‘I feel the weight of people’s desire to solve this’: Where to next in the Exposed investigation of the Keli Lane case? – Television
The team behind the groundbreaking investigation into the Keli Lane case discuss the challenges they faced and how a community of amateur sleuths has been helping them in an ongoing quest to find out what happened to baby Tegan.
She’s one of the gutsiest journalists you’ll ever meet but embarking on the Keli Lane investigation, Caro Meldrum-Hanna was feeling unusually edgy.
Challenging powerful people and organisations, deflecting legal threats, and asking uncomfortable questions are all in a day’s work for the multi-award-winning journalist, whose expose of the NT juvenile justice system for Four Corners triggered a royal commission.
But reopening the bizarre case of Keli Lane’s conviction for murdering her two-day old daughter, Tegan, was a nerve-wracking leap into the unknown.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “I’m usually starting from a place where I’m pretty sure I know what the answer is going to be, I’ve got the material I need or I’m about to get it.”
Investigation captures public attention
During an intense and difficult nine-month investigation, the small core team of Meldrum-Hanna, fellow investigative journalist Elise Worthington, series producer Jaya Balendra, executive producer Sue Spencer, digital producer Julia Pursche and, later, audience engagement strategist Flip Prior, achieved more than they thought was possible.
While they haven’t yet solved the mystery of exactly what happened to baby Tegan, (no body has been found and Lane claims she gave the baby to the child’s father, who’s never been located) they tracked down and spoke to people who’d never before been interviewed and unearthed new evidence that raised serious questions about the police investigation, the trial and Lane’s conviction.
In the process, they produced a compelling and innovative three-part television series and complementary digital content which has resonated with a broad audience.
The TV programs attracted just over a million viewers per episode (broadcast: metro+regional and iview) and, significantly, are the third most popular (non-children’s) program on iview this year.
The online articles clocked up more than 2.4 million page views.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “The really enriching and unique consequence of Exposed is that it sparked this massive national conversation and engaged people across all ages, spectrums and genders who wanted to help us solve this mystery.
We could have found a way to wrap up this story (at the end of the TV series), but we decided to be honest and genuine about where we were at in the effort to try and solve it and the idea of an open-ended investigation captured people.
That’s been an immediate and wonderful thing for me because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond.”
Elise Worthington: “Setting up the Facebook group was intense. I don’t think any of us expected the numbers we got, we had 12,000 members in 24 hours.
I’ve never seen anything like it in any group I have been a part of or read about.
It was just post after post after post.
People were ravenous to share thoughts, ask questions and find out information and people are still desperate to talk about this story.”
Flip Prior: “The ABC hadn’t really done any experiments with a Facebook group attached to an investigation or major News project.
There are groups discussing science or weather events, but this was quite a different beast and there was internal reluctance about the risks.”
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “Initially, I felt it was a massive risk.
I’d never done anything like this before and I was worried about control, having a live forum where people can say anything they want and post it.
But Flip figured out a way to monitor it and it’s been a great way to stay connected with our audience.
We’ve also had this massive influx of tips and leads, not just about Keli Lane directly and other players who were involved and didn’t want to speak to us, but also people with ideas, or skills and talents that we don’t have, about how to run new and different searches and how to access different materials.”
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “The doubts about the fairness of the murder trial are out there now for all to see, and now there’s an official request with NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman to call an urgent inquiry and review of the police and prosecutorial practices that led to Lane’s conviction.
Public confidence in the administration of justice is paramount here.”
‘I thought Keli’s letter was a hoax’
More on the Facebook community later, but first back to where it all began in late 2016, when Caro Meldrum-Hanna received a letter from Keli Lane asking her to re-investigate her case, one the journalist knew little about having been interstate and still at university when Lane was convicted.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “I thought it was a hoax, I didn’t believe it was Keli Lane.
I thought someone in the Four Corners office was playing a practical joke.
Meldrum-Hanna agreed to look into it under strict conditions: that no topic was off limits, she wouldn’t advocate Lane’s case and that she’d follow the truth wherever it led.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “The point when I realised we had enough (for me to pursue this) was when she waived privilege essentially and allowed me and Jaya access to the entire case file, everything that was presented at the Supreme Court trial, correspondence between herself and her defence lawyers, the work being done by the Innocence Initiative who are looking into her case.”
It was a massive undertaking, even for journalists used to wading through mountains of information.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “It was the biggest amount of material and documents I’d ever worked on and it felt impossible, but we just consumed it and the more we delved we quickly identified holes, things that hadn’t been tied up neatly.
But a huge challenge was getting ‘talent’ on camera.
At one stage we were very demoralised as we were getting no, after no after no.
People we thought we would get on camera didn’t want to talk about this matter, people wanted it to go away.
The big turning point came when Jaya found Sharon Rhodes, the homicide detective who led the Keli Lane investigation.”
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “I never thought she would speak but she did, and she said things that were the opposite of what I expected to hear.”
Elise Worthington: “It was one of those cases I thought when I started would be a lot easier to get to the bottom of but it’s been so hard.
I thought there would be a clear direction but it’s kind of two steps one way then one step the other, there are things on both sides that don’t make sense or add up.”
A new style of storytelling
It was a difficult story to tell on television.
