Exploring the ethics and boundaries at play in true crime podcasting. “A beautiful young girl has lost her life, and she’s just been treated like a piece of garbage.”
Broken words spoken by a grieving mother that set the scene for an intriguing crime podcast series about the bizarre death in 2010 of Victorian woman Phoebe Handsjuk, and her family’s unshakable belief the system had let her down.
Phoebe’s Fall is one of a growing number of quality Australian true crime podcasts produced in recent years that are bagging international accolades and pointing investigative journalism in a new direction with resounding success.
This new medium, which is based on the old medium of radio using the raw intimacy of voice and sound to bring stories alive, is proving to be a global sensation opening up new audiences for journalism.
While its success in an image-obsessed world confounds some, journalism academic and audio specialist Associate Professor Siobhan McHugh, is not one of them.
“Think back to 1938 when Orson Welles created panic in a million people who jumped in their cars and took off to escape invading Martians when he broadcast The War of the Worlds - that showed the power of audio to trigger the imagination,” she says.
McHugh was consultant producer on Phoebe’s Fall and The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s more recent crime podcast, Wrong Skin, which is about the disappearance of a young Indigenous couple in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in the early 90s.
Phoebe’s Fall won a gold medal at the New York Radio Festival’s Awards in 2017 and led to a review of Victoria’s Coroner’s Act. Wrong Skin has been equally well-received taking out Podcast of the Year at the 2019 Australian Podcast Awards in May, followed by a second ‘gold’ for the team in New York.
On both productions, Associate Professor McHugh crafted timing, pace and texture into a compelling, hard-hitting story. Co-consultant producer, Julie Posetti, focused on voice training and editing.
“My role entails what I call thinking through your ears because you can’t just be led by the content the way you would map out a written piece in a Word document,’’ says Associate Professor McHugh.
Her audio portfolio is lengthy and includes ABC documentaries and several six-part historical series on a variety of topics.
“The difference with podcasts is they can be as long as a piece of string because you can basically keep going as long as the talent and story sustain – that can be very liberating.”
Why we are embracing true crime podcasts on a primal level with vigour, says forensic psychologist Tracey Woolrych, goes beyond the fact humans like puzzles and enjoy solving them.
“There are a couple of psychological things happening to do with certainty and knowledge,” she says.
“People are really fascinated by the human condition and when you get psychopaths or serial killers who do something so far beyond our human experience, particularly when it’s deliberate, malicious and manipulative, we find it even more fascinating because it is far removed from ourselves,” says Dr Woolrych.
It creates a sense that we have some input into the solution of these crimes, she adds.
And when it involves real people rather than actors from shows like CSI or Silent Witness, it can be even more seductive.
“Real-life victims increase the fascination because we’re not dealing with a killer who can be identified in one television episode. True crime podcasts are serialised and are much more intricate and detailed so people can really immerse themselves in it,” says Dr Woolrych.
“There is also a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ which resonates with a lot of people.”
Melbourne media lawyer Sally McCausland, however, commenting on this popularity raised an ethical concern while reviewing the US production Serial, the first true-crime podcast that in 2014 got the ball rolling, suggested it sometimes descended into a Cluedo mentality.
“Serial might have shown that podcasting can work as quality entertainment on a global scale but it left an ethical tension unresolved. When does true crime exploit tragedy for entertainment’s sake?”
Associate Professor McHugh agrees this issue can be problematic:
“The difference between a podcast that is mining true crime for entertainment and one that is quality investigative journalism comes down to primary research.
“Some crime podcasts just revamp other people’s research without turning up new interviewees or new information. “Plenty of shoe leather and time invested in poring over data and trying to track down obscure but significant witnesses, that’s what constitutes real journalism,” says Professor McHugh.
“Sitting in studios reading out old newspaper accounts of, say, the backpacker murders in a titillating way is appalling and does constitute an ethical problem because you are just profiting or capitalising on real deaths and real tragedy, without putting anything in.”
What also troubles some people are the legal issues crime podcasts can raise, particularly the potential for their content to jeopardise a fair hearing for anybody charged in relation to the particular crime.
This problem raised its head with Teacher’s Pet, a podcast that led to charges against a former Sydney teacher Chris Dawson over the disappearance of his wife, Lynette in 1982. Defence lawyer Greg Walsh told journalists outside the court in February this year the podcast posed a risk of contaminating and affecting the reliability of evidence.
UOW Associate Professor of law, Dr Julia Quilter, views podcasts and their potential to interfere with a person’s ability to get a fair trial as similar to traditional media coverage where journalists are expected to work within legal guidelines.
“The concept of a fair trial has always been an issue where there has been a lot of publicity whether that’s in the shape of significant traditional media coverage or a podcast,” says Dr Quilter, who spent a decade in the courts as a criminal lawyer.
“In these circumstances there are several remedies which include a stay for a period of time (to allow media coverage fade from memory), or the defence might ask for a judge-alone trial.”
However, Dr Quilter says podcasts, similar to investigative journalism television shows like Four Corners, can have an impact on how trials play out in the witness box.
“They can create inconsistencies in witness and victim statements given to police and then to journalists much later.
“These inconsistencies may lead to heavy cross-examination and criticism by either defence and possibly even judges that can ultimately erode victim and witness credibility.”
Dr Quilter says that while the power of the media is very significant it plays a relatively small role in the workings of the justice system in Australia as a whole.
“Most of what goes on in courts today are not picked up by the media so it’s important not to get things out of perspective.”
When asked if crime podcasts should primarily focus on truth and justice over entertainment, Dr Quilter says there is no straight-forward answer.
“What does truth mean, what does justice mean? I’ve always been an advocate that the law is not necessarily going to give you justice.
“It’s about a set of rules and receiving evidence under the admissible rules, and a jury deciding one way or another, that may or may not be justice so it’s a little tricky to propose an opinion there’s an essential truth to ensure that justice is done.
“In 99 per cent of matters in courts today these kinds of issues about justice are not being raised and probably because the system is working quite effectively."
Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing), 2011
Doctor of Philosophy (Journalism), 2019
Associate Lecturer, Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, School of Psychology (Forensic Psychologist)
Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law, School of Law