Given the collapse of Australia’s newspaper industry and the need for media entities to diversify, it was inevitable that Fairfax would leap on the podcasting bandwagon. It was unsurprising, too, that they would follow their competitors at News Limited into a post-Serial true crime pot-boiler. This emerging genre of serialised narrative (ideally dropping once weekly, creating a kind of ‘event-ness’ that stands apart in an age of streaming, access-anywhere-anytime content) is a proven winner.
Yet the Fairfax show, Phoebe’s Fall, and the emerging genre it is part of, raises questions about the public who feast on the undeniably gripping stories, and the voices we cannot hear in these podcasts—those of the victims, mostly women, most likely killed by men.
Phoebe’s Fall, number one podcast in the land at the time of writing, addresses the horrifying case of Phoebe Handsjuk, who fell to her death, supposedly after climbing into a garbage chute on the 12th floor of a St Kilda apartment complex. Phoebe was young, fit and prone to risk-taking behaviour. Still, the likelihood that she launched herself feet-first into the chute without leaving a single fingerprint on it (she died from extreme blood loss after falling) struck journalists and podcast hosts Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard as unlikely.
The first thing to note is that mistakes were made in the police investigation; they are detailed at length in both the podcast and the increasing body of reporting on the case, including in a newly released book by author Robin Bowles. Crucially, however, the coroner found that Handsjuk’s death was accidental, not suggesting suicide (as the initial police report did) but not suggesting foul play, either. The coroner then closed the finding, preventing further investigation and court action without petitions being put to higher, and significantly more expensive, courts.
Phoebe’s Fall follows News Limited’s Bowraville, which aired earlier this year. That story, from reporter Dan Box, revisited a shocking case which exposed fault lines in policing and Indigenous communities. A seemingly obvious perpetrator of a series of murders, originally tried and acquitted in separate cases, is identified through the five episodes, the weight of the three cases being linked to establish patterns. Like Serial, Bowraville resulted in the kind of real world win that regular newspaper journalism strives for, but rarely reaches. In a parallel with the retrial of Adnan Sayed, and in response to the reporting and public attention Bowraville created, the NSW Attorney General applied for the key suspect in the Bowraville murders to stand trial for two of the three murders.
What links the three shows (and others occupying the higher reaches of the iTunes charts) is the questioning of investigations, findings and prosecutions. It’s a well worn narrative sweet spot, the machinery of authority blind to the obvious. And with Phoebe’s Fall, we have a further juicy character element—Phoebe’s boyfriend, Antony Hampel (found by the inquiry to have played no role in her death), is a player in the Melbourne entertainment scene. He was significantly older than Phoebe. His father is a retired Supreme Court judge. His step-mother is a county court judge. Melbourne high society, money and the legal profession. In this context, rats can be smelled.
The manner by which we understand justice is actually an impossible thing to achieve
The Handsjuk family are involved with the podcast and the investigation—in the first episode Baker and Bachelard speak about both their own restlessness at the coroner’s finding, and also the line of communication they have with the Handsjuks. There’s nothing wrong with this—good journalists are dogs with bones, and any thinking, feeling person would look at the circumstances and press for something closer to a just reckoning.
There is, however, an irresolvable tension between our idea of justice and the real ways in which justice is supposedly served. We regard justice as a full stop: it is complete, closed, a resolution. We administer justice, however, by assembling information from human sources and presenting it to magistrates and juries, articulating narrative and judgement through human counsel, all subject to mood, inference, subjectivity and idiosyncratic relationships to the world—in a word, we administer it fallibly. Theory and practice of justice are therefore are at odds in a kind of ‘Derridean aporia’, where the condition of possibility is also, and at once, the condition of an idea’s impossibility. The manner by which we understand justice is actually an impossible thing to achieve.
This is not a critique, however, of the search for justice. Rather, it is an observation on what has tended to be eclipsed in the search, as undertaken by Fairfax and News Limited (and, to an extent, by the radio/podcast template provided by the godfather of this broadcast style, This American Life). The audience is pulled into this story via the process of storytelling, wherein it is natural to hope for a better, more just outcome. But that may not be possible. What we’re left with then, is sadness and horror. And that’s where this podcast, in the style of its presentation, creates problems. By adhering so obviously to the Serial template, a global shorthand for explosive storytelling and, most importantly, entertainment, Phoebe’s Fall risks undermining the seriousness of actual events and their societal significance. We’re asked, every Thursday, to consider a whodunit—a murder-mystery. It’s the territory of Errol Morris and The Art of Killing, but also of Raymond Chandler and John le Carré and Stieg Larsson. It’s entertainment.
If we consider the possibility that Handsjuk did not take her own life, we’re dealing with yet another case of violence against women. The advocacy of Rosie Batty in the past two years has turned a spotlight on the extent of this violence in our country. We have an extraordinary, horrifying problem with domestic violence. It is something to be put at the very centre of discussions of how we behave, something too serious, too present and too diabolical to be shaped into a classic whodunit narrative shape—something we can walk away from because it concludes.
Positioning the tragedy of others as the information and entertainment of the fortunate is, in a way, ghastly
The final episode of Phoebe’s Fall will arrive mid-afternoon this Thursday. Presumably it will indicate that there were enough unanswered questions in the handling of her case to warrant a re-opening of the file. We hope this goes some way to quelling the sorrow of the Handsjuk family. This should not, however, be taken as a clear validation of the form. Maybe, the producers might say, a greater good is being served by utilising a proven template in order to gain more attention. Maybe. But maybe that template actually undermines the seriousness of the issues herein, and by extension the memory of the key “character” both responsible for, yet unable to participate in, the production.
The way information is presented to us is important. Our minds accept both obvious and subliminal cues. Hence when a piece of journalism explicitly positions itself in a context of entertainment via a familiar template, it runs the risk of distracting an audience from what is real, and important. Positioning the tragedy of others as the information and entertainment of the fortunate is, in a way, ghastly.
Phoebe’s Fall is undeniably successful in terms of numbers and affect, but stories this serious need better, braver approaches. The whole enterprise may in fact have been more powerful if it had been produced in a way that didn’t lean so heavily on the stylistic cues of the genre, and the wider mystery genre this post-Serial content is indebted to.
There is no doubt that content makers interested in telling stories of this ilk can achieve real social good, exposing problematic authoritarian practices and the violence men commit against women. These storytellers might choose to do so, however, in a more sober, less classically sensational style. The real people in these stories, affected by real events that are too horrific to contemplate, are not entertained. They’re grieving. They deserve something better.