July the 14th 2011 marks 10 years since the young and vibrant Briton Peter Falconio was killed on a lonely stretch of road in the midst of Australia’s desolate outback. Accompanied by Joanne Lees, his girlfriend from Huddersfield, the young backpackers were undertaking the holiday of a lifetime, but while driving late that night across the vast Australian desert, a man signalled to them to pull over. Investigating a ‘problem’ with their campervan, Peter and the man examined the rear of the vehicle while Joanne revved the engine from the driver’s seat.
Then, the world changed forever.
Joanne heard a loud bang and the man appeared by the driver’s side door, brandishing a gun. Peter was nowhere to be seen. Joanne’s hands were tied and she was thrown into the back of the man’s truck. She escaped, hiding in the blackness of the night, while the man searched in vain to find her. Eventually he left, and Joanne remained concealed in the bushes until a larger transport truck drove past some hours later, when Joanne flagged it down.
The investigation and events that followed are well documented in books and online (just search for ‘Falconio’ if you have a few hours to spare), with theories, inconsistencies, conspiracies, and substantial imagination creating a criminal case that has now become Australian folklore.
Ultimately some years later, Bradley John Murdoch was found guilty of the murder of Peter Falconio (although his body has not yet been recovered) and of the assault and ‘depravation of liberty’ (kidnapping) of Joanne Lees.
Irrespective of any personal opinions on the case (and everyone has one), these events represent a true horror story for all those involved, from the victims, to their friends and families, and to the investigators and those who were engaged to follow the case.
From the period of Peter’s death until the final appeals of innocence by Murdoch were exhausted, almost 6 years had passed. During that time, I was commissioned by 2 broadcasting companies in the UK to cover and report on the events as they unfolded. It was a story that opened many questions as the investigation and court proceedings continued. It was a compelling case, and despite the absolute dreadful events that the case represented, the story was as gripping for me as a reporter, as it was tragic for those affected.
Many other reporters published books about the case, some sympathetic to the surviving victim, one particularly suspicious of the entire process. Joanne Lees also penned her own account worth reading. For me, posterity came in the form of the film Joanne Lees: Murder in the Outback, a joint venture between production companies in Australia and the UK, but a production that Joanne herself had no connection with. My actual reports that were broadcast in the UK during the trial are heard as incidental audio throughout the film.
It was via this film that a new personal perspective of the case dawned on me. One of the radio stations that broadcast my daily account of the court proceedings was a small local broadcaster located in Peter’s home town of Huddersfield. The film depicted the local population sometimes listening to these reports. It was a perspective on my reports that I had never imagined, that people attached to the victims back home were hearing the news unfolding half a world away directly from me.
You can hear some of my reporting as portrayed in the film here:
Missing this direct perspective is probably an indictment against my objectivity at the time. All reporters should consider both the mass market and the individual when reporting any story. I’ll won’t deny my imperfections, but am comforted by the positive comments from peers at the time regarding my coverage of the case.
The ‘Falconio murder’ will leave a lasting impression on so many people in both Australia and the UK. Even those merely observing will recall Australia’s Northern Territory as a place of mystery and sometimes danger because of this case. But for those directly affected, for Joanne and Peter’s family, while it is a chapter in their lives they wish had never occurred, and perhaps one they would rather forget, the events of 14th July 2001 will remain in their minds, and in the minds of others for as long as it remains in the annals of Australian criminal history.
I’ll certainly never forget.