Call for caution on crime binge watching
Australia's growing obsession with gruesome crimes is disrespecting victims, glorifying offenders and exposing young minds to graphic violence potentially harmful to their mental health, criminal case experts say.
Criminal psychologist, Tim Watson-Munro, says the vast majority of consumers of true crime and crime fiction – delivered via books, television, games or podcasts – were simply exposed to benign if "perverse" examples of entertainment.
Forensic scientist Xanthe Mallett.Credit:Cole Bennetts
But for the socially isolated, mentally ill and young, impressionable children and teenagers repeated exposure can desensitise individuals to violence and gore, he said.
Having met and analysed the minds of some of Australia's hardened criminals including Julian Knight, the Hoddle street shooter, Mr Watson-Munro advised parents to censor their children's exposure to violence and crime on television and in books until at least age 15 and wants schools to help with anger and conflict management.
Crime writer Duncan McNab.Credit:Cole Bennetts
Young people are watching the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy at a time when their brains and emotions have yet to fully develop – and part of the problem comes down to lazy parenting, Watson-Munro says.
"The jury is out whether or not viewing this material leads you to crime but anecdotally if you look at sexual offences, people going out to kill and the escalating rates of violent crime on the streets and the community I think there is a nexus between that and people viewing this material and becoming desensitised to it or wanting to see what it is like," Mr Watson-Munro said.
"They take a step up from viewing to acting it out. For others, I'm not sure that it does them any harm at all. The largest audience of true crime are females and there has been a bit of study on that that suggests for some individuals watching true crime and seeing the offender in court, it gives them a sense of closure, a sense of revenge and so on."
Mr Watson-Munro, a father of five and author of two memoirs, Dancing with Demons and A Shrink in the Clink, will discuss the impact of the public's fascination with those who commit violent serial crimes at the Sydney Crime Writers Festival at the State Library.
On the same panel will be University of Newcastle's forensic anthropologist, Dr Xanthe Mallett, who as a specialist in human craniofacial biometrics, hand identification, and behavioural patterns of paedophiles, helped British police crack a notorious predator ring before moving to Australia.
Dr Mallett believes sensationalist film, television and book treatment of crimes are intrinsically disrespectful of the victim. Less screen and page time should be given to the offenders.
"What people remember are the offenders," Dr Mallett says. "If you think of Milat, how many people would know his name? Everyone. If you ask anyone who his victims are they would just say the backpacker seven. The victim always gets consumed into the identity of the offender; they lose their own identity."
Cold case investigations and true crime journalism have become such a popular genre for podcasts, books, and documentaries to the extent that police and the Coroner’s Court have complained their resources are stretched dealing with media inquiries.
Fellow panelist and former detective turned author Duncan McNab said true crime journalism that gave a human face to the victim could shake recollections and potentially lead to breakthroughs.
He led a television investigation into the brutal murder of Queenslander Leanne Holland, who died in 1991 a week shy of her 13th birthday. Until then the focus had been on the suspect, who had maintained his innocence was subsequently convicted, then acquitted.
Leading criminal psychologist Tim Watson-Munro.Credit:Cole Bennetts
"We looked at her story: all Leanne wanted to do was to dance like Kylie Minogue. If we focus entirely on the offenders we don't do the victims justice, we don't do their families justice and we don't do ourselves justice," McNab says.
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's attempt to bury the name of the Christchurch shooter sent a positive message, Dr Mallett says.
"You can't wipe these offenders from history and acknowledging what they have done and picking apart why they did it helps to guard against it in the future," Mallett said. "We need to change the public discourse so that we show the victims at the heart of the crimes more than the offender, and acknowledge that the victims were people."
Dr Mallett is the author of Mothers who Murder and Cold Case Investigations, released this month, which focuses on the victims.
The tendency to focus on grizzly aspects of the crime tended to the ''distasteful'' and she stays her hand, describing the crime only so much to understand the offender's motives.
McNab, the author of seven true crime books, says autopsy reports don't need retelling.
None are advocating for censorship of true crime. Dr Mallett says respectful representations of the victim and profiles of crimes that showed consequences would likely balance out some of the more salacious aspects of crime narratives while lessening the potential harm to the viewer or reader.
"It's a case of where you draw the line, Watson-Munro said. ''If we legislate what we can and cannot see we are getting away from freedom of expression."
BAD: Sydney Crime Writers’ Festival September 6-8.
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