We Choose To Know: The Final Chapter in the Share Wars Book
This is the final chapter of the book All Your Friends Like This, which I wrote with colleagues Andy Hunter and Dom Filipovic and was published in 2015 by Harper Collins. Download this PDF version for an easier offline read.
Chapter 9: Arminland
By Hal Crawford
There’s a line in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, near the beginning, about how all the world’s oceans are connected in one big waterway. We have named parts of the waterway, imposed a series of artificial divisions on it, but actually it is unbroken. I feel that way about the stories told by news organisations. Every story is connected to every other story, and it’s only our need to understand by clumping events into pieces that requires us to stop writing and wrap things up. This makes every ending more or less unnatural: something cadet journalists feel painfully as they try to end their articles. Older practitioners know better than to fuss with a final paragraph: a good story can be cut from the bottom, and where you end is arbitrary.
Tapping into the unending flow of stories is how newspapers and TV bulletins get filled up. To children it can seem miraculous that every day brings precisely 30 minutes of TV news. They assume that the bulletin or newspaper is a reflection of the world – ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, to quote The New York Times – and are amazed that what happens in the world is always so conveniently sized. Of course they have it the wrong way around. It is the world as depicted in the news that is reverse-engineered to fit its container. Old media editors start with a number of minutes or pages, usually determined by the needs of advertisers, and then dip into the unending ocean to fill their vessels.
This is forgotten in any number of investigations into the future of journalism in a digital world. A common question at panels and conferences is: ‘How will quality journalism be funded?’ Seen through the lens of shrinking newspaper revenue, the view of the world implicit in this question – that there is insufficient money for proper reporting – seems to make sense. The earning density of display advertising online is less than that of printed ads. The sum of revenue from all the display ads in The Sydney Morning Herald on one random Friday in 2014 came to $660,000, based on the paper’s standard rate card. With average circulation of 122,000 copies and readership of 534,000 (June 2014, Roy Morgan), at standard rates the newspaper was pulling in more than a dollar a reader. A digital news portal serving more than five times as many readers brings in half that on its display ads – just over 10 cents a reader – an order of magnitude less.
No amount of optimism can change the reality that profitable digital newsrooms are smaller than their old media counterparts. The depressing conclusion is that democracy will crumble, wrongdoers go unpunished and the ignorance of the masses pass for wisdom.
If plump newspapers and 30-minute TV news bulletins were the only vehicles of truth there might be something in this. But they are not. Like the kid and the TV, we have become so used to the familiar formats of news that we think there is something God-given in their forms, something that actually represents the entire world. If we can’t fund them, we won’t be able to cover everything. Terrible things will happen.
At the bottom of this gloomy view is the assumption that in the past all the important stories were covered.
That’s not right. It’s a straight-up case of survivor bias, our tendency to see only what is, forgetting about all that there could be. We know about Watergate and Abu Ghraib and we thank God we have nailed the bad guys. We picture the ‘miracle on the Hudson’ and are inspired by the skill of pilot Chesley Sullenberger. Yet countless untold stories – the hidden abuses and the unknown heroes are never entered in our mental ledgers.
It’s clear that there are many more stories in the world than we have the opportunity to tell, and some of the unspoken ones are as important and interesting as anything that sees the light of day.
The lion and the lamb.jpg
On 11 January 2011 a remarkable photo was submitted to ninemsn news. The photo shows a green frog sitting on the back of a swimming snake. The snake is floating just in front of a submerged fence with its head rearing out of the water and its long body curved in serpentine motion. The frog is perched a few feet back from the head. It is an image from the great floods that hit Queensland at that time.
The story, which really goes no further than the simple observation of prey hitching a ride on predator, has many of the features of shareability as laid out in SENT. It’s simple and concrete, surprising – a perfect reverse – and something about it is hopeful. It sits firmly in the Inspiring box of NIT, and for extra power, its actors are animals. The ‘frog on the snake’ could have been a freeze-frame from one of Aesop’s fables, and it was bound for success.
