Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.

 

 

Advertisements

Doxxing, Journalism and the anonymous Casefile host

So it’s true. I doxxingbriefly “doxxed” the anonymous host of popular crime recital podcast Casefile.

I’d actually never heard of the curious word – ‘doxx ‘or ‘dox’ – until I wrote an article on this humble blog a few months ago revealing a few personal details about the mysterious “Brad” whose spooky Wikipedia-inspired retelling of famous crimes has turned him into a surprising, and apparently extremely reluctant podcast superstar.

Doxxing, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary is:

slang : to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge  

My now deleted article included the host’s full name, age, the town where he lived and a few other bits of trivia about him. I also included a smiling photo sourced from social media.

It only took a couple of hours of digging to work out who he was – my motivation was neither malicious nor vengeful,  only pure curiosity. Anybody using a bit of lateral thinking could have found as much, if not more.

After removing the article as a favour, I wrote a fresh post about my interactions with the Casefile host and then another about his subsequent blocking of me on Twitter.

Among the many responses, came this from Laura: “I was also curious about who this fellow Aussie was, now after seeing his response to you doxxing him I agree his identity should remain completely anonymous”.

Digging around online I found that the fan-run Casefile Reddit page has a strict “zero tolerance Doxxing Rule” which it says applies “to victims” (strange, as Casefile podcasts are full of personal details of the victims of crimes) “but also to the host”.

“We will remove immediately any posts regarding the identity of the host unless they come from the Casefile Official Website. Period,” the Reddit page says.

It’s a curious kind of inverse vigilantism since unlike many infamous doxxing cases (like that of Brennan Gilmore, who tweeted the video of the car driven by a white supremacist madman that ploughed into anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville last year and was then doxxed by far right activists who posted the home address of his parents on online message boards) there appears to be no genuine reason for the host’s anonymity, apart from him not wanting anyone to know who he is.

Bear in mind,  I didn’t hack any databases or emails to find out who he was, nor did I post his home address or phone number. Every bit of information was publicly available at the time to anyone who cared to investigate.

I think it’s also worth considering the issue of doxxing from a journalistic point of view.

Journalists doxx all the time: we write about people who wish to remain anonymous in the interests of a good story.

As a property writer, it is part of my job to reveal who is buying and who is selling real estate even if those doing the buying or selling wish to remain anonymous.

In almost all cases the doxxing is justified in the interests of a transparent property market where millions of dollars are involved. Plus our readers want to know who is buying and who is selling. It’s that simple.

This is not to say that sometimes anonymity must be respected and protected, but the reason have to be compelling; no journalist wants to tell only half a story.

Even more important, often a supposed case of “doxxing” can reveal what is hiding in the shadows.

As a Melbourne judge recently remarked of a once anonymous property developer who illegally demolished a historic Melbourne pub and then dumped asbestos waste from the pub near homes and a childcare centre: “I hope everyone knows your name.”

A new owner for Gisborne’s Macedon House

IMG-1231In June, I blogged about Macedon House, the 170-year-old crumbling wreck in Gisborne (where I live) north of Melbourne that had stood vacant for more than a decade.

The once grand property which the  Victorian Heritage Council called “a rare surviving example of an early Victorian hotel” and with a rich and colourful history had passed through successive ownerships in recent years, with plans including to turn it into a retirement village – none of which came to fruition.

Then on August 4 it went to auction as a mortgagee sale, with the hope that the buyer would restore it to its former glory.

For the new owner, Macedon House came with the caveat that whoever bought it would have to carry out urgent repairs under a Victorian State Government order aimed at protecting historically significant properties.

I can report, the August 4 auction through Kennedy & Hunt Real Estate was a success – Macedon House has a new owner after selling under the hammer for $1.36 million in front of about 60 people.

According to our local community paper, the Gisborne Gazette, the buyer is former Gisborne resident Troy Daffy, who owns and runs Brisbane-based developer Silverstone Developments.

Encouragingly for locals, Mr Daffy told the Gisborne Gazette he would carry out repairs to Macedon House as ordered by the State Government to bring it back to its former glory, but has no plans yet for the land surrounding the homestead.

“I may live in Brisbane, but at heart I am still a Gisborne boy,” he told the paper.

