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RIP Jill: 'In a crime like this, everyone needs to know everything.'

A poster for Jill Meagher

by MESHEL LAURIE

Yesterday morning, like every morning this week, I fished around my bed-side table before I even opened my eyes, grabbing for my phone. I know I wasn’t the only one compulsively checking the internet for information about a woman I’d never met, but for whom I’m now grieving, Jill Meagher.

The news websites informed me of the terrible break in the case overnight, and Jill’s fate was confirmed. As I sat up in bed, feeling so sad for all the people who knew and loved her and for everyone feeling they could’ve prevented it in some way, I considered the debate about the role of the media in tragedies like this.

Although I’ve been on the receiving end of some truly embarrassing attempts at journalism over the years, the fact is that I’m a member of the dreaded “mainstream” media myself. While I’m not always it’s proudest member, there are times when it’s capabilities within the community inspire me, and it’s self-serving detractors remind me that they are on the outside looking in for a reason.

Australia’s media can be ceaselessly cheesy, laughably sensational and at times it’s so insensitive that it sickens the citizens it so desperately wants to impress. A low point was reached earlier this year when a news chopper hovered over a NSW woman as she crouched beside the body of her daughter, killed in an accident on their farm. The footage from the chopper was aired on the news and uploaded to the network’s website which is obviously disgraceful. A very, very long way back from that desperate precipice is the coverage of Jill Meagher’s disappearance.

“There can’t be many among us who don’t know about the man in the blue hoodie”
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As a nation held its breath for news of a girl vanished, seemingly before our very eyes, was it unreasonable for the media to stalk information and witnesses? On the contrary I believe it’s invaluable. There can’t be many among us who wouldn’t recognize Jill’s face now, who don’t know about the man in the blue hoodie, the CCTV footage, the U-turning car, the witnesses who needed to come forward. That is the very important function of the media, the value of a huge, well-oiled machine for information dissemination. As anyone with a person missing from their world will tell you, the public’s attention is as fleeting as it is crucial. Updating the “story”, finding new angles, keeping the public thinking, and talking about it can be a dirty job, and it can result in people like Jill being reduced to characters in an intriguing TV mystery. It can also nudge a memory, prick a conscience and perhaps release a family from the torment of not knowing.

Is a radio show or newspaper disrespectful for wanting to tell their listeners the latest developments? Is it not “classy” for a journo to track down a witness at work? I really don’t care. He can go back to his nice life tomorrow. When it comes to a crime like this, everyone needs to know everything, in case it reminds them that they too saw something that night, or that they’ve heard a whisper from a friend of a friend that might somehow be related.

There are of course weaknesses within our media, but Jill Meagher’s stolen life is not the theatre in which it should be examined. Today I’m reflecting on the power of our media to galvanize a community against a predator. For once in my cynical life I’m grateful to the scandal sheets and shock jocks who screamed Jill’s name until no one could ignore it. Of course I wish every missing person received that amount of attention, but this moment belongs to the one who did. We can squabble about who’s the most righteous big mouth on our own time.

Meshel Laurie is a comedian and broadcaster. You can catch up with her on Nova’s Drive Show with Tim Blackwell and Marty Sheargold 4-6pm on weekdays.

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