The sender was ‘Armin Gerlach’ from Queensland. A cadet journalist, Anne Lin, interviewed Armin by telephone and wrote up the story. Later that day I called Armin too, because I thought the story would become big and I wanted to make contact and hear his voice.
Armin was pleasant and reasonable, but not overly talkative. He had written his occupation as ‘computer technician’. He didn’t try to shake me down for money or become evasive. He said he had heard of things like this before, where animals banded together in a flood, even natural enemies like foxes and rabbits. I didn’t ask him why he had sent the picture in. It seemed obvious: he had witnessed something amazing and wanted to share it. He had named the image file ‘the lion and the lamb.jpg’.
The next day, after the article had been viewed several hundred thousand times, we were called by international newspapers and picture agencies wanting to know how they could contact Armin so they could get the rights to the picture.
By the terms of the ninemsn submission process, copyright of a submitted picture belongs to ninemsn, but it seemed to me that this provision was to cover use by ninemsn and here was a possibility for Armin to benefit from his generosity to us. He had witnessed a small but extraordinary event – a good old- fashioned portent.
We contacted him again and he gave us permission to give out his contact details to the picture agencies. The story and photo appeared in several British newspapers; I have no idea how much money Armin received for the rights but I don’t think it would have been a huge amount.
That would have been it but for the sharing: within 24 hours the frog-snake became the most shared piece of content on ninemsn up to that time. More than 54,000 people Liked, commented or shared it on Facebook. It’s impossible to tell how many emailed it, but people arriving directly at the page (and not from the ninemsn home page, the usual traffic driver) accounted for 278,000 of its total of 619,000 page views.
It stood clear out of the crowd – the next most shared story up to then, David Thorne’s attempt to pay a bill with a drawing of a spider, had had a share count of 23,000. Even within the flood stories, we had a similarly good story that failed to reach the same heights: a woman who returned home after the waters had receded and found a cow on her roof. She had sent us the surreal image of the marooned beast calmly looking down at the camera. That article stood at 7500. As another point of context, our article about Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011 had a share count of 6000. The frog-snake was something extraordinary. It was something that people really wanted to share. I felt compelled to investigate.
The plot thickens
The digitisation of the world is not so advanced that many individuals have left a particularly long or interesting digital trace online. So it was without a whole lot of hope that I plugged ‘Armin Gerlach’ into a search engine.
Immediately I hit a snag. I’d overlooked the reason I was looking up Armin in the first place. Armin was now known to the world as the witness of the frog on the snake – the signal was blown out. This ‘Armin Gerlach’ dominates pages and pages of search results. All that aggregation, all that paraphrasing of a few sparse facts on the barest frame of a story, and all because of that picture. I clicked through page after page until, about to abandon the search, something interesting showed up.
It was a PDF of a legal essay about the use of juries in Australian courts. I downloaded the document and found a reference to the case Gerlach v Clifton Bricks Pty Ltd, which had gone to the High Court. The essay summarised the issues: the case had originally been about compensation for a back injury at work, and the plaintiff Gerlach had at the last minute objected to its being heard before a jury. One of his grounds for objection was that the jury would be prejudiced against him because he had a criminal record.
At that moment my perception of both the frog-snake and Armin shifted. The rotund, benign computer technician in my head took on a different shape. I did some more searching, found the High Court transcript and judgements. Full name of plaintiff: ‘Armin Herbert Gerlach’. Eminent High Court judges talking about the district court judge who agreed with Armin that a jury wasn’t a good idea. Some of them were down on this judge. It wasn’t the only time Justice Christie would get an official ticking off. He suffered from being a straight talker. For example, he once told some dodgy nightclub bouncers who had appeared before him they needn’t bother applying for bail, as he wasn’t going to grant it. You can’t do that if you’re a judge. You have to listen to the evidence, then apply the law. You can’t pre-judge people just because they behave like idiots in the dock. You listen first, then you deny bail.
