When Rupert Murdoch inherited the Adelaide News in 1958, some of the most influential true crime journalism in Australian history began. (The National Archives of Australia)
Today’s audiences are used to true crime podcasts like The Teacher’s Pet and Trace, which shed fresh light on cold cases.
But decades before podcasts existed, a daily newspaper’s reporting on a case saved the life of one man and made the career of another.
The struggling Adelaide News, under the ownership of a young Rupert Murdoch, began an investigative push that would increase its circulation by the thousands and set the trajectory for the future mogul.
“It was a significant milestone in the public career of Rupert Murdoch, it was a time when he saw himself as an anti-establishment campaigner,” says veteran journalist Margaret Simmons.
“It also had an impact on Australia, it sparked a campaign against the death sentence and helped Australia to make Indigenous rights an issue.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of someone who has died.
A small town murder
It all began one summer’s evening in 1958, when police found the body of a nine-year-old girl in a cave outside the remote South Australian town of Ceduna.
The girl was Mary Hattam, a local. She had been raped and murdered.
Maxwell Stuart, an Indigenous man who was running the darts stall at a travelling carnival, was arrested on the morning of her funeral.
Soon after, he signed a confession for the police — one his defence team would later say had been beaten out of him.
During his trial, the court heard footprints at the murder scene were identified as Stuart’s. A taxi testified that he had driven Stuart to the murder scene.
The death sentence handed to Max Stuart triggered some of the most influential true crime journalism in Australian history. (National Archives of Australia)
Stuart’s assigned legal representation, at a time before legal aid was provided by the state, did not have the resources to conduct forensic tests, consult expert witnesses, or check his alibi.
Stuart was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, a decision that was upheld on two appeals.
But, as with all good true crime tales, it was not so simple.
On death row Stuart met Catholic priest Father Tom Dixon, who was the first to ask questions about the confession he had made to the police.
The signed statement had been written in perfect legalistic prose — like “the show was situated at the Ceduna oval”.
That did not match the pidgin English spoken by Stuart.
This, and the fact that Stuart’s alibi was never collected, pricked the interest of Mr Murdoch, who had taken over the family media business in the wake of his father’s death.
Enter ‘the News’
The Adelaide News was under the editorship of Rohan Rivett, who was thrusting the paper into the Stuart case.
Mr Murdoch soon saw its potential as a story: the only thing that provoked the Australian public more than Stuart’s trial was the increasingly unpopular death penalty he’d been dealt.
Max Stuart’s defence claimed that his confession had been beaten out of him by police. (ABC News)
After the second appeal was lost ‘the News’ began featuring explosive stories unfolding new details of the case, often contradicting the findings of the Adelaide judiciary.
Mr Murdoch’s paper bankrolled the search for Stuart’s travelling carnival co-workers, rumoured to have gone north east into Queensland, sending none other than Father Dixon on the trail.
The spectacle of a crusading priest touring the tropical climates of far north Queensland in an extraordinary race against time excited the News’ readership.
The priest, with the defence lawyers in tow, tracked them down in Atherton, a few hundred kilometres from Cairns, and took statutory declarations that would be published by the News.
One declaration came from Betty Hopes, who looked after the skittles in the same tent as Stuart.
“Max did not leave the stall all the time and he was in full view of me,” she said.
The investigation sparked a wild increase in the paper’s circulation, and a campaign against the death penalty targeting South Australian premier Thomas Playford.
The Adelaide News had devoted all its correspondence pages to Stuart, with writers calling for Playford to commutate the sentence. Some editorials were penned by Mr Murdoch himself.
To stem the tide of public opinion, Playford established a royal commission into the Stuart case in July 1959.
The commission was immediately criticised for impartiality — its commissioner Justice Geoffrey Reed had presided over the trial that delivered the guilty verdict in the first place.
The paper went to war with headlines like “These commissioners cannot do the job”, accusing Playford of effectively fixing the result in his favour at the expense of a man’s life.
Amid the intense reporting Playford launched a case against Mr Murdoch and his editor, accusing them of criminal libel, but ultimately, he was left with no option.
Playford reluctantly commuted the verdict to life imprisonment, two months before the commission’s findings were handed down, upholding the death sentence.
After 11 years in jail and decades of parole, Stuart went on to lead a second life as a respected tribal Arrernte man, welcoming the Queen to Alice Springs on at least one occasion.
Max Stuart, who went on to become a community leader and respected elder, meets with prime minister John Howard in 2001. (ABC News)
The power of true crime and its challenges
Sixty years on, podcasts are reaffirming the power of true crime.
The Victorian Coroner has reopened the investigation into the 38-year-old case of Maria James, whose murder was the subject of the ABC’s Trace series.
In America, fresh evidence uncovered by the Serial podcast led to a retrial being granted for Adnan Syed, which is currently under appeal.
Chris Dawson (right) was arrested over the murder of his former wife Lynnette (left). The case was the subject of The Teacher’s Pet’ podcast. (Supplied)
And most recently, Hedley Thomas’s The Teacher’s Pet, from Mr Murdoch’s News Corporation, investigated the disappearance of Sydney woman Lynette Dawson in the early ’80s.
Her husband Chris Dawson has been arrested and charged over her murder.
As the long-established true crime genre reaches audiences on a scale unimaginable to the young Mr Murdoch of the late 1950s, its legal implications will continue to be investigated.