Featured image ‘Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse – Alexandria Va – 0016-2012-03-10’ by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
True crime podcasts investigating historical ‘cold’ cases where women and children are victims of gender-based violence are increasingly popular. Two recent Australian true crime podcasts, Trace and The Teacher’s Pet, discovered new witnesses in unsolved murder cases, which led to arrests and coronial inquests.
My research aims to discover if these kinds of podcasts can offer informal justice to victims who feel dissatisfied with the formal police and court systems of Australia. These podcasts have similarities to true crime podcasts from countries around the world with adversarial justice systems, like the USA, the UK, and Canada.
Trace Season 1 (2017-2018) is a seven-episode podcast narrated by Rachael Brown for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the free national broadcaster). The podcast reinvestigates the unsolved 1980 murder of single mother, Maria James.
During the podcast, it is revealed that the local parish priest, Father Bongiorno, was sexually abusing James’s youngest son and that James was murdered the day she confronted the priest. A witness saw Bongiorno covered in blood. Police told James’s sons that Bongiorno was ruled out by DNA evidence. The podcast reveals that the exculpating DNA was from an unconnected police investigation and had been mistakenly mixed into the evidence from James’s murder. Following the podcast, the coroner opened a new inquest into James’s murder. James’s two sons state on the podcast that their voices had finally been heard, in a way they weren’t during the investigation.
The Teacher’s Pet
The Teacher’s Pet (2018), narrated by Hedley Thomas for The Australian, was downloaded over 28 million times. Over 16 episodes, Thomas investigates the 1982 disappearance of Lynette Dawson from Sydney. Thomas explicitly suggests Dawson’s husband killed her and buried her on their property. Chris Dawson’s teenage girlfriend, a student at the high school where he taught, then moved in with him and his two daughters. During the podcast, Thomas uncovers new witnesses and a disturbing culture of sexual abuse by teachers at the school, which led to a police strike force and the 2018 arrest of Chris Dawson. He is currently on trial for Lynette Dawson’s murder and the podcast has been removed for download while the case is before the courts.
Definitions of ‘justice’ within formal institutions are based on successful convictions and punishment of offenders. However, this form of justice may not give victim-survivors and secondary victims a sense that justice has been achieved. Informal justice occurs outside police, courts, and legislation. According to Bianca Fileborn’s research, victim-survivors achieve a sense of justice if they have:
- real participation
- an active voice
- vindication of harm they experienced
- accountability by the offender.
Ideas of ‘justice’ should extend beyond outcomes in law and policy to include changes in social attitudes and representations of violence. Clare McGlynn and Nicole Westmarland argue that victim-survivors and secondary victims seek validation from their communities, which could include validation by podcast audiences. Academics such as Tanya Serisier argue that narrators of media about violent crime shape its representation and audience’s understanding of it.
Limitations of podcasts
While some podcasts allow victim-survivors or secondary victims to narrate their own stories, other podcasts have harmful representations of women. The Teacher’s Pet is empathetic toward Lynette Dawson, but its depiction of Joanne Curtis—a teenager groomed by her teacher into an unequal and controlling relationship—is problematic.
The language used, such as naming her ‘a teacher’s pet,’ is harmful. Thomas also uses audio recordings of her interviews by police, without any clear consent, replicating the abusive relationship she discloses in those interviews for the titillation of a public audience. Often, true crime podcasts also focus on certain kinds of victims: female, white, middle class, and heterosexual. Podcasts such as Bowraville challenge this stereotype in a promising way.
Some people might argue that true crime podcasts could cause unfair trials, which concerned some listeners of The Teacher’s Pet, but it is doubtful that these investigations would be reopened without the interest caused by the podcasts.
Trace and The Teacher’s Pet are examples of how true crime podcasts can act as informal justice beyond police and courts, but there are limitations. If the podcasts attempt to offer victim-survivors a sense of justice, they should give those people a chance to describe their experiences in their own voices and to feel vindicated through connection with their communities. In future, true crime podcasters could work in tandem with police, giving them access to community grapevines.
Lili Pâquet is a Lecturer in Writing at the University of New England, Australia. Her research is in the areas of rhetoric, crime, environment, and digital media.
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