HarperCollins Australia (ABC Books), 309 pp., ISBN: 9780733337888, p/bk, AUS$32.99
The Court Reporter (2018), described by the publishers as “a tough and fearless journalist’s memoir that looks at the cases that have shocked, moved and never left us”, is equal parts personal reflection on a career in the Australian media and a catalogue of crimes committed in New South Wales over recent decades.
Jamelle Wells’ name will be familiar to many. In her work on radio and television she has delivered news of some of the most audacious, as well as senseless, crimes to make our headlines, from felons Des Campbell (found guilty of pushing his wife off a cliff) and Keli Lane (found guilty of murdering her baby, Tegan, and of lying under oath) to victims Lisa Harnum (thrown off the balcony of her fifteenth-floor apartment by her fiancé Simon Gittany) and two-year-old Dean Shillingsworth (murdered by his mother, placed in a suitcase and then dumped in a pond) as well as outrageous cases of greed heard at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The book’s tone is informal, almost conversational, which works well as this approach serves to keep you reading rather than sitting and dwelling on some of the cases that are discussed. The stories are short, much like the live crosses Wells makes for televised news bulletins, with a few sentences so clipped you read them twice, thinking you must have missed something.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this work is the contribution Wells makes to the debates around the ethics of journalism, in particular, what should be covered and how much detail should be released? Critically, Wells wonders if “reporting on these crimes fell into the ‘helping people’ category or was it really the entertainment business. Was I contributing to the problem of people’s fear of Sydney becoming a bad place by scaring them unnecessarily?” (p. 22). That said, the idea of crime as entertainment is a thread that runs throughout the text. After obtaining a position as a court reporter, after many years in journalism, Wells admits that, after overcoming the initial fear of just how much work was involved in her new round, that the courts “unexpectedly appealed to my love of journalism but also theatre, in a way that I had never imagined it would” (p. 43). Yet the fundamental question of how “the facts need to be stated in the interest of accuracy and balance, but just how much to we need to filter to protect our audience?” (p. 252) is one that is asked every day.
In discussion of the multiple trials of Robert Xie – eventually found guilty of murdering five members of his extended family in North Epping in July 2009 – Wells talks about sitting close to the exit of a court room and the need to be able to leave quickly and meet a crew, waiting patiently, out on the street ready for a live cross. Wells notes, too, how Kathy Lin, who had attended nearly every day of the final trial in 2016 often bringing Xie lunch, also sat towards the rear of the court observing that maybe she too “had sussed out the quickest way to escape from the court and the waiting media each day” (p. 16). This anecdote, more than any other offered, highlights how journalists in general and court reporters in particular, are not so different from anyone else: they just have a much harder job than many of us. As Wells unpacks her day-to-day routine, the need for people who cover the worst of what people can do to each other to “cultivate resilience” (p. 59) becomes increasingly obvious. It’s not just about the need to deal with the stress of the competition of the news business, the unsociable hours and the pressure to not make even the smallest error in reporting: it’s the need to stay sane. A near-endless exposure to violence might not corrupt the soul but it certainly has the potential to wither it or to re-shape us in a way that we can only ever see the world as a place cast in shadow.
In the introduction Wells explains that her mother, when undergoing treatment for terminal cancer, suggested: “You might be sad when I die so you need to keep busy […]. You could write a book about some of your adventures in the courts and all the people you’ve seen and talked to” (p. 2). Wells has certainly delivered. She covers an extraordinary amount of content including her adventures in surviving the strains of the job, the competitiveness and the sexism as well as the waiting (and waiting) for verdicts. There is also a heavy responsibility to the victims, their families and the men and women of the court system who are working to see that the justice system serves everyone in the community. The people are there too, from the anonymous to the infamous, from dignified sentences handed down by judges to brawls in the foyers of court complexes. Her mother would be proud.
The Court Reporter is a great read and will be quickly devoured by anyone with an interest in journalism or in true crime.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, March 2018
For a preview of the book or to purchase online, go to HarperCollins Australia.