Silverstone has undertaken apartment developments in Brisbane, as well as commercial and retail projects

In June it paid $7.15 million for a 1.3 hectare site in Rochedale in Brisbane’s outer southern suburbs with plans for a medical and retail centre plus townhouses. Silverstone also owns property in the Brisbane CBD, Fortitude Valley and a retail subdivision in Upper Coomera.

As to what Mr Daffy’s plans are for the large Gisborne property – only time will tell. But a restoration of what has become a sad Gisborne eyesore, will be welcomed by locals.

Blocked on Twitter: A few thoughts on the “Anonymous host” of Casefile

casey This week I discovered I had been blocked on Twitter from accessing any tweets from @case_file and @casefilehost – the handles for popular crime podcast Casefile.

Fans of this blog may recall I wrote a now deleted post a few months back revealing the identity of the show’s anonymous host.

What followed was frantic messaging via Twitter from the “anonymous host” asking me to remove the post as revealing his identity would comprise the show and could bring about its early end.

This I agreed to do in modest exchange for an interview (anonymously) with “Brad” (He revealed his name in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine).

I took down my original post as he had asked, emailed him some interesting questions – but no responses were forthcoming.

Instead a rather blunt email followed over a week later suggesting that my follow-up post (which did not reveal his identity) was also not to his liking and when I declined to acquiesce to his demands to change it, our correspondence ended.

email-casefile

A short while later, he blocked me on Twitter, meaning I cannot view any Casefile tweets or interact with him – though I can still download his show.

I have also discovered that ‘Brad’ had removed all photos on social media of himself and other bits of identifiable information scattered on the internet in clear efforts to protect his anonymity.(That said, he can still be easily found if you know where to look).

Clearly, ‘Brad’ is very keen to remain anonymous and – for reasons that no one appears to know, but many are curious about ( I get emails every week) – shuns the quasi celebrity status that other successful podcasters have enjoyed.

It of course begs the question, why? What does he have to hide?

With no responses to my questions from Brad, all I can do for now (until the mystery is inevitably solved) is speculate on plausible explanation for his overt shyness.

Perhaps the host of Casefile is a former or current police or law enforcement officer? Or perhaps he has served in the army or worked for one of those secretive government agencies?

Is it too fanciful to suggest that maybe he has some dark and dastardly secrets of his own?

The other possibility I think is that being anonymous protects him to a degree from being sued or attacked personally.

This I pondered after finding out that one Casefile episode, case 55 – the unsolved 2005 murder of Perth backpacker Simone Strobel – is no longer downloadable anywhere.

strobel

So why has it disappeared? Has someone complained?

In our exchanges the Casefile host said there was nothing “sinister” about his anonymity, but equally his other explanations (told in many online interviews) that he wants to stay out of the way of the story do not ring true.

I also wonder how ‘Brad’ feels at retelling these crimes in all their graphic detail, where the victims (some of whom are still alive) are not afforded the luxury of anonymity…while he so jealously guards his.

If you want to be happier: close your Facebook account

facebook_like_logo_1The global furore created by the data mining of 50 million Facebook users by controversial UK political consultants Cambridge Analytica (reportedly to help Donald Trump win the US election) spawned the Twitter hashtag #DeleteFacebook and a campaign calling for users to abandon the social media giant in droves.

In truth, it just one of a number of reasons for shutting down your Facebook account – if you were looking for one.

Other reasons include the constant stream of fake news flowing down your Facebook feed, the trolls, scumbags and hate speech mongerers who freely ply their trade on Facebook or just the incredible and unfettered power Facebook  and founder Mark Zuckerberg now wields with its 1.2 billion users and rivers of advertising revenue that has crippled the free press.

But there is a far more obvious reason why you should seriously consider doing as the hashtag says and #DeleteFacebook.

Simply put, the latest research shows that frequent use of Facebook is likely to make you a less happier, less well-adjusted and less healthier person.

“Researchers are finding that the curated versions that we post on Facebook and Instagram have real consequences in our actual lives,” said Shankar Vedantam the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, a popular science and psychology podcast which looks at how people interact with the world.