Armin versus the brick company wasn’t that kind of issue. This was a civil case: a man with a bad back who’d been waiting nine years for his case to come to court. Nine years. On the final Friday before the week he was scheduled to appear he filed a petition to have the jury dismissed. He couldn’t afford the motels for the witnesses. He had a criminal record.
So Judge Christie agreed with him, just – he described it as ‘line-ball’ – and the case was heard before a different judge without a jury. That judge awarded Armin $390,000 for the back pain, because the brick company had made him drive a forklift with solid tyres. The judge found evidence that Armin had already had the back problem before the solid- tyred forklift, nevertheless he gave him the money. Clifton Bricks decided that wasn’t fair and appealed the matter and eventually it wound up in the High Court, where the five sitting judges decided 3–2 that even if dispensing with the jury was wrong, that was not enough to order a retrial and do the whole thing over again. Armin would keep the money. High Court judge Michael Kirby was in the minority; he thought juries were very important and that there were grounds for a retrial. He suggested Christie’s discretion was skewed by his strong personal views that civil cases should no longer be heard before juries, given their substantial cost and length.
Here, just for a moment, the picture of the frog riding on a snake intersects with the legal history of Australia. Kirby retired in 2009. He is an inspirational figure if you happen to hear him speak. He tended to disagree with his colleagues on the bench. According to legal commentators, in fact, he disagreed more than any other High Court judge before or since. Why did he think juries were important? Because that’s the way the Australian legal system is built: if you are trying to decide a question of fact, they are the default position. It’s not up to the trial judge to throw out this ground wire back to the public just because he doesn’t like dealing with people who know nothing about the law. As Kirby said: ‘Absolute discretions are a form of tyranny.’ He also pointed out that it was widely held that juries are hostile to work-related injury claims. A jury might have taken a dim view of Armin and his back pain. Armin certainly thought so.
But Kirby did not carry the day. There had been no jury, that was fine, and Armin got to keep his money. The High Court judgement was handed down about two decades after he had been driving that blessed forklift. Other details emerge from the case. Armin had got into the booze and drugs after his back went on him, and he spent 1993, 1994 and 1995 in jail. That’s a long time. That’s a bachelor degree in jail. I wanted to know what he had done, exactly.
You can’t just look up someone’s criminal record in Australia – you have to be a relevant organisation or the actual individual. In the US, no problem – it’s like checking a library catalogue. In Australia it’s deemed a good idea to prevent previous crimes from ruining the lives of criminals by not allowing any old member of the public to find out about them. The same logic could be applied to court cases, particularly before a verdict is delivered. I don’t buy it, because there is provision for convictions to become ‘spent’ and therefore erased from the catalogue. What you have is a situation where notorious crimes and criminals are remembered, through the media, but perhaps equally heinous acts go invisible because the junior court reporter decided to attend Courtroom 1 instead of Courtroom 2.
My thinking on Armin at this point was that he had had a rough patch – ‘a somewhat wild life’, as he stated on his neglected Bebo social networking page – but did that have to define his whole life? I hoped not. One of the central ideas of Share Wars is that what people aspire to is incredibly important. Public truth is as worthy as private truth. Aspiration is big and beneficial and helps form societies that are worth being part of. What people admire has a massive effect on what comes to be, even if they are not privately faithful to their ideals. Armin’s life might have something in it that showed the importance of public aspiration over private impulse.
So I found Facebook Armin, and Bebo Armin and then all the appearances he makes in the specialist legal databases. Facebook Armin matches up with all the other Armins – his daughter’s name was part of his Hotmail address and she is one of his Facebook friends. He has sons as well, and they are Facebook friends also. He is friends with a German guy called Bernd Schmidtke and they converse in German. I suppose Armin may have been born there. There is also a verification that Armin left school in South Australia in 1972, which I think ties it all together. That makes Armin 58 or 59 years old, which puts him in the right zone to be the Armin Herbert Gerlach of the High Court case. He would have been about 29 when he was driving the forklift; enough time, if he’d been labouring since he left school, to have developed a bad back.
