Our Schapelle: a smuggler for all seasons

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
February 06, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

In marketing it’s referred to as “cut through”: collating just the right elements to set your advertisement apart from the throng. A commercial that gets noticed, spoken about, remembered even in the most saturated of marketplaces.

In news media, few people would be as crude as to use a term like cut through. The very same thing, of course, transpires. In a sea of worthy, of interesting, of important current affairs items, some manage to strike resonance with the masses and others fall to the wayside.

The Schapelle Corby tale is one such example.

Long before Channel Nine got their mitts on it, the story had all the makings of a telemovie. A fresh-faced, doe-eyed beauty student protagonist with a first name that would long hold its own. There was Mercedes – the sister, the shrieker – taking that well-worn route of consciousness-raising by posing for Ralph. There were the drug allegations against her dad, the potentially shonky baggage handler. For those with a penchant for props, there was the infamous boogie board bag.

The Schapelle story was built for the small screen.

And the small screen – and, in fact, the news media more broadly – latched onto it. And held on. Tightly. For nearly 10 very long years.

On one hand I’m not sure that the extensive media coverage of a story like this or, in fact like Lindy Chamberlain or Madeleine McCann, serve as the best indicator of how much the public care. In many cases, we simply consume the media we are given. We know about Kerobokan, for example, about Azaria’s matinee jacket and enough about Praia da Luz to fill a guidebook simply because we’re educated, because we’re paying attention to the news and because the crime beat always gets disproportionate coverage.

That said, audiences aren’t passive dupes. We don’t merely swallow every tale offered up, and we couldn’t possibly know as many lurid details as most of us do without us paying attention. We’ve been partaking of this soap opera because it, apparently, strikes a chord.

So why? Why, when so little sympathy is conjured for the other Australian drug smugglers populating Indonesia jail cells, have we maintained such an interest in Schapelle? Why Schapelle and not Renae Lawrence? Why Schapelle and not Scott Rush?

She’s white, she’s pretty-ish, she’s female. All vital for the visual medium of TV. Equally, I daresay Bangkok Hilton still holds a place in the Australian imaginary. (Thailand, Indonesia, same thing, same thing).

My suspicion, however, is that it’s really all about Schapelle. That it’s Schapelle not just because she’s white, not just because she’s got those big and bewildered blue eyes, but because she’s an Australian caricature. A caricature that’s loved and loathed in equal measure.

Lots of Australia go to Bali for holidays, for hair braiding, for cheap Singha. These are the folks whose voices slice through Ngurah Rai like the proverbial hot knife through butter. These are the Australians who, apparently, are widely loathed abroad for sounding just like Steve Irwin, for donning vast quantities of Southern Cross apparel, for their tendency to Oi-Oi-Oi in packs.

We know this image. And for some, rather than it being a source of cringing or embarrassment, it’s simply one of familiarity; I had a boogie board bag the last time I went to Kuta, it could have been me! For many, Schapelle is recognised simply, and sadly, as just a tragically unlucky white girl, treated harshly by those Muslims with their incomprehensible legal system and the sketchy lawmakers.

Schapelle, however, caters to a whole other market too. Let us not forget that that Garuda flight full of Aussies are enduringly the butt of jokes and vitriol. Here’s Schapelle with her Bold and the Beautiful name and her bogan fish-and-chip shop family. Perhaps calling it schadenfreude is a step too far, but her consideration as a sympathetic figure is far from universal. To many, in fact, Schapelle’s just the ocker, the Aussie chav. She’s the fool – perhaps a sweetly naïve one – who got caught doing a really stupid thing in a country renowned for a zero tolerance drug police. She’s the idiot who let her less-than-savvy family make the whole thing worse by letting them front the press.

Schapelle’s release is imminent. The telemovie airs next week. There’s a couple more years before she’s allowed back on our shores, and thus inevitably many news bulletins to come documenting her parole under Mercedes’ wing. Probably not as gruelling as being locked up in Kerobokan, but let’s not pretend this hasn’t been a long road for us too.

© Lauren Rosewarne