significance – on the genre, and the case depicted – was historic.


However, in 2019, Syed’s conviction was reinstated, [59] and the Supreme Court rejected his leave to appeal. [60] Syed, who was arrested at the age of 17 and turned 40 last year, will spend the rest of his life in prison. In 2020, Serial Productions was purchased by The New York Times for over $25 million. [61]


Who ever said crime doesn’t pay?



 

FOOTNOTES

[1] ‘My Aunt Juanita’, Unravel True Crime: Juanita (Australian Broadcast Corporation, 13 July 2021).

[2] Lee Rhiannon, ‘Juanita Nielsen Was Murdered for Standing Up to Sydney’s Developers’, Jacobin (online at 13 December 2020) <https://jacobinmag.com/2020/12/juanita-nielsen-murder-sydney-australia-developers>.

[3] ‘Unravel True Crime: Juanita’, Unravel True Crime (Web Page — Editor’s Note, 24 September 2021) <https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/truecrime/juanita/>.

[4] Neil Mercer, ‘Fact or fiction: credibility of Juanita Nielsen doco’s star witness called into question’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online at 3 October 2021) <https://www.smh.com.au/national/fact-or-fiction-credibility-of-juanita-nielsen-doco-s-star-witness-called-into-question-20211001-p58wjd.html>; Neil Mercer and Paul Rees, ‘Makers of pulled ABC documentary agreed not to ask star witness key questions’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online at 10 October 2021) <https://www.smh.com.au/national/makers-of-pulled-abc-documentary-agreed-not-to-ask-star-witness-key-questions-20211009-p58ym0.html>;

[5] Sally Rawsthorne, ‘Juanita Nielson podcast wins silver in awards despite credibility issues’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online at 3 December 2021) <https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/juanita-nielsen-podcast-wins-silver-in-awards-despite-credibility-issues-20211203-p59ejq.html>.

[6] Similarly, 2021’s Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire was criticised for alleging, without sufficient evidence, that former NSW Premier Neville Wran had been involved in a cover up. The deluge of related bad press ultimately overshadowed the ABC series’ other landmark discoveries about the 1979 Luna Park fire, which an independent external review found constituted “an important public service”.

[7] Lindsey Webb, ‘True Crime and Danger Narratives: Reflections on Stories of Violence, Race, and (In)justice’ (2021) 24 The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice 131, 142.

[8] Harold Schechter, True Crime: An American Anthology (Library of Congress, 2008) 3.

[9] Ian Case Punnett, Toward a Theory of True Crime Narratives: A Textual Analysis (Routledge, 2019) 93.

[10] McKenzie Wood and Stephanie Ritchie Breach, ‘Assessing the Impact of a High Impact Practice: Implementing a Criminal Justice Shared Learning Experience Using the True Crime Podcast Serial’ (2021) 32(4) Journal of Criminal Justice Education 464, 472; Webb (n 7) 131 and 147.

[11] Jean Murley, The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture (Westport CT, 2009) 6.

[12] Susan Weiner, ‘True Crime: Fact, Fiction, and the Law’ (1993) 17(3) Legal Studies Forum 273, 275.

[13] Hope Williams, ‘‘Serial’ concerns: The rise of ‘new true crime’ journalism in the United States, and corresponding legal impediments in Australia’ (2018) 22 Media and Arts Law Review 201, 202.

[14] Ibid 243.

[15] Webb (n 10) 153; see also Katie Heaney, ‘Is True Crime Over?’, The Cut (online at 19 August 2019), <https://www.thecut.com/2019/08/is-true-crime-over.html>.

[16] Connie L. McNeely, ‘Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System: Televised Imagery and Public Knowledge in the United States’ (1995) 3 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 1, 3.

[17] Kirrily Schwarz, ‘Presumption of innocence: Exclusive trial by media our true crime obsession’ (2019) 54 Law Society of NSW Journal 40, 43.

[18] Ibid 41.

[19] Marcy Wheeler, ‘How Noninstitutionalized Media Change the Relationship between the Public and Media Coverage of Trials’ (2008) 71(4) Law and Contemporary Problems 135, 153.

[20] Murley (n 11) 112.

[21] Ibid 13; Weiner (n 12) 280.

[22] Williams (n 13) 212.

[23] Ibid 203.

[24] Weiner (n 21) 284.

[25] Elizabeth Yardley, Emma Kelly and Shona Robinson-Edwards, ‘Forever trapped in the imaginary of late capitalism? The serialized true crime podcast as a wake-up call in times of criminological slumber’ (2019) 15(3) Crime Media Culture 503, 510; see also Amanda L. Robinson and Christopher D. Maxwell, ‘Typifying American Exceptionalism: Homicide in the USA’, in Fiona Brookman, Edward R. Maguire and Mike Maguire (eds), The Handbook of Homicide (Wiley Blackwell, 2017) 368-87.

[26] Elsa Barkley Brown, ‘“What Has Happened Here”: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics’ (1992) 18(2) Feminist Studies 18(2) 295, 312.

[27] Weiner (n 24) 287.

[28] Garrett J. O’Keefe and Kathleen Reid-Nash, ‘Crime News and Real-World Blues: The Effects of the Media on Social Reality’ (1982) 14(2) Communication Research 147, 151.

