Review: Jason Wilsonon the Port Arthur Massacre

How To Mediate A Massacre? The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard

Last October, as Autumn became meaner and muddier, I was dispatched on an unplanned trip to Roseburg, Oregon. I went there to report on the shooting murders of nine people at the hands of a young local man, Chris Harper-Mercer. It happened at Umpqua Community College, where he was enrolled, but failing. His profile, which emerged later, was queasily familiar.

His parents had divorced, and he had few if any friends. He had Asperger’s syndrome and assorted chronic mental health issues. He compensated for his desperate social isolation (and apparent sexual frustration) with firearms and awkward online interactions. Especially to an Australian of my age, Chris Harper-Mercer sounded uncomfortably like Martin Bryant.

Four hours elapsed between me hearing the news of the murders on local radio, contacting an editor, and arriving at the Douglas County fairgrounds. By then the survivors were sequestered in an exhibition hall, and I was left to talk to their classmates. Some were shaken, others were perkily offering rides or bottled water to anyone who needed them. At the time I found their willingness to talk to all comers a welcome relief. It was only later that I wondered why they didn’t clam up, or spit.

Eventually I drove off to a press conference hosted by the County Sheriff. His generalities did little to satiate a press pack that was growing as quickly as reporters could be sent to the out of the way town (on this kind of story, locals always have a few hours, or a day, before the lumbering apparatus of national outlets arrives). Towards its end, I got a text: my newsroom had a lead about where the suspected killer lived.

I made my way to the unprepossessing apartment block where Harper-Mercer resided with his mother without thinking much about what I would do when I got there. As far as I knew, we were the only ones to have the address. I was disappointed to see local reporters had handily beaten me to it, and were milling around behind a police cordon in front of the building. Perhaps I should have felt fortunate. I never heard which, if any, of the gathered journalists had to tell Harper-Mercer’s mother what her son was alleged to have done.

I busied myself talking to neighbours. Few knew him. Apparently he stayed up late, often dressed in fatigues, and sometimes played on the complex’s swing set. Fewer still had talked with him directly, which is perhaps why their descriptions sounded like the clichés of mass murder reporting. He was quiet, peculiar, kept to himself.

After hanging around for an awkward hour at the town’s impromptu candlelight vigil, I checked into my accommodations, a highway hotel. The carpark was already full of the TV people’s satellite trucks. When I woke in the darkness of the following morning there were more. As I choked down the motel’s buffet breakfast CNN were interviewing someone on the television overhead. I realised it was in the same carpark.

By the time the sun was out, downtown Roseburg was crawling with reporters.  Not for the last time – the same thought occurred to me later when tiny Burns, Oregon was overrun when the Bundy militia occupied a nearby bird sanctuary – I reflected on what a terrible thing it was for a small town and the people in it to become a story.

Not just because reporters are only ever drawn to such places by catastrophe, but because residents are written into a new, uncomfortable role. No longer people with a diversity of interests, problems, and political opinions, they are now specimens for the reflexive mode of follow-up journalism, which is a kind of low sociology.

Those proximate to a shooting – especially the killer’s family and friends – are made to stand for something that they are not responsible for. They are assigned to the categories of cause, victim, or background. They are set in orbit around what is always already an implacable evil. And the thing is that there’s rarely time to do anything more imaginative.

No time for the precariously-employed writer, no time for the hard-pressed desk, no time for the busy reader, no time to digest the events before the whole carnival moves on to the next outrage. As news organisations become leaner and subject to more intense competition, time becomes scarcer.

What are we doing, when we treat mass murder in this way? What can we possibly think that we will come to know?

Twenty years have passed since Martin Bryant shot 35 people dead in a single afternoon in Port Arthur, Tasmania. It remains Australia’s worst recorded shooting spree by a single gunman. The qualifiers are necessary because we don’t know everything that happened in Tasmania, let alone the rest of the country, during the long nineteenth century, when white settlers were busy taking the country by force from its original inhabitants.

Despite all the violence of Australian history – despite the sedimented layers of brutality at Port Arthur alone, which was once at the heart of our founding carceral nightmare – Bryant’s murders are fringed with a sense of exception. In a country that has managed to forget so much, this is one thing we just can’t shake. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it was mediated.

