Out of Australia: Media picnic at Hanging Rock ends romance with crime

SYDNEY - After almost half a century in the business, 'Bondi' Bill Jenkings, one of the world's most colourful crime reporters, has just published his memoirs, As Crime Goes By. Known as Bondi Bill because he picked up many of his scoops from drinking companions at the Bondi Beach Surf Club, Jenkings was the chief crime reporter on the Daily Mirror in Sydney from 1946 until retirement in 1991.

This was the evening tabloid that Rupert Murdoch bought in 1960, his first major daily and the launching pad for his international projection. Bill Jenkings so impressed Mr Murdoch with his ability to dig up sensational crime stories that the book carries a foreword by his former boss. Mr Murdoch writes: 'When it came to crime reporting, nobody did it better than Bill Jenkings.'

Indeed, As Crime Goes By is a fascinating account of an era in newspaper circulation wars that has been killed by television. For most of Jenkings' career, Sydney had two evening papers, the Daily Mirror and the Sun, in furious competition. In a city renowned for its tough underworld, crime stories often fed this war. The book is a roll-call of characters from Sydney's raucous past, from high-society murder victims to hardened criminals such as Big Dick Reilly, Mad Dog O'Connor and Johnny 'Magician' Regan, as well as women of vice such as Dulcie Markham, known as the 'Angel of Death' because most of her gangster boyfriends were gunned down.

Jenkings and his hard-nosed rivals stopped at nothing to beat each other on a story. He recounts the day in 1956 when he tricked a famous conductor, who had been arrested for importing pornography, into telling him enough for an exclusive interview. 'That was a nice young policeman I was talking to,' said the conductor as he was led away.

The Sun has since folded and Mr Murdoch has merged the Mirror with his morning tabloid.

The exciting days of 'extras' have died, but the journalistic war lives on in the bland, electronic world of television news. No such case has raised more of a public outcry than the competition last week between two rival commercial television networks which tried to scoop each other by conducting telephone interviews with three fugitives who were holding child hostages after allegedly murdering five people. The fugitives were cornered in a farmhouse at Hanging Rock, New South Wales, after a police chase across two states. They confessed in telephone interviews - replayed in full on the television news bulletins - to murdering the 14-year-old girlfriend of one of them, executing three miners to obtain a getaway car and killing a helicopter pilot for cash.

They eventually released their two child hostages, two of the fugitives gave themselves up and the other shot himself dead. When it was all over, the police commissioners in five of Australia's six states took the unusual step of jointly condemning the media's behaviour. They said that in telephoning the farmhouse and talking at length to the fugitives, the media had glorified them by giving the killers a platform, prejudiced police attempts to end the siege without further bloodshed and opened up the prospect of copycat crimes. In fact, within hours of the television broadcasts of the Hanging Rock siege, a boy of 14 armed with a .22 calibre rifle walked into an Adelaide school and wounded two students.

What angered most critics was the fact that one of the television reporters interviewed the child hostages, asking them if they had seen their captors murder people. Given that the fugitives had described themselves as psychopaths with 'homicidal urges', one can only imagine the possible fate of the children if they had answered yes. The Australian Press Council is to investigate the media's behaviour.

The affair has raised questions about media attempts to make contact with criminals in dangerous situations. It also highlighted the changing nature of crime in Australia. In Bill Jenkings' day, it revolved around vice gangs and rackets; murders were one-off affairs sparked by money or lust. Now, killings are random, committed in mass shootings.

Jenkings concludes: 'In all my years of covering crime, it now seems to me that society is more overtly violent.' His solution? 'The prospect of jail doesn't deter these punks. Fear of the lash would] And I'm deadly serious when I advocate the return of floggings. If they knew they were going inside to be lashed, they'd soon curb their ways.'