Trace: Who Killed Maria James?
It has only been in the last decade that podcasting has taken off as a popularised, often interactive form of audio media, propelling increasingly open and diverse forms of dialogue into the online sphere. Blockbuster shows like Serial and This American Life, both based in the US, suggested the emergence of a new form of investigative journalism with the ability to trawl over old, unsolved cold cases for fresh answers.
It was in this explosive landscape that Trace came onto the scene in Australia mid-2017, an ABC funded investigation into the 1980 murder of Maria James, a young mother brutally killed at the back of her Thornbury bookshop. The podcast was led by acclaimed journalist Rachael Brown, who used the medium as a platform to urge Australians with any information to come forward and assist the two, now middle-aged sons Maria had left behind.
What resulted was a wildly popular and deeply concerning series. At the conclusion of the series, the Trace investigation had the potential to break open two age old institutions, the police force and the Catholic church. Now, Trace has been transposed to a book which explores the investigation, and dilemmas, Brown met along the way.
Most interestingly throughout the book is the manner in which Brown is self-reflective about her often problematic profession, regularly musing on the power and responsibility of words that journalists carry:
“It’s a strange transaction, journalism. A crass description, I know, but that’s exactly what it is.”
Brown is drawn to Janet Malcolm’s famous book The Journalist and the Murderer, which ruminates:
“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.”
Brown rejects at least part of this testament, believing betrayal depends on the actions of the journalist rather than being an inevitability. But she does muse why people are so willing to meet with her openly, throughout her investigation, when there is so much at stake for them.
Many of the individuals Brown spoke to are now middle-aged men who have survived years of physical and sexual abuse by the Catholic priests. She suspects Father O’Keefe and Father Bongiorno, both of whom ran the church that Maria James and her sons regularly attended. These men choose to relive their ongoing trauma for the simple reason that it might help a family find some answers.
“They confide in me,” she writes, “36 year-old, woefully-unequipped-to-deal-with-all-this me. I call on what should be able to get one through most things in life: heart. I listen, sympathise, and try to offer some solace, but it’s pathetically inadequate.”
At the Readings launch in Carlton, which is packed to the brim with survivors, friends and fans of Brown’s podcast, she confirms that many of these survivors are still suicidal. She has found herself in a position where she is still checking up on them, after their interviews, months later.
Yet Brown also admits that at times, she has been questioned over the ethics of using a Podcast to try to solve a cold case. Is it insensitive? Does it exploit the all too real stories of suffering, pain and decades of anguish for personal gain and glory of the journalist?
But Brown is resolute, you can tell by the way she speaks, measured, angry, perhaps even a little worn down by the toll the last year has taken on her.
“If the police and the judiciary aren’t acting,” she argues at the launch, in response to a critique she recently faced that the media should not play a part in true crime and the solving of murders, “then who is?”
Could the media be the new forum for solving cold cases? Could the podcast be the 21st century forum for encouraging new evidence, new witnesses, to come forward, with a reach the police can’t muster on their own?
The logic makes a kind of sense. At the very least, it encourages steps towards an ethical journalism, completely unlike earlier forms, which is interactive, which seeks involvement with the broader community.
At the launch, Brown states that the most uplifting part of working on Trace in its podcast format was the manner in which it mobilised the community around the unsolved case, and around two brothers who lost their mother, decades ago, brothers who still lack any meaningful answers.
The case as it stands at the conclusion of the novel remains unsolved. It’s a real-life story, and so lacks any clean or simple ending. Ex-cop Ron Iddles who worked on the case back in the 80s remains certain someone is withholding knowledge and that person may take it to their grave. DNA is still being collated. Yet the information it uncovers regarding the far-reaching cover ups in the Catholic church of sexual and physical abuse are profound and disturbing.
Trace does not swerve around the political and ethical dilemmas that stem from devoting over 16 months to an unsolved court case. Rather, it faces the difficulties head on, with compassion, with deep concern for the survivors Brown interviews.