Problematic podcasting or public service

Aside: We are currently undergoing a bathroom renovation. Technically two bathroom renovations as we have both gutted and refactored. We have a mobile bathroom in the backyard and a temporary laundry. We also have the ‘she shed’ / studio in the backyard, which allows one of us to hang out with the doggos while the work is underway under the main roof. All things considered, and with all the appropriate touching of wood in the world things are currently going to plan. The house is very dusty, the flies are everywhere as windows and doors are open all over the place while things dry out but hopefully life will be back to relative normality in a few weeks.

In the interim, while hanging out with said dogs in the backyard on my day off I settled down with another book I heard about on the “Best of the Festivals” on radio national this week. I’ve made a deal with myself that I will take the time to reflect on each book I buy before buying a new one. I frequently consume my reading material by audio book, which can make taking notes as I read a bit challenging if I am mid bike ride. Having a text copy, albeit kindle vs paper, makes flicking back through a novel much simpler to do.

Today I reflect on I have some questions for you by Rebecca Makkai.

This novel picks up on the story of a professor whose personal history on the periphery of a childhood murder leads her to enter the world of true crime podcasting and actively engaging with an innocence project for the man she believes to have been wrongfully convicted.

In her role as teacher to a group of high school students our narrator and protagonist, Bodie, leads them into revisiting the murder of a fellow boarding school student from her youth. In the expected tropes of crime fiction there is exploration of different possible scenarios and possible culprits to the deed. What is different in the world of global news, true crime podcasting and the “rabbit warren” of reddit is that the world determines its own views of guilt and innocence with none of the wonky guardrails that is the legal system.

A follow up novel could easily be the various lawsuits of defamation directed at the many parties who take to the podcasters equivalent of airwaves casting wide accusations.

I read this novel in the wake of the defamation trial currently underway against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson by Bruce Lehrmann. It has been near impossible not to be exposed to the news around this case, and I feel troubled by this on so many levels. The fact that the original trial had to be abandoned because of the misconduct of a juror in this world where everything is connected, live and online is a tragedy for all concerned. No one had a good outcome from this. The fact that the case would not be retried because of concerns for Brittany, and yet there are still legal actions here, and again for Lynda Reynolds bothers me incredibly.

In I have some questions for you raised a number of gender and sexual assault themes. We have a historical re-evaluation of power imbalance and and age gap relationships played out in a public forum, discussion of cancel culture and how one person’s downfall impacts on those around them. We hear of sexual assault between students, of grooming by a teacher, intimate partner violence and coercive control.

And all of this is underlined by the question that our protagonist keeps being asked – “Who is looking after your children while you are here?”.

One of Bodie’s other students explores themes or equality and equity as part of her podcast studies. This permeates the novel also where we see a somewhat diluted mix of have and have nots. In a world where the have-notting is not noticed by many it does draw the question how great the divide is in this boarding school. Yes, the accused and (wrongfully) convicted person is a black man which is no surprise in the system and time in which he lives. Nor is it a surprise on that basis that unlike someone like Oscar Pistorius (released after 11 years) Omar is still in prison more than 25 years after the event despite the shoddy nature of the original conviction.

Makkai draws heavily on the ‘one of those’ motifs when comparing this crime, this injustice, this violent act. It’s a powerful device that I just fell into above. It speaks to the prevalence of these events, the way they are covered in conventional and social media.

I have been one of many utterly absorbed by the true crime podcasts “Teachers Pet” about the trial of Lyn Dawson’s husband and “Your Own Backyard” that followed the investigation and ultimate conviction of the murder of Kristin Smart, but equally troubled by the genre and the nature of the internet. What happens when journalists or random members of the public take up the role of criminal investigators? When should we be talking about the victim, and when should we be talking about the assailant? It is unstable ground. As is the idea of this genre as entertainment. And yet – stories must be told.

Where does the court of public opinion sit when we have no control over what ‘evidence’ should and should not be permitted? If we know the impact this can have on peoples lives even if it cannot be proven in a court of law, do we disclose?

I enjoyed the novel, enjoyed being challenged by and was glad it was fiction so I could put it down without feeling specifically dirty about this specific crime. I will be continuing to consider consumption of ‘true crime’ as entertainment but don’t expect that to end in a comfortable space.


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