I've just read Rough Justice, by Robin Bowles which reviews some controversial cases in Australian criminal law. Among the cases referred to is the disappearance of Peter Falconio in connection with which Bradley Murdoch is currently imprisoned, after being convicted of his murder. This struck me most amongst the contents because I had been utterly convinced of Murdoch's guilt. Of course I'd also previously been prepared to accept the guilt of Andrew Mallard (at least at the time of his prosecution) and I'd almost been convinced of the guilt of Lindy Chamberlain, just before the dam burst on the truth. I'd never really taken much notice of the cases of John Button or Darryl Beamish; they popped up occasionally in the media and I'd never really formed a strong view one way or the other, but I certainly wasn't convinced of their innocence until Estelle Blackburn's work, Broken Lives, appeared.Reading Rough Justice I became exasperated. The DNA evidence against Murdoch, which had been presented by the media as absolutely damning, is probably somewhat dubious. There were aspects of Joanne Lees' mutating testimony that were also perplexing. The general picture was a familiar one...familiar from all of the other episodes where a reasonable book had shown up the superficiality and omissions of media coverage of a major criminal investigation and consequent trial. Now, I don't tend to believe whoever last "got" at me, and I surely don't accept what the media pumps out as highly credible. So why do I keep being surprised by revelations in the works of (usually female) authors who seem to have a better grasp of the facts than I do? Probably because I keep behaving as if I do accept what the media pumps out.
I suspect that this is because, in the very serious matters of which I'm thinking, there is some as-yet-unextinguished faith that "They" won't allow gross misreporting of the proceedings. This probably has a deep foundation in my childhood when the authority of journalism as a profession was not as prolifically disparaged as it is now. It also relies on that youthful faith in the forces of law and order that served John Button so well (for those who don't know his story; he was fitted up). I've learned a lot better, including from my own work in the field. And yet, the things one learns earliest in life (I should say: is taught) are the most enduring. So the tendency to believe persists. It persists in the realm of heinous crimes; where one expects that the gravity of the matters will impose a constraint of care and honesty which it doesn't occur to one to expect in political blathering or celebrity gossip.
Now, do I take the work of Estelle Blackburn, Robin Bowles, and Colleen Egan as authoritative? To the extent that they have a track record of reliability and proven results, yes. John Bryson's 1985 work, Evil Angels, was the first work of this kind which I read that dealt with an Australian case, (although there appear to be plenty of predecessors). It examines the Chamberlain "dingo" case and was the beginning of my loss of credulity for the media's treatment of high-profile criminal investigations and trials. I remember being amazed at the depth of the material which I and millions of others had not been provided with by the apparently intense and detailed coverage of the case.
So, where's all this leave me with regard to Brad Murdoch? I can't say I believe in his innocence but the seed of doubt has been planted. From it grow a multitude of optional other scenarios to explain the events of that case. One fact is certain: Peter Falconio is not to be found by the world at large. If we take that as a starting point, the possibilities cover a spectrum from the simple explanation that all is as Lees has said, except for the identity of the offender, to Falconio having used Lees as a dupe in a complex scheme to fake his own death.
And what does it say for the continuing dilemma of how to respond to the often-wrong published accounts of investigations and trials? I wrote above that I'd expected that "They" would not allow such schlamperie. Of course the authorities represented in the archetype "They" are often up to their necks in scamming the public, so it's not remarkable that no governmental thunderbolts fall upon the misreporters. One approach would be to not believe any of it, but that doesn't seem very practical. You'd have to believe that everyone convicted was innocent and either live complacently with it or start throwing bombs. Nor can every citizen battle through the labyrinth of process to check transcripts of trials, police files, etc. Not that you'd be allowed to anyway. The only thing I can think of is some kind of oversight by an Official Witness Agency that would be established to provide a neutral and comprehensive summary of the transactions. That expression "Official Witness" came to me as a bit of "cryptomnesia", but I finally remembered where I'd seen it: in one of Robert Heinlein's works, Stranger in a Strange Land. One of the characters performs such a function and provides a demonstration of her technique at the behest of Jubal Harshaw, one of the protagonists. He asks her to tell him what the colour of a building on a nearby hill is. She replies, "It's white on this side."
I'd like to see such an agency, perhaps established through the State Constitution as a branch of the judiciary, which would provide an overview of court proceedings in the same manner: just the irrefutable facts about what happened in a hearing, sans any tinting whatsoever. They could be fed through a website for any matter before the courts which had a minimum penalty of more than one year's imprisonment. That should give pause for thought to some of the more reckless fabulists in the media. Now all that's needed is for someone to persuade the governments of Australia to do it.
Don't hang by 'em.