‘The Port Arthur massacre haunts Australia’ is the way Sonya Voumard aptly puts it in her book, The Media and the Massacre – Port Arthur 1996-2016. For many, the killer’s very name summons up one of the few images of his face that were relentlessly circulated in all forms of media at the time, images that those who were sentient at the time will never be able to quite forget. He is forever blonde, scruffy, blankly staring.

But an image, like a ghost, is a hard thing to grapple with. Bryant the man is waiting out his days in prison, but the images of him twenty years ago retain their provocation, and their terrible mystery. After all the reporting, all the anniversary specials, the books and documentaries, what do we really understand about what happened?

Voumard tries to answer this by taking an indirect route. The book is not principally about Martin Bryant, or even his mother Carleen, though she looms much larger in the tale than her son. It’s really a member of that perilous genre, the book about a book, wherein someone is writing about writers, and in Voumard’s case, reporting on a long-completed act of reporting by two other writers who were sometime colleagues, and in the case of one of them, something like a friend. This is a book about how the massacre was mediated. The insights it wrests from twenty years in which the day’s events have been buried under reporting, analysis and uneasy commemoration make it worth reading, even if it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied.

Voumard’s focus is Born or Bred? Martin Bryant – The Making of a Mass Murderer, co-written by journalists Robert Wainwright and Paula Totaro. Both of them, like Voumard, used to work at the Sydney Morning Herald, back in the glory days, ‘before mass redundancies gutted the industry and the newspaper game changed forever’.

Their book about Bryant excited controversy when it was published in 2009. Carleen Bryant claimed that the book made unauthorised use of materials she had given them two years earlier, when she had engaged them as collaborators in writing her own version of events. The authors in turn claimed that the collaboration had proved unworkable, not least because of the elder Bryant’s belief in her son’s innocence, and her acceptance of the conspiracy theories that explain this.

Instead of essentially ghostwriting Carleen Bryant’s story, as Bryant thought they would, the authors incorporated her materials into an odd kind of true crime book. Along with the genre’s usual tough talk and lurid revelation, it had pretensions at social and scientific diagnosis, and even literariness. Voumard writes that it ‘zigzags between showy, alliterative description… and hard-boiled, macho Australian-speak in which Bryant is regularly referred to as “the bloke”’

Totaro and Wainwright framed this mélange with a guiding question:  were the sources of Bryant’s violence hereditary, or to be found somewhere in his upbringing? To low sociology, the book adds pop psychology, and something uncomfortably close to phrenology. Unfortunately, as Voumard rightly notes, it offers nothing more than “the tried and true conclusion that the psychiatric profession has trotted out for years: a combination of nature and nurture leads people to act as they do”.  But either answer – either question – was bound to insult his mother, who has trouble acknowledging the reality of her son’s crimes.

Despite this, the book was lauded by the authors’ peers. As Voumard notes, ‘It was long-listed for the 2009 Ned Kelly Award for True Crime Writing. Fairfax Media outlets ably assisted it into the market.’ Wainwright and Totaro were the toast of the writers festival circuit (Disclosure: I chaired a true crime session at the 2009 Sydney Writers Festival on which Totaro appeared). At the time, the only people raising their voices in protest were Carleen Bryant and her small group of friends.

Legal action followed, and in time Bryant received an undisclosed settlement from the publishers. Her friend, Joan Errington-Dunne, pursued the issue of ethical violations with Fairfax (in whose imprint the book was published) and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, a process that petered out in a familiar, ambiguous way. Carleen Bryant was left a little more damaged and suspicious than she was already. Wainwright and Totaro went on the writers’ festival circuit. Martin Bryant continued the sentence that will end in his death.

Long after these events, The Media and the Massacre examines them. Despite its provenance as a doctoral thesis, it is not especially academic in its language or approach. It is, in fact, something more fragile and rare, especially in the largely unreflective world of Australian media. It is a journalist meditating thoughtfully, and at length, on acts of journalism.

Doing this is professionally and personally difficult in the small and shrinking world of Australian journalism. At the level at which Totaro and Wainwright were working, reporters ‘behave as though they are part of an elite club. It can be a club prone to protecting its own’. A colleague who had agreed to read her draft pulled out. There’s no doubting Voumard’s bravery in taking the task on, and the sincerity of the personal and professional outrage that underpins her efforts. Her own experience as a reporter shows in the thoroughness with which she pursues every wrinkle of Born or Bred’s genesis and aftermath.

