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New Zealand’s own Serial takes on the Bain slayings

Stuff today released Black Hands, their first podcast series, in which leading David Bain authority and occasionally-terrible column writer Martin van Beynen draws on ten years of experience following the case to outline exactly why he believes Bain is guilty of murdering his family. Don Rowe spoke to van Beynen about the killings, the difficulty of switching mediums and the danger of investigative journalists writing columns. 

In 2009, shortly after sitting through all 12 weeks of David Bain’s retrial, journalist Martin van Beynen published a column in The Press stating his unequivocal belief that the jury had got it wrong. Bain was guilty, he said, and that a jury would find otherwise, after only five hours’ deliberation, was a scathing indictment on our justice system. Again in 2012 he argued against compensation for Bain, saying it would be a ‘travesty’ given the evidence against him. But he never stopped wondering if he was right. Now Stuff and van Beynen have released a 10-part podcast series in the vein of Serial, hoping to definitively explain what happened in June 1994.

Black Hands, narrated by Van Beynen, outlines over five hours the background, context and gruesome details of the Bain slayings, interspersing court recordings and witness statements among Van Beynen’s observations and musings. Every angle is covered, with particular attention paid to the occult aesthetic of the case and, in particular, Margaret Bain’s conviction that the devil was possessing her family.

Bain sympathisers might object to van Beynen’s involvement considering his publicly stated opinions on the case, but for neophytes such as myself, Black Hands is an enthralling series. It examines every facet of the case with meticulous attention to detail and consideration of both the prosecution and the defence arguments. I spoke to van Beynen by phone about the slayings, the podcast learning curve, and whether his more controversial columns damage his credibility as a reporter.


Every episode of Black Hands starts with a recording of Bain’s 111 call, which to me just sounds so unbelievably artificial and fake. Was that your intent?

No. I’ve heard that said before but it’s very much a matter of interpretation. How would you know how someone would react when they’re confronted with finding their family dead? To me it does sound artificial, but on the other hand, how would we know how people would react?

As you go through the episodes and you learn about the way that David faked having fits – there’s this constant acting which comes up again and again – the call seems particularly chilling.

The faking the fits in the house has always been an issue which has caused some debate and the defence have said that it was perfectly understandable that someone might faint and start shaking and that that might be interpreted as an epileptic fit, so there’s that. But it’s very interesting that the prison officer who knew David quite well would then say that he thought David was faking the fits in prison, and even got him to stop it. I’m not sure what David would say about that, he’d probably deny that he was faking.

David Bain leaves court following his not guilty verdict, June 2009. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

It was interesting hearing the prison guard state that in his own words, and I found that a lot of the recordings added an incredible amount of colour. But how do you decide which parts to narrate and which parts to use recordings?

You’re a little limited by what you’ve got. Fortunately we were able to get the audio from the court, they recorded all 58 days or something, so we had to pick and choose what we wanted from that. We had to ask for particular segments and isolate what was helpful, which was quite an exercise, but in terms of choosing the material a lot of it was just instinct and finding the material that would help best tell the story. It helped that I had already written a book and I had covered the 2009 retrial. Afterwards I thought ‘Okay, at some stage I’ll write a book’, then the earthquakes came up and I got cancer and a few other things came up so I put it on the backburner.

Then Mike White, a journalist friend of mine, stirred me into action when I was ready to pack it all away. So I managed to knuckle down and write the book; it took about two years all on my own time. That was quite an interesting process that involved re-reading all of the material including the 3000-page transcript of the second trial. I also read all the material that has been published on this including Joe Karam’s book. There’s a wealth of material out there, but having that in the book I’d already done, [what was key for the podcast was] isolating what was really important.

When you went into this was there any intention to distance yourself from your 2009 Stuff column following the re-trial and look at it anew, or were you restating your case?

I thought it was a good idea to put out what I thought in 2009 and that didn’t mean that I couldn’t revisit it. I always thought maybe if I had another look at the whole case, stood back a little bit, I would see that I’d done David a terrible injustice with that piece. I never stopped worrying about whether I got this wrong, and so writing the book and looking at all the evidence was partly an exercise in discovering whether I’d made a terrible mistake here. I can’t pretend that I started completely afresh, but I did try to be as fair as possible to both sides in this case and came to a conclusion.

Was it strange working in a different medium and using your voice? The way that you speak and the tone that you use can place a certain emphasis on certain details – did you find it a challenge adapting to that?

I certainly did. I’m not a natural narrator and with my voice I thought maybe it just wasn’t going to be a great method to communicate quite a complex thing to the public. But the narration was okay, I’m not a natural but you do get better at it as you go along. And in terms of the medium, the vehicle that we use for the podcast was a lot more immediate and it’s certainly a much more direct way of communicating to the audience than writing. The writing itself is often a case of showing rather than telling, but with a podcast you really have to tell people, and so it’s a very different way of communicating. It took me a long time to get my head around that and to write scripts that I thought were going to work as a conversation rather than written-form. There was a big shift for me. I spent my whole career writing and all of a sudden I’m doing a documentary series that I’m writing and also narrating with my own thoughts. It was a big shift.

The court recordings, where the witnesses are speaking to the lawyers and jury, were really helpful in the way they clarified events by setting them out very clearly. Similarly so with your narration. You’re walked through it piece by piece.

You didn’t find it gets bogged down with complexity? None of these things are straightforward, but I tried to make it as simple as possible.

Well there was one thing that stuck out to me as a little strange and that was when you consulted with the exorcists. I thought that was interesting in that it does in a sense lend authority to what they’re saying, and when everything else is so factual, it gets a little murky in terms of how the audience should interpret that. Is that something you considered?

