Books

Sonya Voumard
The Media and the Massacre

There are things we know about the Port Arthur massacre of April 28, 1996, things that can be proved and measured. We know, for example, that Martin Bryant, then 28, arrived at the tourist site armed with high-powered weapons. We know that he used these weapons to murder 35 men, women and children in cold blood and wound 21 others. We do not, and may never know, why he did it. Even Bryant, a deeply disturbed man of limited intelligence who is currently serving a 1035-year, non-parole sentence in a Tasmanian prison, cannot explain himself.

The question of why anyone would commit such a heinous crime is as seductive as it is unanswerable. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for millennia. Are people born bad or are they made that way by circumstances? We are driven to understand what drives people to commit terrible deeds because, in some hopeful part of us, we believe that to comprehend evil is to discover how to eliminate, or at least limit, it. 

In 2009, with such a mission in mind, two veteran Fairfax journalists, Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro, tackled the enigma of Martin Bryant in Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer. In it, they drilled back 172 years into Bryant’s convict ancestry, considered his mental disability and history of social rejection, and – their greatest scoop – quoted extensively from the as-yet-unpublished memoir of his mother, Carleen Bryant. 

There was only one problem – Carleen had shared her manuscript with them only because she hoped the authors (Wainwright, initially) could help her shape the memoir for publication. It soon became clear that the collaboration was not going to work out. For their part, Wainwright and Totaro could not countenance Carleen’s belief in conspiracy theories exculpating her son. Besides, they felt there was a larger story to tell. Carleen, for her part, did not feel comfortable with the book they planned to write instead and she wanted to retain control over her story. So she withdrew from the project and requested the return of her manuscript. 

In The Media and the Massacre, Sonya Voumard shifts the focus of moral inquiry from Bryant’s deeds to the way that Wainwright and Totaro, and the Australian media more broadly, have dealt with them. When, on page 54, Voumard condemns Born or Bred? as “a confused melange of theories”, it made me wonder whether, then, it was really worth a book-length take-down. Voumard’s descriptions of the “chic” environs of a Sydney Writers’ Festival event at which the pair were enthusiastically introduced by Peter FitzSimons struck me as laboured and gratuitously small-minded; attendees of writers’ festivals will recognise nothing terribly unusual about either the setting or the chair’s boosterish remarks. In moments like these, Voumard does not quite live up to the model of scrupulous empathy practised by one of her own literary guiding lights, Helen Garner. 

And yet this does not diminish either the very serious purpose or powerful impact of Voumard’s important book, for which she has researched carefully, interviewed widely and thought deeply. She spoke to lawyers, editors, journalists, ethicists and even the artist Rodney Pople, whose Port Arthur-themed works provoked controversy in Tasmania. Although Carleen, who is understandably media-shy, declined her request to meet, Carleen’s friend and tireless advocate Joan Errington-Dunne gave generously of her time and shared her considerable archives with Voumard. Wainwright and Totaro repeatedly turned down her requests for an interview, saying that there was nothing to add to what they had already said about the matter on the public record. Voumard’s unanswered questions for them and literary agent Pippa Masson make for fascinating reading, for many are in themselves mini-lessons in ethical practice. (“Did you have express consent from Carleen to reproduce part of her copyright work or was it implied? If, implied, how was it implied?”) 

If Voumard is hard on others, she is also rigorously self-reflective. As a journalist herself, she knows and acknowledges the pressures, compromises and irrational excitements that come with the job: “You want to run towards the disaster,” she writes, “find the source and write the pain.” Whether you go to “feast” or to “fathom”, you may “fantasise that your words will help people understand, or make the world a better place” – or perhaps just win you a Walkley. She understands from firsthand experience how easy it is to offend during the course of the “delicate dances” between journalist and subject. She carefully interrogates her own treatment of Wainwright and Totaro.

Voumard realises that for some Tasmanians, there is no acceptable way for an outsider to tell the story of Port Arthur at all. Many would prefer that Bryant’s name never be uttered again. The question of who “owns” Carleen Bryant’s story is part of a larger issue, that of who has the right to portray this chapter of Port Arthur’s complicated history, and an even larger issue still: what claim do journalists have over the stories of traumatised individuals and communities generally, and what is their duty of care? Voumard suggests that this is “a wilderness landscape of ethics”. 

Voumard writes that the work of American journalist Janet Malcolm is one of her inspirations. She quotes Malcolm: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Yet if either she or Malcolm fully believed this, they would not do what they do. Voumard certainly could have found easier subjects, or more comfortable ones: given the small, incestuous nature of the Australian writing scene, it is a brave book indeed. Be glad that journalists such as Voumard and Malcolm still have faith in the possibility of ethical journalism; the alternative is not worth thinking about.  CG

Transit Lounge, 224pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Sonya Voumard, The Media and the Massacre". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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