[29] Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now. (Penguin Random House, 2022) 61; see also Weiner (n 27) 273, 275, 278 and 288; see also P. E. Moskowitz, ‘True Crime is Cathartic for Women. It’s Also Cop Propaganda.’, Mother Jones (online at 16 July 2021) <https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/06/true-crime-podcasts-white-women/>; see also Dylan Rodríguez, ‘Mass Incarceration as Misnomer’ (2017) 26 The Abolitionist 1 and 9.

[30] Murley (n 20) 2.

[31] Yardley et al (25) 504.

[32] Ibid 513; see also Jock Young, The Vertigo of Late Modernity (Sage, 2007).

[33] Megan Boorsma, ‘The Whole Truth: The Implications of America’s True Crime Obsession’ (2017) 9(1) Elon Law Review 209, 212; see also Oliver Burkeman, ‘This column will change your life: morbid curiosity’, The Guardian (online at 28 July 2012) <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/27/morbid-curiosity-change-life-burkeman>.

[34] Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, ‘Openness and the Rule of Law’ (Speech, Middle Temple Hall, 8 January 2014); discussed at length in Williams (n 23) 210.

[35] Wood and Breach (n 10) 465.

[36] Williams (n 34) 204 and 216.

[37] Sara Sligar, ‘In Cold Blood, the Expansion of Psychiatric Evidence, and the Corrective Power of True Crime’ (2019) 31(1) Law & Literature 21, 21.

[38] Jennifer M. Wood, ‘Is Today’s True Crime Fascination Really About Justice?’, WIRED (online at 5 November 2018) <https://www.wired.com/story/true-crime-shows-social-justice/>; see also Weiner (n 29) 278.

[39] Marcy Wheeler, ‘How Noninstitutionalized Media Change the Relationship between the Public and Media Coverage of Trials’ (2008) 71(4) Law and Contemporary Problems 135, 138.

[40] Kris M. Markman, ‘Doing radio, making friends, and having fun: Exploring the motivations of independent audio podcasters’ (2011) 14 New Media and Society 547, 547.

[41] Williams (n 36) 208.

[42] Markman (n 40) 547.

[43] Ibid 231.

[44] Weiner (n 38) 283.

[45] Ashton Williams, ‘Shockingly Evil: The Cruel Invasive Appropriation and Exploitation of Victims' Rights of Publicity in the True Crime Genre’ (2020) 27(2) Journal of Intellectual Property Law 303, 318.

[46] Ibid 316; Weiner (n 44) 275; see also Julie Miller, ‘Ted Bundy’s Longtime Girlfriend Finally Speaks, and Finds (Some) Relief’, Vanity Fair (online at 31 January 2020) <https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/01/ted-bundy-girlfriendelizabeth-kendall-interview>; see also Sam Prance, ‘Ted Bundy and Charles Manson fans are fighting over who's the ‘sexiest’ serial killer’, Pop Buzz (online at 15 August 2019) <https://www.popbuzz.com/internet/viral/ted-bundy-charles-manson-serial-killer-twitter/>.

[47] Ashton Williams (n 46) 312.

[48] Ibid 321.

[49] Weiner (n 46) 284.

[50] Webb (n 15) 154-5.

[51] Schwarz (n 17) 42.

[52] Williams (n 41) 206.

[53] Jacques Barzun, ‘The Place and Point of ‘True Crime’’ (2001) 41(1) Medicine, Science and the Law 72, 73.

[54] hippo-slap (Reddit, 11 October 2015 AEST) < https://www.reddit.com/r/serialpodcast/comments/3odan5/dons_motive_if_he_did_it/ >.

[55] Yardley et al (n 31) 508; see also Slavoj Žižek, Violence (Profile Books, 2009) 45-6.

[56] David Carr, ‘‘Serial,’ Podcasting’s First Breakout Hit, Sets Stage for More’, The New York Times (online at 23 November 2014) <https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/24/business/media/serial-podcastings-first-breakout-hit-sets-stage-for-more.html>.

[57] Stuart Dredge, ‘Serial podcast breaks iTunes records as it passes 5m downloads and streams’, The Guardian (online at 19 November 2014) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/18/serial-podcast-itunes-apple-downloads-streams>.

[58] Jonah Engel Bromwich and Liam Stack, ‘Adnan Syed, of ‘Serial’ Podcast, Gets a Retrial in Murder Case’, The New York Times (online at 30 June 2016) <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/us/serial-adnan-syed-new-trial.html>.

[59] Ralph Ellis, ‘Adnan Syed, subject of ‘Serial' podcast, will not get a new trial’, CNN (online at 8 March 2019) <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/08/us/serial-adnan-syed-conviction-reinstated/index.html>.

[60] Please see no. 19-227 under ‘Certiorari Denied’, in Supreme Court of the United States, Order List: 589 U.S., 25 November 2019, 2.

[61] Rachel Abrams, ‘New York Times to Buy Production Company Behind ‘Serial’ Podcast’, The New York Times (online at 22 July 2020) <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/business/media/new-york-times-serial.html>.

 

Thomas Ponissi is a fourth year Law/Global Studies student, specialising in Human Rights. He works in the refugee settlement sector, as well as at a community legal centre for disadvantaged clients. Thomas’ favourite books are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.














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