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While Australians made Schapelle Corby a celebrity following her conviction, the media’s discovery that interest had since waned didn’t avoid an unedifying spectacle. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

What we’ve learnt from Schapelle Corby

Back in 2005, when the Denpasar District Court delivered its verdict on Schapelle Corby’s guilt, it seemed for a while that Australia had lost its mind. It is depressing to revisit the fervour. The ugly nativism and conspiracy. The lay insistence on Corby’s innocence, based not on a study of evidence but on conjecture and the face of the convict. The airwaves were thick with plots of vengeance: a Bali boycott, the deployment of the SAS to extricate Corby, the withdrawal of Australian aid offered after the 2004 tsunami. In Perth, the Indonesian consulate received bullets in the mail with a note suggesting that the next ones would travel much faster.

Then there was the reaction to the reaction, ugly in its own way, smug in its diagnosis of Australian banality and dismissive of the Corby family as “irritating bogans”. Schapelle’s principal burden, of course, was being condemned to a cell for 20 years, but there was the lesser burden of becoming a cypher for the country’s racial anxieties and assumptions about class. To be sure, Corby’s plight had aroused enormous racism – “the judges don’t even speak English, mate,” 2GB presenter Malcolm T. Elliott said, “they are straight out of the trees” – but the rage was likely sharpened by the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 200 innocents, almost half of them Australian. Corby would occupy the same prison as the “spiritual leader” of the terror group responsible for the Kuta bombings, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Depending on who you spoke to, Schapelle was the blue-eyed surfer chick ensnared in the corruption of a filthy country or the crooked daughter of a vulgar family who was unworthy of our attention. I doubt either interpretation was the product of much thought; they were instinctive, reactionary formulations that betrayed assumptions about race and class. Of course, this is a simplification. There would have been a good number of people quite pure in their indifference. “Schapelle’s image,” wrote the cultural academic Anthony Lambert, “is able to mask, dramatise and normalise a range of familial, domestic and international behaviours by reconstituting Australianness as a ‘damsel in distress’… The question at the centre of this saga is: What if this happened to your daughter?

“Schapelle occupies the place of the mythical Australian beach girl (the daughter who is Australia) now trapped in a ‘strange’ land, in non-white hands, and at the mercy of foreign systems and institutions.”

Back then, the public fervour meant there was a buck to be made. TV networks, tabloids and book publishers mobilised their photographers and chequebooks. Interviews, claimed as the fruit of “investigation” but mostly auction prizes, saturated television. Schapelle became a serial cover girl for the gossip mags. The fact of her prominence was attributed to her appearance, a view readily admitted to by the editor of Woman’s Day. Corby’s hair, eyebrows and “piercing eyes” were parsed and praised. Image was everything. In her autobiography, Corby herself would claim her jail-bound beauty regime as a way of defying the filth and nihilism of her prison. “Despite living in this dump,” Corby said in her book, “I still take pride in my appearance. Looking my best, or at least passable, has always been important to me and I don’t enjoy looking like crap even if I feel like it most of the time. I still pluck my eyebrows, I put conditioning treatments in my hair and dye it as soon as the grey roots come through. Most mornings I apply natural glow bronzing powder and waterproof mascara – for all the tears – and am constantly applying cherry lip gloss … Making an effort with my appearance also gives me a bit of dignity in a place where that is something you really have to fight for.”

The Corby family themselves both profited and suffered from their notoriety. They by turns courted and shunned the press. Interminably analysed, the family’s media engagements would be interpreted either as greed or advocacy. When men’s magazine Ralph featured Schapelle’s sister, Mercedes, on its December 2008 cover, obligingly airbrushed and bikini-clad, we had reached a strange but inevitable point in the commodification of a drug smuggler.

But for all of the cynical and coercive instincts of big media, and their insistence on the importance of this story, they weren’t wishfully imagining an appetite for it. During the work day, hundreds of thousands of Australians tuned in for Channel Nine’s live broadcast of the verdict. The first edition of Corby’s autobiography, co-written with a former producer of 60 Minutes and published in 2006, sold 105,000 copies – major figures in the Australian market, and which justified the $350,000 the publisher paid to secure the rights. “The very, very worst thing about all this,” she wrote, “is that I didn’t do it. I have to live this life knowing that I’m innocent, that I don’t deserve to be here for one night, one hour or minute – let alone 20 years.”

The interest was significant enough for then prime minister John Howard to respond to a letter from the prisoner, in which he wrote: “I feel for you and your family at this very difficult time … Let me assure you that the Australian government will continue to provide every assistance it can under our legal system – consistent with our approach to date … I would like to take this opportunity to assure you I will continue to take a personal interest in your case.” While Howard was subtly accommodating public outrage, his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was cautioning against excessive angst – by which he meant the death threats, racist denunciations, and intemperate commentary that followed Corby’s sentence.

