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September 26, 2013

Speaker: TV glamorizing, making illicit activity more accepting

TERRE HAUTE — The glamorization of criminal activity on television has caused audiences to become more accepting of illicit activity, one watcher of Australian media claims.

While that may be true in America and other nations, it has caused some media watchers to question why society embraces a rags-to-riches story, even if it involves murder and mayhem.

Addressing the International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference at Indiana State University on Wednesday, Australian journalist Paul Bleakley said the media in his home country have little problem turning a career criminal into a career celebrity. He highlighted a series of “Underbelly” programs that feature well-known thugs who made their millions on murder, drug dealing and prostitution.

For example, “Underbelly” began by looking at drug pusher and petty thug Carl Williams, who was sent to prison in 2004 and was murdered in 2011 by a fellow inmate on the same day that Williams was featured in a newspaper article about his life of crime.

The program told a rags-to-riches story about Williams, Bleakley said, turning him into a black-hearted hero of sorts.

“The modern crime dramas gloss over the negative aspect of real world stories in order to tacitly encourage viewers to accept and embrace hedonistic lifestyles of the characters portrayed,” he said.

Interestingly, in 1911 the Australian government banned “bushranger” films that glamorized criminals because of fear that the public would emulate criminal actions. Criminal Ned Kelly had became a pop culture hero despite his violent lifestyle, and he remains an icon today.

In the 1970s, a multinational drug smuggling syndicate known as Mr. Asia saw the arrest of one of its most prolific drug dealers, who has also been glamorized by “Underbelly.”

 “Diamond” Jim Shepherd served a lengthy prison sentence for his heroin-dealing conviction in Australia, Bleakley said, but he rejects the media hype.

“Evil bastards” is the term Shepherd uses to describe career thugs, including himself, Bleakley said.

“He, as a criminal, didn’t want people to glamorize him or them,” the journalist said of his interviews with Shepherd, who was also quick to dispel the glamour about other thugs.

Bleakley said that Australians seem fascinated by these criminal stories out of a harkening to the nation’s beginnings as a penal colony. Many of the country’s founding fathers were convicts, he said, and that may have bred a tolerance for the criminals’ stories, even when truths are stretched to portray murderers as heroes just trying to make a living.

The criminology conference concluded its third day on Wednesday. Conference founder and criminology professor Franklin Wilson said the presenters and attendees traveled from 17 countries and 27 states.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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