Book Review: “The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016” by Sonya Voumard (#AWW2017 @sonyavoumard @transitlounge2 @TheStellaPrize)

 

Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 (Transit Lounge, 2016) is a journalist’s reflection on her profession as well as the moral and social issues surrounding the craft of storytelling. It is a craft because, in contrast to artists who aim to confront and conquer time, journalists are increasingly surrendering to the pressure of time, competing against each other to break the news faster and with more sensational details in order to appease the public.

In such a rush, and often tempted by the glory of being the “news breaker”, some journalists consciously neglect their Code of Ethics and their responsibility to look after their human subjects. Voumard examines the consequences of such intentional negligence, using Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The making of a mass murderer (Fairfax Books, 2009) as an example. She asserts the book’s authors, Fairfax journalists Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro, used large sections of the manuscript of Carleen Bryant’s autobiography without her permission. Being Martin Bryant’s mother and also a victim of the massacre, Carleen was desperate to have her voice heard, and it was this despair and vulnerability, according to Voumard, that the two journalists abused.

What makes The Media and the Massacre a valuable piece of investigative journalism is that Voumard tackles the issue of journalistic ethics from every possible perspective. Even in other forms of storytelling, this is not often attempted. Nor can it be easily done, as the author’s agenda ultimately stands out. Also standing out is Voumard’s attention to Joan Errington-Dunne, a friend of Carleen’s. By launching a crusade to seek what she perceives to be justice for her frail friend, Errington-Dunne risks amplifying her own voice instead of Carleen’s – hence further silencing the voiceless. Is it fair to say that such risk is faced by all journalists everyday?

As Voumard reaches her conclusion halfway through the book, her focus is shifted to other aspects of Tasmania’s past and present. One of the most alarming observations about the island state is this:

[In his essay “Tasmania – The Tipping Point?” published by Griffith Review in Autumn 2013] Jonathan West said that Tasmania ranked at the bottom among Australian states on virtually every dimension of economic, social and cultural performance: it had the highest unemployment; the lowest incomes; languishing investment; the lowest home prices; the least educated population; the lowest literacy; the most chronic disease; the poorest longevity; the residents most likely to smoke; the greatest rate of obesity; the highest rate of petty crime; and the worst domestic violence. “It seems not to matter which measure is chosen, Tasmania will likely finish last.” West further argued that Tasmania has developed a way of life that “reproduces under-achievement generation after generation… Ultimately Tasmania doesn’t change because its people don’t really want to. They don’t need to change because their way of life is mainly financed by the mainland”. (p.162-163)

While The Media and the Massacre is NOT a bleak book, it demonstrates a journalist’s courage to confront the dark issues and bring them out front – and there are plenty of dark issues indeed. Voumard is honest about what she is able and unable to achieve, and the use of a large number of quotes from all parties involved helps to produce a sense of balance. Those interested in journalistic ethics will find the first half of the book useful, while writers of all backgrounds will find general help and guidance about journalistic writing in the second half.

Note: Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 is one of the 12 titles on the Stella Prize 2017 Long-list.

 

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