“As you watch the seemingly idyllic lives of friends on social media, you may find a little voice pointing out that your vacations are dull by contrast, that your kid never scores the winning goal, that your relationships seem to be painted in grey while everyone else’s seem to be in Technicolor,” the eloquent Vedantam went on to say.

Social comparison risk

The podcast episode called “SchadenFacebook” (which you can download here), looked at a 2017 study carried out by academics at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, which was the first study aimed at separating out correlation (Do lonelier people tend to use Facebook?) from causation (Does Facebook use make you unhappier?) in relation to social media use.

It examined the “natural” experiences of 144 workers at a security firm who initially were not allowed to use Facebook at all and had to delete their accounts. Later, the company allowed some employees to re-open their accounts.

In this unique situation, none of the people got to choose which group they were in, so it couldn’t be that people who were unhappy were choosing to use Facebook, ruling out a correlation bias.

The researchers  collected data from the time no one was allowed to use Facebook to the time some were allowed to have access.

Surprisingly, the study found that users are not generally fooled into accepting that the experiences posted on Facebook by their friends are the true picture.

But did find conclusively that “Facebook usage increases users’ engagement in social comparison and consequently decreases their happiness”.

 

“Using Facebook makes you more comparative. You need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again,”  one of the researchers, Ohad Barzilay, told Hidden Brain.

“You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, am I better or worse than my friends?  Am I happier or are they happier?”

“This [constant] social comparison engagement makes you less happy,” Barzilay said.

Harvard Business Review study

On top of that study,  I tracked down another recent and more comprehensive study on the impact of Facebook use on wellbeing, that was published in the esteemed Harvard Business Review.

Conducted by Holly B. Shakya an assistant professor of global public health at UC San Diego and Nicholas A. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, it tracked the wellbeing of 5208 regular Facebook users over a two-year period.

It measured life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index.

The findings were: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.

The report went on to say: “These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Neither of these findings really surprised me – nor do I suspect would they many other people.

Unfortunately, we often accept at face value what we read and see on Facebook and as the academic studies show use this as a disingenuous point of self-comparison: “There’s so and so having a better holiday then me…or with a nicer house or car…or with a better job…or with happy kids…or a nicer figure….”

But if we weren’t on Facebook voyeuristically trawling through the lives of others, and instead spent time on building our relationship in the real world, the latest research strongly suggests we’d be a lot less envious, a lot less depressed and a lot less self-judging.

Quitting is hard

The problem is thought that quitting Facebook – like any other addiction (and it is an addition!) is not easy.

The world’s most famous online brand (alongside Google) is completely entangled in our lives. It’s on our phones, our iPads and computers and it crops up in everything we see and do: from food packaging, to newspaper articles to everyday conversations.

The brilliance or insidiousness of Facebook, and other social network platforms like Instagram is that it takes advantage of natural human curiosity. Quite simply put: we want to know.

But if you’re feeling depressed or dispirited about your life and feel others are having more fun then you (when in fact their lives are not so shit hot) maybe its time to take the plunge and press the delete button.

“What, you’re not on Facebook?” your friends might ask in shock and horror.

To which you can simply smile and say: “Yes”.

The identity of the Casefile host: why I deleted his dark secret

caseyOne of the most stunning podcast success stories in recent years, is Casefile, a true crime podcast started just over two years ago by a mystery Australian bloke “from a spare room in his house”.

(For a follow up on this post click here).

Narrated anonymously, his distinctive Australian drawl has added an element of creepiness to tales drenched in blood. Every week hundreds of thousands of listeners, indeed sometimes many millions, download or stream the latest Casefile podcast.

With this viral success, the podcast has quickly become a slick, commercial venture with advertising, a creepy soundtrack and professional production qualities.

A team of engineers, producers, composers and researchers have sprung up around the Casefile creator and host.

But his identity – like the perpetrators of the unsolved crimes retold on the podcast – remains a closely guarded secret.

In an interview with Vice.com in October 2016, the Casefile host said he wanted to remain anonymous so that he could “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

“I’m just a random Aussie guy, in my spare bedroom, running a podcast,” he said modestly.

As a naturally curious journalist, I decided to take up the challenge and try to found out who the Casefile host was.

It wasn’t really hard – if you know where to look.