She really does talk to everyone – or tries to. She talks with other journalists who covered the massacre, or who have since written about Bryant.  She visits Errington-Dunne, still nursing her wounds on remote Bruny Island. The most discomfiting parts of the book for anyone who has worked as a reporter is the way in which it registers the damage done to her, and her friend Carleen, who must be the massacre’s loneliest survivor.

Voumard talks to Peter Kerr, executive editor of the Sydney Morning Herald at the time that Fairfax books published the book. She finds him ‘deflated by the events going on around him’, as he prepares to depart a company that appears to be sinking beneath the waves. She has him implying that the company’s publishing entire arm, in whose imprint Born or Bred came out, was one more confused, doomed gesture by a flailing giant.

She even adds in a few extras. Simon Longstaff tells her that journalists want society’s esteem and protection, but ‘they don’t necessarily want to give back the kind of professional commitment that the social compact demands’. Greg Barns cuts through all the mystification about heredity and essential Tasmanian violence by saying ‘Bryant is a person with a severe mental illness who cut loose with a gun’.

Voumard does not, however, talk to Carleen Bryant. She considers asking again, after repeated refusals, and opts out. ‘Mindful of her fragility, I decided not to. It seems utterly un-journalistic to give up the chase, I know. But the idea was also liberating.’ Unlike Wainwright and Totaro, she affords Bryant some peace. Instead, she combs the book that Carleen eventually did publish with a small Tasmanian imprint, Carleen Bryant – My Story and is able to usefully compare her modesty and quiet bewilderment with the certitudes of Born or Bred.

Nor does she get to speak to Totaro and Wainwright, who tell Voumard to make do with what’s already on the public record. Quite rightly, she takes this refusal as a significant piece of professional discourtesy, and an evasion – the ‘accepted journalistic convention that journalists themselves are so committed to the principles of freedom of speech and to ensuring both sides of the story are told that they tend to agree to interview requests by colleagues.’

This is just part of the case she makes – on the whole successfully – that the making and selling of this book was pervaded by cynicism. Worse, it was never acknowledged. Worse still, there is no real practical way of taking journalists to task when they do this – it’s hard even to take the measure of it.

As she observes Totaro and Wainwright on the festival circuit, listening in to their conversations with colleagues, she notes that they do not understand any distinction in the ethics of writing journalism and longform books. In each case, ‘their guiding compass was the journalists’ code of ethics’. Which suggests that in Australia, a hardball newsroom culture is informing the production of potentially much weightier, more durable, and ostensibly more serious works.

Voumard suggests that a lot of this is due to the authors’ failure to adequately reflect on what they were doing. Their decision to make use of Carleen Bryant’s materials, provided to them at a meeting on collaboration, ‘whether they specifically acknowledged it or not, came up against a major ethical issue which required careful consideration… They were not on a regular journalistic assignment in which someone had agreed to be interviewed and everything they said was on the record’.

This is not uncommon, if you listen to critics of Australian journalism, including its readers. In simply pointing this out, and in assembling the evidence of a specific wrong, Voumard’s book is important and largely successful.

If the book has problems, it’s because the analytical tools she brings to her task are the same ones that failed Totaro and Wainwright. She pursues them with the same blend of common sense, ethical codes, and appeals to decency that they appeared to put aside in writing Born or Bred. Voumard realises that this is inadequate, because in the culture they grew up in ‘a journalist’s instinct would be to deal with any difficulties later’. She notes that the Fairfax culture she was a part of, along with the authors of Born or Bred, was one ‘that could be overly aggressive, its subjects playthings. You did what it took to get a story without getting sued.’ But her response to this is sometimes confused and confusing, vacillating between moral disappointment, regret, and simple perplexity.

The remedies she does suggest are mostly artefacts of the journalism school seminar room. We must distinguish between the public interest and what the public is interested in. We should learn more about trauma, and incorporate this knowledge into what we do. Again, she seems to know that this is not enough, that these discussions may even be counter-productive. ‘It’s a journalist’s second nature to invoke the public interest in response to questions about whether a story should or should not be pursued. Such is the prestige attached to those words, they are rarely thought of as anything but a higher motive.’