The unfortunate thing about Bernd Schmidtke is that, unlike Armin’s, his name is common. Bernd, a form of Bernhardt, was one of the top 55 boys’ names in Germany in the second half of the 20th century, and Schmidtke is a German form of ‘Smith’. A German telephone directory lists 28 Bernd Schmidtkes.
One of these Bernd Schmidtkes was kidnapped by Soviet agents at a Berlin subway station in 1955. That boy was nine years old and fell victim to a cruel trick. The story is that Bernd’s family had escaped from the East before the wall went up, and the Communists wanted them back. One day East German relatives sent the Schmidtke children a message to come and collect their Christmas presents. Berlin at that time was a tense, divided city that the Allied forces had carved up into zones. If you stepped into the wrong zone, you were subject to whoever owned that area. As soon as Bernd and his sisters walked onto the platform, which was technically part of the Soviet zone, a burly woman in a coat grabbed him and spirited him off. The sisters got away, back to the safety of the footpath, but little Bernd was gone. The Soviets had reclaimed one of their own.
Armin’s friend graduated from high school in 1967, which makes him almost but not quite the same age as the kidnapped Bernd. Back then many German high schools hung on to their students until they were 19, so in the best-case scenario Armin’s Bernd was born in 1948. Kidnapped Bernd was born in 1946. Two years might as well be a century. Not the same person. Just another one of the meandering brooks the frog-snake took me down. Nevertheless, the picture of Bernd crying in his cap and suit on the Berlin station platform is something I haven’t forgotten.
So I knew from Facebook that Armin wears blue singlets, and has faded tattoos, close-cropped hair and a beard. He lives in a small town in northern Queensland and he repairs computers. I thought he probably bought the house with the money from the brick saga. But it isn’t the only time he is mentioned in the legal record. Here’s a summary of Armin’s history as recorded in disparate state and federal databases:
The crime that landed him in jail: committed some time after 1985 and before 1992, involving drugs. Probably drug dealing.
The Clifton Bricks case as mentioned. Armin sued for workers’ compensation and his lawyers pulled a legal swifty on the opposition by asking for no jury a day before the trial was to start. Judges noted inconsistencies in his evidence but gave him the money.
A work tribunal case regarding a man (A. Gerlach) who dishonestly tried to get a redundancy payment out of a company, and failed.
A Centrelink case where the dole was stopped to Armin because he moved from Canberra to another area (the Queensland town). He successfully pressed for the payments to be made in arrears.
There is one more case in the record. It deserves special mention.
Early on the morning of 17 August 2000, two police officers responded to an emergency 000 call about a house fire in the Canberra satellite town of Queanbeyan. When they arrived at the house it was well alight. The officers were brave: they didn’t wait for the firefighters, but went in and found two boys trapped by the flames in the hallway. One of the boys had a bleeding head. They carried both boys outside. Looking for a garden hose, one of the cops saw a 5-litre petrol can on top of a car in the garage. It was lying on its side and had a burning cloth wick stuffed into it. The other cop got a garden hose and squirted the can down the driveway away from the house. Then the fire crew arrived and started hosing everything down.
One can imagine the mayhem and panic at such a scene. Modern houses burn quickly, because of the plastics inside. They also stink for the same reason; the smoke is toxic and hard to get out of your nostrils. It was still dark. The boys were yet to be treated and there was also a stricken eight-year-old girl outside, the boys’ sister. It was she who had called in the fire.
The officers knew this was a crime scene already, because of the petrol can, and then the girl said: ‘I saw my father light a car in the garage and then light the house and I saw him run away.’
The boy with the bleeding head said: ‘My dad shot me in the head two times ... with a big shotgun ... My mum is dead ... I saw my dad slash her up.’
The boy was correct: he had been shot in the head. When they got him to the hospital, they found two .22 bullets that had not penetrated his skull. What was apparent to the police was that this was a classic domestic tragedy: a murder–suicide involving an unsuccessful attempt to kill the children and burn the house down. Going on what the children said at the scene and at the hospital a short while later, it was a reasonable assumption that the father had done it. ‘Daddy lit the fire and I hate him,’ said the little girl. She also mentioned that a man called ‘Tim’ had been at the house the previous evening. Tim had ‘settled everything down’.
