The other Outback trial
Joanne Lees was found guilty by the media for refusing to play the role of traumatised victim.
‘Why has this case attracted so much attention?’ asked the BBC’s Newsnight programme about the murder of Peter Falconio in the Australian Outback in 2001. It’s a fair enough question. For the past four years, intrigue surrounding the case has periodically been headline news. Yet a glance at the coverage reveals that the media is fascinated by something other than the crime – namely Falconio’s girlfriend, Joanne Lees. Whenever the case is mentioned in the press, it’s always accompanied by a photo of Ms Lees about the size of Australia. Surely a more pertinent question is: why has Joanne Lees attracted so much attention?
There is no doubt that Joanne Lees’ photogenic good looks have played a part. After all, would we really want the grizzled mugshot of Falconio’s killer, Bradley Murdoch, staring back at us over breakfast? Nevertheless, while the photos of Ms Lees have been flattering, the accompanying reports have not. Since being interviewed by the Australian authorities four years ago, Ms Lees has generated almost as much loathing and hostility as, well, her boyfriend’s killer. So much so that one colleague of mine innocently asked, ‘when is she on trial?’.
In many ways Joanne Lees has been on trial – by advocates of the therapeutic state. A constant criticism of Ms Lees is that she appeared ‘cold and stony faced’ when quizzed by the media and police. Her refusal to blub or indulge hacks with sob stories has been a defiant slap in the face for contemporary emotional etiquette. And at a time when even hard-nosed politicians cry for the camera, the fact an ordinary woman refuses to play the grieving victim strikes many as heretical.
Incredibly, there is a view that Ms Lees’ admirable stoicism casts doubts over the entire case. If she can’t cry publicly over her loss, or at least seek counselling, then surely she can’t be a reliable witness? It comes to something when appearing rational and levelheaded can work against you in a legal trial. If there were doubts about Lees’ ‘credibility’, for some there were no doubts that she is a bad, bad girl. The defence team and journalists point out that she was cheating on her boyfriend and, during early media interviews, was ‘wearing a tight pink vest-top’ which was ‘inappropriate given the circumstances’ (1). Perhaps if Ms Lees were wearing a veil the media and authorities would take her more seriously.
The Falconio murder trial has echoes of another notorious case from the Australian Outback. In the early 1980s Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby was snatched by a dingo while her family was camping, was the most hated woman in Australia. Like Lees, she was regarded as untrustworthy because she was seen as unemotional and ‘unfeminine’ during the case. Largely as a consequence, Chamberlain was convicted of murdering her baby (though the verdict was later quashed).
The two cases reveal a lot about how gender politics have been recast in the past 20 years. In the 1980s, women were still expected to play the vulnerable, emotional and nurturing role and thus justify women’s subordinate position in society. By contrast, today we’re all expected to be emotional and vulnerable and thus justify our subordinate position to the therapist and counsellor. Whereas Chamberlain’s cocksure manner questioned women’s ‘natural’ mothering role in society, Lees’ imperious resilience questions the need for therapeutic intervention.
This is why the media and authorities have continuously berated her for not ‘opening up’, or allowing a clutch of experts to wipe away the tears. As a woman too, Lees would surely be expected to play a leading role in educating uptight men about the need to show their emotional side. Clearly, she’s let everyone down.
The senseless and apparently motiveless murder of Peter Falconio was undoubtedly a dark and vicious criminal act. So it’s all the more disturbing when someone who was also assaulted and imprisoned by Bradley Murdoch should endure a shameful character assassination. Lees’ ‘crime’, it seems, was to be an uppity woman who refused to play the emotionally traumatised victim for the cameras. And the therapeutic mindset couldn’t let her get away with that.
(1) Daily Mail, 14 December 2005
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