Will The Real Carl Williams Please Stand Up


You probably haven’t been able to avoid news of the murder of Carl Williams in the maximum security unit of Victoria’s Barwon prison on Monday.

The Australian media — and it really has been practically every outlet and medium — has been running it in unison as a lead story. On Monday night television, the story cropped up everywhere from Lateline to A Current Affair, and Channel Nine ran a special program, complete with re-enactments of Williams’s crimes.

Away from free-to-air television, you might not have been surprised by the blanket coverage at the Herald-Sun website, or the seven pages of material in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph, but more surprised to find Sky News had devoted one of its digital multichannels to continuous coverage.

Victoria’s Office of Police Integrity is now set to join investigations into Williams’s death amid allegations of corruption, and the alleged murderer appeared via video link in Geelong Magistrates Court yesterday in advance of a committal hearing in July. In other words, the story doesn’t look like dying down anytime soon.

The mix of celebrity, murder, crime and whispered rumours of connections with corruption has riveted the tabloid media — and a whole lot of other outlets who like to think of themselves as pursuing different, more elevated values. The extent of the frenzy is a classic example, albeit on a national rather than global scale, of the effect British media academic Garry Whannel calls "vortextuality", where "major news stories have the power to dominate the news media to such an extent that all attention appears, temporarily, to be directed towards them".

Such vortices stand out in a multichannel, post-broadcast environment, because otherwise we’re so very rarely all thinking and talking about the same thing these days. On the other hand, as Whannel points out, "the volume of information in circulation, and the speed of circulation and feedback of information have increased dramatically." That means that when everyone’s attention is fixed on something, however briefly, the circulation of news about our temporary fixations across a range of platforms begins to seem cyclonic. Whannel says these incidents are inherently unpredictable, and tend to be short-lived, but he’s mainly focused on the vortices with a global reach.

In Australia, anything involving harm coming to Carl Williams was always going to be big — and this story is but one episode in a much longer tale.

That’s because the Melbourne gangland war that Williams was so intimately involved with has long since ceased to be just another crime story. Even though the media breathlessly related the saga as it unfurled (especially in Melbourne), since Williams was jailed the events of the war have become even more prominent in the national consciousness thanks to the true crime juggernaut that is Underbelly.

John Silvester and Andrew Rule’s wildly successful book series provided the basis for an even more successful television series. Underbelly is now in its third season, and is rating like no Australian drama production in recent memory.

The show has now moved on from Melbourne’s war but the first series centred on Williams’s rise to power and notoriety as a murderous Melbourne drug baron. "Underbelly", it seems, has become a code-word or shorthand for all manner of nefarious underworld goings-on. The show’s success — and it has to be acknowledged that millions are watching it — has become an additional driver in the intensity of the reporting around these incidents. More than this, in specific ways, its version of events is becoming confused with reality.

Just as an example, on Monday night, Media Watch pointed out that a photo of the actor Matthew Newton had been used in a Channel Nine News story speculating about "Mr Asia" crime kingpin, Terry Clark. Newton is not, as far as anybody knows, a drug importer and dealer. He did play Clark, though, in the second series of Underbelly. Nine described Clark as an "Underbelly-style character" where, as Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes observed, we may once have simply described such people as "criminals".

Holmes suggested this was an example of Nine’s cross-promotional mania. I wouldn’t discount that possibility, but at the same time I’d suggest that Nine are also gesturing directly towards the version of the Mr Asia story with which their audience is most familiar. They’re also, in however backhanded a manner, acknowledging that those elements of the criminal underworld that have received the Underbelly treatment have ceased to be merely news stories.

Like the Williams story, Mr Asia’s career has, courtesy of Underbelly, so blended factual material with fictional presentation that it is approaching the status of myth. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense. Although the word myth can be used to describe outright falsehood, it can also describe foundational stories that inform a people’s or a nation’s identity.

Some of Australia’s most enduring myths involve criminals and criminality, from the First Fleet, to Ned Kelly, to the police corruption stories of the 1980s. All of these stories have been used to understand our changing national identity, even though we still might argue over what they mean. It’s similar with Underbelly, the first series of which, as Melissa Gregg and I have argued in newmatilda.com and elsewhere, was in part a parable of the Howard years.

Underbelly goes far beyond reportage and reconstruction in its narratives, and that gets mixed up with journalistic coverage of people who are still alive (a few of them at least). When Nine News runs a Mr Asia story, they find themselves reporting more on a legend than on facts.

If and when the dust this has all stirred up settles, Williams’s death will be incorporated into the legend that straddles fact and fiction; books, television drama and tabloid news. A real person has been murdered in prison, as Victorian police minister Simon Overland struggled to get across yesterday, but that probably won’t start any serious discussions about security or conditions in our jails.

Because as well as a legend, Underbelly — and that means a version, however distant, of real events in people’s lives — has become Australia’s leading media commodity. As a story, it’s irresistible to news outlets who might otherwise have to talk about, say, federalism and health reform. For them, the news that portly Carl Williams was bludgeoned to death with exercise equipment couldn’t have been better scripted.

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