Meanwhile, the Greens party, whose enthusiasm for Corby advocacy seems to have been forgotten, organised a small picket of the Indonesian embassy in Canberra – in part to pressure the two countries to enact a prisoner exchange program. “Free Schapelle,” read a protester’s sign. “When you look at the trail of evidence,” then Greens leader Bob Brown said, “the absence of definitive proof, I don’t believe she would have been found guilty in an Australian court and certainly by an Australian jury.” That may or may not be right, but it was a cause célèbre swiftly abandoned. Elsewhere, talkback radio was murmuring about a tourism boycott. “As a travel agent I’m going to make a stand,” one caller said. “I’ve already ripped down every single thing related to Bali. No one will go to Europe on Garuda.”

Whether we like it or not, Schapelle’s verdict kicked the guts of our culture. “Schapelle Corby was a cultural event of monumental proportions, an event that, like so many others, would test the mettle of the Australian-Indonesian relationship,” Anthony Lambert wrote.

But fast forward. Through a succession of presidential clemencies, Corby’s sentence is reduced to nine years and she is released from Kerobokan prison in 2014, though compelled to spend three years in Indonesia on parole. Opinion polls show a serious decline of faith in Schapelle’s innocence. Regardless, paparazzi are dispatched to snap pictures of Corby sunbathing. Precious few care.

James Packer’s network, from which Corby’s sympathetic co-author came, now airs a telemovie loosely based on a book later pulped because of copyright infringement – and the source of a $1 million settlement to the Corby family following a defamation suit. Schapelle was a ratings disaster. It was aired alongside another biopic telemovie, Channel Seven’s Never Tear Us Apart about INXS. Twice as many Australians watched the latter, and vastly more watched that night’s commercial news broadcasts. When Nine replayed the movie last week, to coincide with Schapelle’s return to Australia, the network itself anticipated a lack of interest and scheduled it for 10pm on Sunday. Fewer than 300,000 people tuned in – roughly the audience for an afternoon re-run of M*A*S*H. A year before, a revised edition of Schapelle’s autobiography was released and has thus far sold 10,000 copies. Not insignificant, but a factor less than its first release.

And the Bali boycott? That didn’t work out. In the past decade, no country on earth has experienced a greater increase of Australian tourism than Indonesia. Since 2006, short-term visits to the country have increased by 546 per cent. Indonesia ranks a close second behind New Zealand as the most visited country by Australian tourists. Terrorism, Schapelle, the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – regardless, Bali remains the preferred holiday destination for many Australians.

This week, though, nothing could stop the embarrassing deployment of helicopters, motorbikes and high-powered lenses.

For all the media’s hunger and expertise, the Corby family made them look foolish. They hired security firm Tora Solutions, previously employed by the Dalai Lama, to conduct an elaborate and very expensive subterfuge. Multiple flights from Bali to Brisbane were booked, as were hotel rooms. A large convoy of cars, serving as decoys, further thwarted journalists. Family members received bodyguards. It was a strategy you might normally associate with a presidential security detail. The logistics were overseen by a former Australian Army officer.

Presumably, the money spent on this operation had come from the media themselves, in exchange for an exclusive, or indirectly, through the various settlements that have been made over the years.

Then there were the family members who disguised themselves with grotesque rubber masks, which seemed as much an expression of contempt for the media as it was an attempt at anonymity. As hordes of photographers snapped the bizarre antics, the images of blood-streaked zombies seemed an appropriate metaphor.

Corby’s family posted footage of them watching the breathless coverage on television, while a reporter in a helicopter incorrectly told viewers that the car in sight contained Schapelle. Schapelle looks gleeful at this misapprehension. They seemed to be greatly enjoying their embarrassing of the media. But if the Corby family thinks the golden goose still has some eggs to lay, they’ll inevitably be back in negotiations with the press, which exists simultaneously as patron and adversary.

There is something dubious about writing life into the corpse of this story. It remains the case that, in 2005 and for quite a few subsequent years, Schapelle Corby was a phenomenon – a single figure through whom class resentment, snobbery, racism and catharsis was expressed. In 2017, however, there is the bloated idiocy of the media who make the same claims to the story’s importance that they did 12 years ago.

“Schapelle Corby – rightly or wrongly – has been convicted of drug smuggling,” Nine presenter Karl Stefanovic said this week in a piece to camera. “She’s done her time and has the right to live her life in relative peace – if that’s what she wants. Maybe she wants mayhem. Whatever. I don’t care. There are far more important things in life than pursuing and losing Schapelle Corby. We in the media have a responsibility to inform but I reckon we were all made to look like idiots yesterday – and to what end? Where Schapelle is, what she looks like... come on. We know. And you know what? It ain’t that interesting. Move along, please.”

Has any of this mattered? It’s doubtful. What have we learnt? That our sense of superiority can, and will, express itself hatefully. Through this unremarkable woman, Australians communed with their nativism. It was unedifying then, as the media’s anachronism is today.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "She sells Schapelles". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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