Have you heard of Serial or are you happy over there, living under your rock? For those who fall in the latter camp, let me briefly summarise. Serial is a podcast, first released last month, which seeks to shed light on the real life case of a Baltimore teenage girl, Hae Min Lee, who was murdered in 1999. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, also a teenager at the time, was arrested and jailed for her murder but he has always maintained his innocence and the state’s case against him looks to be shaky at best. This does not mean he is necessarily innocent, but that the case may be flawed. The podcast team investigate the case, look over old crime reports, bring in detectives, interview jurors and witnesses from the trial and Syed himself as the “story” hurtles towards its conclusion.
Let’s be clear – the Serial podcast is just very popular. It has become fastest-downloaded podcast in the history of Apple’s iTunes store. It attracts over a million listeners a week. People throw listening parties every Thursday when a new episode comes out – which means, I suppose, they all gather at someone’s house and err…sit in silence while listening to a podcast together (see pic below). There are literally podcasts about the podcasts about the podcast. So this is, more or less, a global phenomenon.
But something that has struck me is how many people of around my age (in and around the same age as Adnan / Hae Min in 1999) really seem to respond not just to the ongoing saga around Adnan’s potential innocence but to the time capsule this whole piece of investigative journalism evokes. A pre social media high school era. Life before mobile phones, tagging photos, tweeting stuff. Using payphones, having a friend that shoplifted CDs (you know, back when people still bought CDs in the first place), waiting til your parents have gone to bed so you could phone your boyfriend. Listening to Rage Against the Machine. Living in a place that lacks any glamour of any variety. And realising how foggy your own memories have become of an era in your own life that felt – at the time – like it would be crystal clear forever.
Serial is not without its share of controversy. Questions have been raised. Is it exploitative – ultimately Hae was a beautiful, innocent young woman murdered by someone in 1999 and her body dumped in a shallow grave. The pain her parents, family and friends must have suffered accordingly was and I’m sure continues to be very real. As far as they are concerned, the man who killed Hae is behind bars. This programme must seem like the most scurrilous and voyeuristic form of entertainment and the family have steadily resisted all attempts by the programme makers and the wider media to contact them for their perspective. In addition to this, Baltimore and the high school Hae and Adnan attended are predominantly black. Sarah Koenig, and the rest of the editorial team (pic below), however, are thoroughly middle class and white. Koenig makes no bones about this, but sometimes her generalisations of other cultures are sweeping and border on appropriative. She lumps all kids from ‘immigrant families’ in together. She draws direct parallels between Korean culture and Pakistani culture. Koenig does all this in the interests of creating a narrative and giving the listener context, but it is not hard to see why people are uncomfortable with these generalisations.
The interest in Serial also, however, reminds me, somewhat uncomfortably, of our own interest in true crime here in the north. It has become deeply embedded in our culture. Anecdotally, I have moved house a number of times over the last six years and as anyone who has dipped a toe in the
scarring world of looking for a house to buy can attest I have visited a lot of houses on the market over the years. Decor varies from house to house, as do kitchen appliances and garden lay outs but in around 95% of the houses I went to see, the bookshelves and bedside tables of the greater Belfast area groan under the weight of true crime reading material. Everything from The Shankill Butchers to Who Killed Michael Collins by way of Eamon Collins’ Killing Rage.
The front cover of last week’s Andersonstown News was about Joan Connolly, a mother of eight, whose family have recently discovered that after having been shot during the the Ballymurphy Massacre, she lay on her own in the dark on the street for hours before being taken to the Royal, where she subsequently died, but could have potentially been saved had she received treatment sooner.
On the way home in the car this afternoon I heard an ad trailing this weekend’s Sunday Life exposé of an alleged dissident plot to hijack Christmas. Or something. Like everyone else I too watched The Disappeared on the BBC last year. I’ve been following the Mairia Cahill story since the allegations made on Spotlight last month. I’ve caught a few of The Troubles I’ve Seen on UTV too.
So, yes, I am equally guilty of what could possibly be damningly categorised as a somewhat morbid interest in the past or, more positively, a proactive interest in following people who are looking for answers. I am no better equipped than Joe Bloggs to make judgements either way – I am not a historian, a lawyer or an expert of any variety. I haven’t even made a podcast about a podcast about a podcast or thrown a Serial listening party. Yet.
It does, however, seem to me that the questions people have raised about Serial about whether the podcast is voyeuristic, exploitative, appropriative and even morally dubious are valid questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is yes. It does, however, make me wonder about our own interest and obsession with the past locally. There seems to be no Truth & Reconciliation process forthcoming. Without that it seems increasingly unlikely that victims and their families will ever get the truth about what happened to them and who was responsible. So what are we to do? Hold more public inquiries, a la Saville? Draw a line under the whole thing? Move on? Unlikely. People will continue to mine and excavate the past and their forum for doing so is, apparently, going to be investigative journalism, true crime reporting and historical publications of both the orange and gree variety. Can the same questions be asked of these mediums as can be posed of Serial? As I have said above, I am no expert, but I think so. However, as with Serial, it doesn’t necessarily hold that the medium itself is inherently wrong. In a vacuum, people will seek answers, truth, explanations and understanding, however incomplete, clouded, didactic and even biased these might be.
But I am not here to argue one way or another. I want to throw this to the floor – are you listening to Serial? Are you going to start? Why are we all so interested in true crime? And in the absence of anything else, does investigative journal do a good job of filling the breach, for people interested in or even desperate for information about our somewhat murky past?