Yes, and that aspect of the case is murky. I did talk to several people who thought that there was a demonic aspect in these murders, but I don’t actually believe that myself. But I don’t know. I just thought it was an interesting thing to explore but it doesn’t really go anywhere. That instance where David talks about the Black Hands in the bedroom with his aunt – it’s a very strange thing, isn’t it? And also of course the podcast is called Black Hands, so I wanted to explore it a bit more. Black Hands is an occult term, and I’ve seen it used like that, but it’s just an interesting part of the whole case. It ties in with Margaret thinking that the devil was in the family, particularly in Robin [Bain, David’s father], and it ties in with Laniet [David’s sister] saying that she could see dark auras around people, she called them black auras. You never know what David thinks about all of this but as a 22 year old he might have been quite affected. A lot of the things about this case don’t have any easy answers, or I haven’t been able to tie up all the loose ends with a nice neat bow. Some of these things people are just going to have to think about.

David Bain listens at the conclusion of his retrial at Christchurch High Court on June 5, 2009 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by John Kirk-Anderson-Pool/Getty Images)

I think the fact that there is this occult twist to it may be part of the reason it’s still so interesting to New Zealand now. What happened was obviously a tragedy but it’s also a cracking good yarn when it comes down to it.

It’s a very intriguing story, yes. I think there are a lot of reasons why people are still interested. David is a very sympathetic character – he doesn’t come across as a killer, and he’s well mannered and he seems like a nice guy. He certainly doesn’t look like a killer and neither does Robin for that matter. He was a kind and gentle guy, not violent in any way, he was never known to have blown his cool. I think these middle class crimes are always more interesting, aren’t they? From the outside this is an unusual family but they had educated kids, there were no financial pressures, and then you’ve got this real puzzle, the whodunnit – it can only be Robin or David. There’s this intriguing contest between two people and you’ve got to decide how the evidence lines up, and it’s either one or the other.

I noticed when I Googled your name that the first few results which come up are Kiwiblog and Whale Oil endorsing some of the more inflammatory columns that you’ve written in the past few years. How do you explain the difference between that sort of stuff and this seriously in-depth and rigorous journalism? And which do you prefer?

Right so I’ve been a columnist now for 14 years, and I’ve written a couple of columns which take a stand on certain issues and have created a bit of a fuss, but there aren’t that many. I think most of my columns are pretty thoughtful, nuanced and even commonsense sort of columns. Occasionally I’ve written a few provocative columns and I don’t apologise for that – it’s only if you don’t make a stand that you’ll never make any enemies. I don’t endorse anything Whale Oil has done, I didn’t know Kiwiblog had endorsed me, I don’t go looking for it, but I think even my columns on child poverty are pretty mainstream stuff really. But I try and be equally unfair to everybody. I suppose the bleeding heart handwringers do attract my attention now and again, I do give them a serve, but you can’t do columns for 14 years without upsetting people.

I’ve enjoyed writing columns but it’s a good question whether a journalist’s credibility is damaged by their column writing, and I haven’t really resolved that yet. I sometimes think it does actually. Sometimes I think I probably don’t need that sort of branding, but on the other hand it’s been a great help in my journalism because people recognise me and they feel as though I’m part of the furniture I guess. I’m recognisable and it can often get me in the door because people know of me, even just through my columns. And I guess maybe some people don’t talk to me because of them too. But I don’t think they’re that far off. If you look at the hundreds of columns I’ve done over the years you’ll see patterns emerging, but there are enough bleeding heart leftie columnists around New Zealand without me joining them. I know you guys have had a crack at me, I know Alex had a wee go, and that’s fine. If you put yourself out there you have to expect a reaction and I’ve had some horrible reactions but you expect that, and it’s better to be talked about than not if you’re going to be a columnist.

In terms of credibility, I don’t think many columns could nullify the intensive research that’s gone into this series.

The advantage of sitting through the trial is that I got a really good feel for the quality of the evidence. You get an idea of where people are vulnerable, how they come across and some of the techniques that are used. That’s very useful. I think the more work you do in these cases the better you can report on them and write about them and create podcasts about them. If I was doing this from scratch I would probably have to do a hell of a lot more work. I don’t think I would take a very different approach. I’d still do exactly the same, I just think I had a little bit of an advantage because I know the players, I’ve seen a lot of Joe Karam, I’ve seen a lot of David, I’ve been to a lot of the events that are mentioned. And I also happen to know Dunedin quite well. I lived there for a year. I know it well and I know what it’s like to live in a very cold house and all that sort of thing. If this was a case that I had no experience with I would approach it in much the same way: read all the books, read all the transcripts, read as many statements as I could get my hands on, review the police investigation. I’d do it exactly the same.

Do you intend to do that?

It’s a bit early to say. We’ve already discussed a couple of ideas but in terms of commitment from an organisation like ours, we’re not set up for something like this. Just in terms of the resources you have to devote to this. If I hadn’t have done the book I’d probably have had to have taken six months off to really do a good job, but instead I had to fit it around doing other stories and I’ve had to take a week off here in there but it’s mostly been on my own time. It’s not only me. Lots of people here have worked hard on it. We’ve got material coming out on the website, photographs and everything else – there’s been a lot of work go into that. Even just getting the podcast on to iTunes and all the technical bits and pieces that have to be done. And in the meantime everyone has to do their other jobs, so it’s been a massive commitment from Fairfax.

This is our first big podcast, so it’s been a steep learning curve for everybody. We didn’t have much money, it only cost around $10,000, and if we were to go to New Zealand on Air we’d probably ask for four or five hundred thousand. It would have been nice to have a script adviser, it would have been nice to have a recording studio that we could just drop everything and do it, but we didn’t have that luxury at all. The journalism involved is very time consuming and I’m sure everyone here will be thinking about whether we can afford to do these things in the future.

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