Indeed, for someone who wanted to remain anonymous, he didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to hide his identity.

And so last week, I ran a story, briefly, on this blog revealing his identity.

If you were one of the 100 or so people who read the post, you would know who he is and would have seen his photograph.

Soon after it was published and Tweeted and Facebooked, the Casefile host contacted me and asked me not to reveal his identity and to remove the post and all my social media about it.

casefile tweet

I was bemused by his reaction, as I thought his anonymity was a “marketing gimmick” and that it if a blogger like me revealed it would not make any difference to the show or how it is presented.  Indeed many of his fans crave to know who he is.

But no, he told me, it had nothing to do with marketing but affected his “real world life”  and his “ability to do the show”.

casefile tweet 2

In the end I took it down.

He told me that if no damage had been done to his anonymity and the show could continue, he would consider doing an interview with me.

I’ve sent over a few thought-provoking questions…let’s see what happens.

Of course, I remain intrigued as to why his anonymity is so vital to the show’s viability. No other podcasts I know of has anonymous narrators.

In fact, most successful podcast creators, like the hosts of the ground breaking Serial have become famous in their own right.

And so while the Casefile host insists on not making his identity part of the murderous stories he tells,  for me, his identity has, ironically, become the story.

As, I think it always has been for many of his faithful listeners.

(For a follow up on this post click here).

Good, bad or just bizarre: some thoughts on social media

1217linkedinSocial media can be a force for good – think the #metoo campaign by women who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and how that has exposed decades of predatory behaviour by actors, directors, writers and entertainers.

Think too of someone like Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist trapped on Manus Island who has been able to tell the real story of what has gone on in that Australian-made hell hole using Twitter and his smart phone.

Social media can also make us laugh, inform us, warn us and of course foster connections with people from all around the world.

But think also of its insidousness, how false information can be spread through Twitter and Facebook (the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election campaign is but one recent example) and other platforms, how people can be bullied, trolled and harassed. Social shaming can ruin lives, (read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, ‘So you have been publicly shamed’) and lead to suicide or violence towards others. A Tweet or Facebook post can be deleted but everything lives on in the archives of the internet – just ask Justine Sacco.

And think of all that Donald Trump tweeting! That surely can’t be a good thing for the progress of mankind.

 

Social media can also be…well just bizarre.

Take my birthday for example. I turned 44 just over a week ago. I didn’t make a fuss about it as that is my preference and expected only a small, but intimate celebration with my wife and kids (accompanied by pizza, beer and cake!) and a few phone calls from family and close friends. I didn’t tell people at work and nobody said anything. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement

But of course, we enter our birth dates into our social media profiles and so the almost 2000 people I am connected with on business social media platform LinkedIn (I used it a lot) got an alert to say it was my birthday.

And the greetings came flooding in from people I have never met or interacted with except to accept their connection request (I have trouble saying no), and from all corners of the globe.

Mostly it was just a generic “Happy Birthday” greeting, occasionally it was personalised with “Have a great day!” but it made me wonder why these people, who basically did not know me, felt they needed to wish me a happy birthday. I certainly don’t wish strangers on happy birthday, even when they pop up on my LinkedIn page.

But it got even more bizarre, because I felt this irrational obligation to thank every single person who had wished me a Happy Birthday, regardless of who they were (of course among the greetings were people I do know and interact with), where they lived or what they did.

And so I spent a good part of my day constantly replying to Happy Birthday messages on LinkedIn as they came in thanking Surya in Delhi, India, Siergiej in London, Orit on the NSW Far North Coast and Rui in Southport, Queensland. By the end of the day I’d received 40 or more birthday greetings. I’d never been more “popular”.

But why were these people sending me birthday greetings? Do you they send them to everyone they are connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook? Or was I considered special in some way?

(Ironically, some friends and family who I expected to hear from never contacted me, not even through social media.)

It makes me wonder just how much of our lives we spend on social media thumbing through our Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, checking up on people on Facebook or Instagram? Surely it can now be measured – like sleep – in years lost from our lives.

But while sleep is necessary to function properly – we would literally go crazy and die if we did not sleep for a long period of time, I doubt whether endlessly checking our myriad social media accounts really adds much to the human experience, one that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the real world.