While Keli Lane agreed to talk publicly for the first time, the problem was she’s in jail and could only be interviewed over the phone in frustratingly short six-minute bursts.
As well as the challenge of getting other people to agree to interviews, there was a lot of complex legal information to explain.
Producer Jaya Balendra wanted to move away from the traditional format for long-form current affairs storytelling, which generally involves narration linking a series of interviews, and instead envisaged a fly-on-the-wall type doco, which followed Meldrum-Hanna and Worthington through their investigation — a kind of TV version of a true-crime podcast.
Jaya Balendra: “I think it’s really important to dare to be different and I was keen to break the mould of conventional storytelling.
I’m addicted to film and TV and was keen to explore all these other filmmaking techniques, traditional observational documentary techniques, and I’m really proud of what we did with Exposed.
“I thought her desk at Four Corners would make a fabulous set and I believed people would love seeing Caro and Elise go about what they do.
With no narration, that provided the structure and drove the story forward.”
Jaya Balendra: “Experienced news and current affairs cameraman Ron Foley was on hand to film as things unfolded but there was also lots of filming on iPhone.
We married that with high-end recreations, directed by Ben Lawrence and DOP Simon Morris, and mixed up the formats.
It was all beautifully edited by Lile Judickas and Philipa Rowlands.
In the end I think our approach made it feel more alive.”
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “The idea was to open up the process to the audience and knock down the walls between us and them and show them the practice.
But that was challenging at times.
We had to be ok with being filmed with no make-up, in a track suit.
You are wondering about how you are sounding, your body language, we had to let go of our training as reporters and presenters.”
Elise Worthington: “It was a lot of pressure.
Engaging with the audience from the beginning
As well as taking the audience behind the scenes of their investigation, the Exposed team also wanted their help and right from the start developed an extensive engagement strategy for the TV episodes and digital content.
Caro Meldrum-Hanna: “We designed it so we are talking to audience and they are talking back to us, so we had graphics on the screen that asked were you there that day? Do you recognise this place? Were you a water polo player? Contact us.
We didn’t know if it would work but it did and now through the Facebook group we are engaging meaningfully back.”
Julia Pursche: “The key objective was a strategy that engaged the audience.
Therefore, each piece of content needed to serve two purposes: the content needed to be based on a news break and tell the audience something new, and it also needed to raise questions.
To do that, I wanted to take an innovative approach and use every platform available to me.
I approached people at the ABC doing amazing work online and so many were willing to share their data, success stories and also their struggles.”
“The search for the truth was ongoing as we went to air.
We carefully strategised each news break to have an impact on social media platforms: Instagram stories, Live tweeting, twitter moments, Facebook videos, Facebook posts, Messenger BOT, Apple News, Reddit, news articles and interactive news articles.
Over several weeks, we sent out dozens of tweets and BOT alerts, multiple Facebook videos, Instagram stories, and breaking news articles.
For the first time, we used the Messenger BOT as an interactive tool to follow the story.
More than 7,000 people signed up and received a set of specialised alerts.
We gave the audience access to Keli Lane through a synthesised Q&A, the day that baby Tegan disappeared we provided information in real time, and after the third episode went to air, a wrap of everything we uncovered.
We had Facebook live streams after episodes two and three, giving the audience a chance to ask their questions and test their theories.
After bringing the audience with us on all platforms for weeks, the final piece to the puzzle was creating the Facebook group, which was always something we wanted to create.
It was absolutely brilliant seeing a wonderful plan and excellent content rolling out and working as designed.”
A community of investigators
Setting up the Facebook group was an anxious journey into uncharted waters.
Initially, open posting was allowed but the risk of defamation and people airing conspiracy theories and unfounded claims meant the Exposed team had to monitor it 24 hours a day (which was only possible because Elise Worthington was overseas on holiday and took the night shift!)
So, the team switched to posting once a day.
Comments were left open for a period of time and then closed off and the focus has remained on unearthing new information.
Flip Prior: “Initially it was very busy but within days we had a system set up which was manageable.
One of the biggest problems is that there are limited moderation tools in Facebook groups and no pre-emptive keyword flagging within comments, which makes it hard to track comments of concern.
Ideally, we’d like it to be a more open discussion, but Facebook doesn’t have the tools to allow that.
So, we were working out on the fly to figure out how best to manage it.”
“We also appointed super-users in the group (including ex-journalists) to help monitor comments and to be an extra set of eyes and ears.
We are always trying to work out where our audience is and how to reach them.
Well, this group is 86 per cent women, the vast majority from Australia, aged 25-54.
It’s exactly the demographic we are trying to reach in terms of broadening our audience.”
The Exposed team is now diligently following up numerous tips and leads, determined still to try to solve the mystery of what happened to baby Tegan.
The question is at what point will they know they’ve gone as far as they can go?
“That piece of string can be measured because there are only a certain amount of people and questions left.
I know how long that string is, but it will just take a little bit of time.
I can understand why people are haunted by this case.
There’s a two-day old baby at the centre of it.
Where is she and what happened to her?
There’s nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby.”
“I feel the great want and desire of people — not Keli Lane because we’re not her advocate, we’re not pushing her case and it might go against her in coming months as we keep going — but I do feel the weight of people’s intense interest and desire to solve this and to get a few more answers.”
Watch Exposed on iview.