From misdemeanours to more serious violations of the law, like murder, crime has long featured in the news headlines. Many early Australian newspapers, like the Sydney scandal sheet Truth, sensationalised crimes to increase their circulation. The mid- to late-19th century Australian press often adopted a rich and expressive vocabulary, especially in its descriptions of the scandalous indiscretions of the nation’s convicts and colonial outlaws. In November 1879, a correspondent for the Melbourne Argus reported on the ‘gallant capture’ by police of the bushranger Captain Moonlite and his accomplices. The reporter recounted how Captain Moonlite had become exasperated with one of his hostages, telling the man that he would ‘cut his nose and ears off, and make him eat them, and then cut his throat’. Reports in the same newspaper the following year reminded readers of the ‘perpetration of a tragedy almost unparalleled in the history of the colony’ of Victoria, and the murders of three police officers by a ‘band of marauders’: Ned Kelly and his gang.
Popular press-inspired moral panics and crime waves dominated early- to mid-20th century crime reporting in Australia. The press regularly devoted column inches to coverage of juvenile delinquency and youth gangs, whose crimes—according to one correspondent in a 1936 edition of Lismore’s Northern Star—were motivated by a desire for ‘gangster notoriety’ and were attributable to the popularity of cheap literature, such as ‘penny dreadfuls’ and mobster films.
By the 20th century, the concepts of the ‘crime beat’ and the police rounds reporter were firmly established in many Australian newsrooms. Newspapers like the Sydney Sun and the Daily Mirror even hired former policemen to report on crime. After World War II, police rounds relied almost entirely on a journalist’s contacts, which included cultivated relationships with both cops and crims. Veteran crime reporters, such as Basil Sweeney, Ced Culbert, Noel Bailey and Ken Blanch, and later Geoff Wilkinson and Malcolm Brown, did most of their work outside the walls of the newsroom. In the 1960s, the ‘king of Sydney’s crime reporters’—the Daily Mirror’s Bill Jenkings—was almost as well known on the street and in the famous Thommo’s Two Up School as the criminals he covered. But crime reporting of this calibre required both patience and stamina. As chief police reporter for the Herald Sun, Keith Moor faced what he described as ‘incredibly tight’ deadlines. His shift would start at 6 a.m. and, if an incident had occurred the previous night, he was expected to have visited the crime scene, spoken to the police and other key players, and filed his news story by 9 a.m.
The exploits of these crime newshounds were personified in the 1950s and 1960s by fictional characters like Randy Stone, star of the popular American radio drama, Night Beat. Adapted from the original US scripts by Grace Gibson Productions, the Australian version of Night Beat was first broadcast in 1951. Australian actor Alan White starred as Randy Stone before American actor Harp McGuire took over the role. Other popular radio dramas were inspired by true crimes. The storylines of Crawford Productions’ D24 (1951–60), which served as a forerunner to the highly successful television series, Homicide, were based on files from the Victorian police force, which sponsored the first two years of D24’s production costs.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the daily routines of real-world police rounds reporters were supplemented by an upsurge in investigative crime journalism. The legacy of this period can be identified in the work of contemporary Walkley-nominated journalists, such as Kate McClymont, Andrew Rule, John Silvester and Les Kennedy, whose crime reporting resulted in exposures of cronyism and corruption and led to several breakthroughs in criminal cases, including the arrest of one of Australia’s biggest amphetamines dealers. Described as a ‘career crime reporter’, Kennedy acquired a legendary status after the many years he spent at the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald, investigating some of Australia’s most notorious and serious crimes, including the disappearance of Donald Mackay, the murder of Dr Victor Chang and the Belanglo backpacker murders. Kennedy was always cautious about allowing his photograph to be published, but 2011, in the days before his death from cancer, Fairfax Media’s Sun-Herald newspaper ran a picture by-line to accompany his last exclusive story: a scoop on the discovery of a pistol linked to the 1997 disappearance and murder of Kerry Whelan.
Less media shy was veteran television reporter, Harry Potter, who retired in 2010 after 32 years with Network Ten and more than 50 years as a journalist. His career highlights included news coverage of the Terrigal massacre; the murder of Anita Cobby; the arrest of Sef Gonzales for the murder of his family in 2001; and the trial of Andrew Garforth, convicted of the murder of Ebony Simpson in 1992.
While communications between crime reporters and police are as old as journalism itself, the dynamics between the two have changed as communications technologies and police and media management styles have evolved, and police–media relations have become more complex. The development of professionalised public relations and media liaison units within Australian police agencies in the mid- to late- 20th century significantly impacted on the crime news-gathering and story-selection processes. The centralised production of police media releases, management of journalist inquiries and requests for interview, and coordination of press conferences lessened the imperative for the individual police contacts nurtured by early police rounds reporters. It also resulted in the marriage of police corporate branding with crime portrayals in the form of popular television programs, such as Australia’s Most Wanted (1989–99), renowned for its graphic crime scene re-enactments and appeals for public information about unsolved cases, and Forensic Investigators (2004–06), which featured exclusive access to police crime scene videos. In 2009, figures obtained under freedom of information laws and published by the Daily Telegraph showed that the growth of police public relations had netted the NSW police alone over $1 million from reality television shows, like The Force (2006– ) and Crash Investigation Unit (2008– ), and consultations on other broadcast productions.
The demands of the digital age also significantly shaped crime reporting in Australia. As Nick Richardson explains in Journalism Research and Investigation in a Digital World (2013), the arrival of web-based news, blogs and the 24-hour news cycle—with its speed imperative and demands for the latest developments in crime and corruption stories, traffic accidents and emergencies—has left modern-day crime reporters with less time than their predecessors to cultivate police contacts and other sources of information about criminal activities and police investigations. In the 21st century, traditional consumers of crime news also became sources of information in the crime-reporting process, often enlisted by news organisations to contribute tip-offs for stories and images related to crime news narratives. The pervasiveness of surveillance technologies, like CCTV, and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, also brought media audiences closer to the action and scene of the crime—in some cases, enabling citizen journalists to ‘scoop’ mainstream media outlets. Police agencies in Australia also started to use social media and video-sharing platforms more actively as communications tools to appeal for public information about crimes and to provide updates on the status of criminal investigations—sometimes bypassing traditional news media altogether. Media outlets wishing to conduct paid interviews with convicted criminals are also restricted by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
Despite such developments, almost all major newsrooms in Australia continue to have reporters dedicated to crime, courts and police rounds, although many now work across multiple media platforms. Some have also adapted their crime reporting experiences into true-crime novels and other forms of popular entertainment, such as television dramas like the Underbelly series. In 2013, the Murdoch-owned newspaper, the Herald Sun, had recruited a number of these journalists (and ex-police officers) as contributors to its special online multimedia news section ‘True Crime Scene’. The section offers readers information about ‘new crimes, cold cases, latest investigations’, as well as top 10 blacklists of Australia’s worst criminals, written by veteran crime reporters.
REFs: P. Grabosky and P. Wilson, Journalism and Justice (1989); A. Mitchell, ‘Fatal Obsessions’, Overland, 208 (2012); A. Rule and N. Richardson, ‘Crime Writing’, in S. Tanner and N. Richardson (eds), Journalism Research and Investigation in a Digital World (2013).
KATRINA CLIFFORD and GLENN MITCHELL