Criminal justice

Twirling towards freedom

Death in the Newspaper

I’ve been overseas for a few weeks now and have pretty much gotten used to being out of sync with the news back home. The daily headlines don’t appear until the sun is setting where I am, and my Twitter feed is full of news from the US and the UK that usually rolls in when I’m asleep. I haven’t been reading the same stories the Age trot out every time there’s a heatwave about whether or not the trains will run on time, and I have to admit, the distance is nice. Sometimes it’s easier to see home more clearly when you’re far away.

Even with the most cursory of glances, it has been impossible to miss the coverage of Jill Meagher’s accused killer’s court appearances. I understand why this crime resonated so deeply with the public. I live in Brunswick, and all of my evenings at friend’s houses now end with a debate as to whether I should walk home alone. I wept when I learned that Meagher’s body had been found, but reading the news this week has left me with a different kind of despair. I wish that I hadn’t logged onto the Age at all this week.

The coverage is ghastly. "RAW VIDEO: Jill Meagher’s family arrive at court." "Jill Meagher in pictures." "What Bayley did in Jill’s final hours." Since when did murder victims receive the same kind of media coverage as the Emmys?

Articles are updated hourly, once journalists in the press gallery hear enough grotesque details to make up a headline and dash off to the media room. Bayley bought a two pack of Chux. His car entered the laneway at 4.22am. It’s only right that the details learned by the police will eventually be pored over by a jury, but this isn’t like that episode of The Simpsons where Springfield must band together and share clues to discover the identity of the cat burglar. Adrian Bayley is not an anonymous criminal who has been robbing us while we sleep. The evidence is damning, and the relentless hashing over of it serves no good purpose.

For whose benefit are we being asked to re-imagine this awful event?

In journalism classes we were taught, “if it bleeds, it leads.” We never questioned the wisdom behind this adage, but this was ten years ago, before photo galleries and autoplay videos were so ubiquitous. We were writing for print, not for a 24 hour news cycle. Headlines were written once a day, not five times.

I worried, as I often do, that this sick feeling in my stomach is just misdiagnosed cynicism. But I don’t think it is. The reason this crime affected us all so much was that it could have happened to us. When the story broke, everyone I know ran through a frightening dossier of the times they’d walked home drunk from Sydney Road. But why can’t we take that awful identification one more step? Why can’t we stretch our empathy a little farther and extend it to Meagher’s family? We know this could have happened to us, but who can say they would wish this media attention upon their own family?

After sitting in court, listening to a police prosecutor examine the last, horrible hours of her life, shouldn’t Meagher’s family be able to go home, open the Age website and just read a stupid story about the weather?


Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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