Media and murder

Art Life , Op-ed Dec 14, 2009 No Comments

Professor Joanna Mendelssohn was among those first contacted by members of the media in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Nick Waterlow and his daughter Chloe Heuston. In this article on the ethics of news reporting – originally commissioned and written for the Jesuit Communications Australia website Eureka Street – Mendelssohn describes her experiences of the subsequent news reporting.

In the early evening of Monday 9 November 2009 Chloe Heuston and her father Nick Waterlow, guiding spirit of many Biennales of Sydney and mentor to generations of artists and arts administrators, were killed in a knife attack. Chloe’s two year old daughter was injured, while her sons – aged four and four months respectively- were not.

I first heard of these events at 11 pm that evening when I was contacted by Geeshe Jacobsen of the Sydney Morning Herald, who asked me if I was aware that Nick Waterlow could be one of two people who had died that evening. When I expressed a sleepy surprise, she clarified the situation by describing it as “the murder-suicide”. My response was that if there was a murder-suicide, then the murderer could not be him. I told her that Nick Waterlow did not do murder. Again she repeated that it was a murder-suicide and that the man was 68 years old. She was so adamant about the murder-suicide that I went to bed convinced Nick Waterlow was alive. The next morning’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald was published with Nick and Chloe’s photographs, as an accompaniment to the story of the killings, which effectively identified them as the victims. The murder-suicide story was quietly killed.

Because the journalist did not apologise either for her behaviour or her initial allegation, I later complained to the Sydney Morning Herald. I received a call from Peter Kerr, the executive editor, who apologised on behalf of the paper. The next week Geeshe Jacobsen had the new byline of “Crime Editor”.

There is a reason why police delay the naming of victims of crime. They need time to notify the immediate family, so that the news can be broken to close friends and other relatives. The decision by the Sydney Morning Herald to effectively announce that Nick Waterlow and Chloe Heuston were dead well ahead of any official notice, added an extra layer of grief to those who were close to them. Nick’s neighbours had another problem. He had lived with his partner Juliet in a block of apartments in Potts Point. That evening a journalist, identified as being from the Sydney Morning Herald, buzzed apartments in the block, attempting to contact her for an interview.

Photographers and television crews descended on the hospital where the injured child had been taken and filmed her as she was rushed into surgery. The ambulance officers did well in covering the little girl with a blanked to protect her from the flashing lights of the cameras, but the photographs still appeared in daily papers, on television and remain on the Web.

As the Sydney Morning Herald had identified Nick’s place of work; television crews, photographers and journalists made an early beeline for the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, where people were trying to come to terms with the death of one of their most loved colleagues. Fortunately the university employs skilled public relations staff, so a media conference was arranged with the Dean, Ian Howard. His voice became the formal response of the arts community to the loss of one of its favourite sons. Good media management meant that the university’s meeting with faculty staff was timed for 12 noon, which coincided with the police media briefing.

Later some journalists returned to COFA, staking out the gallery, to see who entered. Restrictions on contacting university staff didn’t stop journalists from phoning or calling in with increasingly absurd questions, or demanding that staff help them to contact the family. One of the problems the journalists faced is that those who work in the arts are reasonably used to dealing with the media, and did not see anything especially enticing about being quoted in the popular press. When no intimate details were forthcoming, the media claimed that Nick Waterlow had been “intensely private” and commented on the “tight-knit” arts community as they created anecdotes and attitudes on his behalf.

The police had indicated that the person of interest was his eldest son, Antony, who was reported as being a schizophrenic. In 2006 Nick Waterlow had been marginally involved in a major touring exhibition on art and schizophrenia, For Matthew and Others. This information triggered stories claiming the exhibition was evidence of his concern. Photographs of Antony Waterlow were distributed and published in the media. It was unfortunate that The Daily Telegraph published a photograph of Nick’s other son, Luke, and captioned it “Antony Waterlow partying with friends”.

Chloe’s husband, Ben Heuston, had been in England when she was killed. The media, including the ABC, staked out Sydney airport to record his distraught face as he returned home. Later, after he collected the children from hospital, the media pursued them, and subsequently published images of the fugitives.

That the circumstances of this family and their friends were turned into tabloid entertainment is perhaps not surprising. Frontline neatly parodied this kind of death-knock journalism years ago. However when the tabloid media hounded Lindy Chamberlain family in the 1980s they were not joined by the ABC and Fairfax broadsheets. But in 2009 “quality” press were ahead of the pack in journalistic bad behaviour.

The ABC broadcast footage surreptitiously recorded inside the church service at both funerals as a part of its evening news bulletin. In style and content the stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were interchangeable with those in The Daily Telegraph.

I keep wondering how to categorise the way news media have acted over these deaths. Is the failure to respect the feelings of those close to Nick Waterlow and Chloe Heuston a failure of ethics or a failure of empathy? Perhaps it isn’t possible to develop a functioning code of professional ethics without some sense of empathy. Whatever the reason, this has hardly been journalism’s finest hour.

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Andrew Frost

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