MY lasting boyhood memory of Sunday television is that you had to be ill or weather-stricken to bother. There was usually an old movie you could drift in and out of – say, Duke Wayne squashed into a Corsair in Flying Leathernecks – or a gardening guru putting a deserved hurt on aphids. A Jimmy Swaggart broadcast was another option. My brothers and I would sometimes tune in to Jim for a laugh after Mass and, occasionally, we’d score a mention. I still remember the Louisiana loss to rock ‘n roll declaring, “Catholics, we love you but there is no purgatory.” I think that was before his own stretch in Coventry.
Why the musings on Sundays past? Because on this customarily peaceful day, the networks now lead at night with mayhem and homicide. That’s an inversion of G-rated flicks and hibiscus tips. Channels 7 and Nine frequently go head to head in this new Ivan Milat TV genre with ‘fresh’ takes on some of the bloodiest and most tragic murders, rapes and unspeakable enormities in Australia’s criminal annals. There are never any factual breakthroughs, of course, no matter how many times Liz Hayes suddenly takes her glasses off at the “Under Investigation” table. It’s entertainment. Like Commodus in Gladiator, they give us death and we love them for it.
This past Sunday, 7’s “Spotlight investigators” (yes, really) examined the “mysterious” Alva Beach deaths. As always, the promo hook was “new evidence” and, as always, there was none. “You be the judge,” the ads for ‘Saving Candice’ proclaimed. But ‘you’ cannot be the judge. The rule of law isn’t a NIDA improv. There isn’t even a judge who can be the judge. The case is still in the very capable hands of Queensland’s Deputy Coroner, Jane Bentley, whose judgement the in-denial families of the deceased are trying to finesse via Channel 7. Magistrate Bentley, as it happens, is not a lady for turning. Local police regard the tragedy as an open and shut case of self-defence.
To win the Netflix generation – famously antsy for arcs and finales – ‘true crime’ is becoming live prosecution. “Event television,” Nine’s announcer would probably call it. The Teachers’ Pet podcast – genuinely investigative albeit overly-commodified – has been spliced with #MeToo hysteria and ‘public interest’ journalism to produce a crusade; ideological for the ABC, commercial for the rest. Naturally, a few expendable men were needed. Craig McLachlan, Geoffrey Rush, Christian Porter and Ben Roberts-Smith were pushed out on the stage for starters.
The latest thing is to have your own coronial cause. News Corp owned the Lynette Dawson matter and the clicks that went with it. The ABC noticed. It wants to corner the market on the 1979 Luna Park fire. Troy Bramston in The Australian has very capably scotched the venture. There is no new evidence, not against Neville Wran or anyone else living or dead. In Brisbane yesterday, an inquest into the firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go in 1973 re-opened. Unlike the Ghost Train disaster, the Valley nightclub attack that killed 15 people was no accident. I mention it not because its return to official attention owes something to journalism but to emphasise that investigations into crimes and cover-ups can be important – even vital – in a democracy. It’s just that most of the wannabes running them nowadays are not Hedley Thomas.