Fame and punishment

Privilege pervades even our prison system, argues Natalie Czapski.

It’s the case that’s “shocking Sydney society”*. Harriet Wran, the 26-year-old daughter of former NSW Premier Neville Wran, is one of three facing murder charges over the stabbing of drug dealer Daniel McNulty in his Redfern apartment. The murder allegedly took place amidst a violent confrontation over $70 worth of ice. Harriet’s lawyers did not make a bail application, and she is now in remand at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre.

The media furore is perhaps best summed up in this headline from one major Sydney newspaper: “Harriet Wran: How she went from A-list darling to homeless and broke ice addict”. It is a tragedy, we are told, an extraordinary spectacle, that someone so privileged, so wealthy, so well connected, could end up in such a sorry state. After all, Harriet is far from society’s usual delinquents – she attended “prestigious private schools Ascham and SCEGGS”, she is the goddaughter of Kerry Packer, and her family lives in a “palatial Woollahra home”. That is not to say the circumstances of the crime are not tragic, or Harriet is any less worthy of pity for her battles with drug addition. But the media circus around Harriet’s “fall from grace” obscures the harsh realities of our justice system, and how it interacts with people from a far less privileged background.

The stark contrast between Harriet’s upbringing and her circumstances prior to the murder has been a focal point. Reports describe her living rough on the streets, a self-reported ice-addict, unemployed, and accepting Centrelink payments. And yet, disadvantage and homelessness are not atypical amongst those in custody. People who are homeless are especially susceptible both to being convicted of and being victims of crimes – they are more under the scrutiny of law-enforcement officials, they are vulnerable and without familial or support networks, and they often lack the ability to pay off fines or gain access to appropriate legal assistance. We report at length about how Harriet’s mother and brother paid her a visit on her first day in custody, but we neglect the stories of so many for whom loving family and safe home are far beyond reach.

One journalist went so far as to describe the conditions Harriet will face in custody including food – “breakfast will comprise cereal, tea, coffee, a slice of bread and jam… Lunch… little more than a fruit pack and savory roll…” – and surveillance – ‘limited phone access… personal calls are all recorded’. Perversely, it is as though we are expected to pity her, no longer surrounded by the luxuries of her upbringing. It is Harriet we are asked to feel sorry for, when we know that most of those in custody have experienced multiple intersecting forms of social and economic disadvantage.

Harriet’s background has also granted her access to legal resources far out of the reach of most. The family has engaged Winston Terracini, a high-profile silk, to represent her in court – the best that money can buy. He’s not likely to be representing co-accused Lloyd Edward Haines, “Waterloo resident”, is he? While the Wrans will undoubtedly rack up astronomical legals fees, cuts to Legal Aid and Community Legal Centre funding are occurring around the country. There is a small but growing number of individuals who are unrepresented in Australian courts, especially in Local and Magistrates’ Courts. Those who appear unrepresented face a much higher chance of being convicted, even if innocent, and as Magistrates’ Courts expand to deal with more serious offences, they are even more at risk of facing time in custody – where is the media focus on that?

Harriet Wran does not have the profile of a typical criminal, and that precisely explains our obsession with her. We do not interrogate what is implicit to this obsession – that we expect the poor, the uneducated, and the disadvantaged to commit crimes, and, thus, regard their stories as not newsworthy. Our tendency to consider disadvantage as a natural accompaniment to criminality not only splashes Harriet Wran across the front of newspapers, but also masks the disadvantage underneath.

* These are all direct quotes from a major Sydney newspaper. Points for guessing which one.