This is all made clearer by another piece of intertextuality the book relies on. Voumard’s model, or touchstone, is Janet Malcolm’s reflection on a similar, but more ambiguous case of writerly betrayal, The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm, too, looks at a writer’s approach to a murderer. This was a similar case, where an American writer, Joe McGinniss, was found in court to have defrauded a murderer, Jeffrey McDonald, by taking his account of McDonald’s murder conviction in a direction that McDonald didn’t like. Voumard references Malcolm repeatedly, in a manner that falls somewhere between acknowledgement and homage.

But it’s not clear this does the newer work any favours. Malcolm’s justly renowned little book really is a clinical exercise. She brings her own experience as a writer, and her understanding of psychoanalysis to bear on a trial. The result transcends reporting, and goes beyond weighing up Joe McGinniss’s contingent ethical choices. It gets at something archetypal, showing how betrayal is intrinsic to the relationship between writer and subject, and that at minimum, all representation courts misrepresentation. The disreputable McGinniss becomes a kind of avatar for the disreputability of journalism tout court, which is drawn as a dark inversion of therapy, where the only clear beneficiary is the writer-analyst. It is no more moralistic than Freud himself – it simply lays bare an abiding pathology.

But the world of The Journalist and the Murderer has disappeared. When Malcolm wrote, it was from what was then the centre of the cultural world, journalists were powerful, prosperous, and stood to make fortunes from the books they wrote. The media industry was at its glittering peak. Publishers, even bookshops, were still significant arbiters of popular taste. It mattered, in a sense that it no longer seems to, what journalists and writers said about a story. McGinniss’s wrote from the centre of a powerful cultural industry, which had the pull to ensure that books about books could circulate in a way that would permeate the cultural imaginary (his book still sells). Malcolm’s and McGinniss’s books are each, in their own way, enduring classics.

In comparison, by the time Voumard published her book, earlier this year, Fairfax was reportedly contemplating ending its daily metropolitan newspapers to save costs. Even when Totaro and Wainwright began their work in 2006, Fairfax’s daily newspapers had long since commenced haemorrhaging circulation. If their actions were fuelled by desperation, it was that of passengers scrambling to the lifeboats. McGinniss, on the other hand, was a gambler in a casino where there were still big wins to be had.

This means that Voumard slightly underplays the theme that really ought to be the book’s moral and intellectual core, the story of ‘a great Australian media organisation in decline, struggling to grapple with the new realities of the information economy’. Without putting too fine a point on it, Fairfax, the publisher of the only real liberal newspapers of record, has spent the last decade or two slowly dying.

For all the pain it caused, Born or Bred has subsequently sunk without trace. It is already out of print (with my old copy long lost in one of many moves, I had to order a replacement from a second hand dealer online for the purposes of this essay). Unlike The Journalist and the Murderer then, Voumard’s book is not so much a study of unaccountable power – of the power an unscrupulous writer has to destroy lives when his story articulates with the awesome gears of a massive cultural industry. As she looks back over the decline of institutions, projects that have disappeared without a trace, diminished careers, she shows us the damage that a dying animal can still do.

A more analytical book – in the sense that The Journalist and the Murderer is analytical – would have done more to face up to this pathology. The way in which Martin Bryant has been mystified not explained, the failings of the authors of a shabby book, the shortened half-life of media objects, the endless repetition of the same patterns at every new massacre – these need to be understood as artefacts of a changing media structure. But we can see them conditioning individual behaviours and choices.

Facing up to that requires us to stop fixing on ethical codes that are mostly honoured in the breach, and to understand the pitilessness of the machinery that we writers and reporters are all enmeshed in.

Voumard’s judgement, early in the book, on the project that ostensibly guided Born or Bred is exactly right: ‘For all the suffering it caused Carleen Bryant, the book fails to achieve Totaro’s stated ambition to identify common features of mass killers and offer a pathway for society to help ensure such events might be prevented in the future.’

But writers never manage to explain such events, for all the words we lavish on them. Why do we, even now, keep telling ourselves and others that this is our intention? What are we really doing? When institutions that sponsor us in these inquiries finally collapse, who outside our strange, unlovable profession will mourn them?

The Media and the Massacre usefully raises these questions. When we think on them ourselves, we might come to understand why it fails to straightforwardly answer them.

Works cited:

Carleen Bryant, My Story (Ludeke Publishing, 2010).
Joe McGinniss, Fatal Vision (Signet, 1983).
Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (Vintage, 1990).
Robert Wainwright and Paula Totaro, Born or Bred? Martin Bryant – The Making of a Mass Murderer (Fairfax Books, 2009).