At the burning house there was nothing to be done except wait for the firemen to put out the flames, and when they had finished, the place was a sopping black mess. They found two bodies under the collapsed roof. They were Joseph McNally and Adelia Williams, the children’s parents. The corpses were burnt, but it wasn’t the fire that had killed them. Joseph had been shot in the head several times with a .22, through a cushion. Adelia had been shot in the head, stabbed, and strangled with a pair of socks tied around her neck. Both had their hands and feet tied, their hands behind their backs. So not suicide. And not domestic.
Forensically, the scene was a washout because of the smoke and the water. In the whole place they found just a single fingerprint – on the petrol can. As details came out over the next few days, particularly about the tied hands and feet, suspicion fell on ‘Tim’. This man, Timothy Paul Villa, was a drug supplier to the dead parents. They owed him money, and according to one of his associates, he had fired a shotgun at their house in a drive-by ‘reminder’ a few weeks earlier.
One of the things that convicted Villa and put him away for life was the evidence of Armin Herbert Gerlach. Villa had tried to sell Armin a sawn-off gun and amphetamines, and while doing this, he had said of that August evening and the house on Barracks Flat Drive: ‘It all went wrong, it wasn’t meant to happen that way.’
Armin also stated in evidence that he was interested in neither the drugs nor the weapon.
So Tim Villa went to trial and told a story about a Maori man who had been at the Barracks Flat Drive house, and no one believed him. He knew too much about the crime, and he talked. He talked to Armin, he talked to other people. Once, on a bugged phone call to a mate, he referred to Adelia’s hands having been tied up with telephone wire. His mate picked up on it immediately, and asked him how he knew. He replied that the police had told him. But the police hadn’t told him – they didn’t know. At that point they had assumed Adelia’s hands had been tied up with cord cut from a Sega game controller, the same way her feet had been tied up. After listening to the phone call, they tested the cord on her hands and found it to be telephone wire.
Now Tim Villa is under special protection in prison. He had been getting bashed as a member of the general prison population – maybe because of what he did to the kids. He lost the appeal against his conviction and life sentence in 2005. Interestingly, the fingerprint on the can was never identified – it didn’t belong to Villa. I don’t want to imply he is innocent; there is an overwhelming case that Villa committed the crime. But it’s weird what the kids said. I guess that eight- year-old really did hate her father.
Armin’s house is ramshackle. He tells me on the phone I don’t need to know the street address – he’s right. You drive a few hours north of Brisbane, you cross the railway tracks in this little town, and you see the ‘Computer Shop’ sign. That’s his place. The ‘Parking Area’ sign points to an expanse of dirt.
When I walk in through the open gate, a middle-aged man with short grey hair and a fair-sized stomach is bent over something behind a patio bar. He straightens up.
In person, Armin is a lot like his digital trace. There’s plenty there, but it’s inscrutable. He has ‘old bikie’ written all over him: a trimmed goatee and a guarded air that feels like it could blossom into outright defiance at any moment. It doesn’t. He’s just a guy mending computers in an out-of-the- way Queensland town.
‘Need to keep the flyscreens shut, up here,’ he says as he leads me into his office. I close the screen door behind me. Every surface in the office is covered with computer parts: chips on green circuit board, eviscerated hard drives, connected and unconnected boxes and monitors. The profusion is the perfect cover for surveillance equipment; I wonder if he is recording us.
Armin was born in 1955 in Wixhausen, Germany, and came to Australia with his mother and brother when he was nine. He didn’t speak a word of English.
‘As a kid I was always done out as the Nazi,’ he says. ‘But the Australians, they didn’t know what freedom was. They were always kowtowing to authority.’
Not Armin. As we talk it becomes clear that resisting authority has been one of the main activities of his life. Later on, after he’s warmed up, he tells me the story of a small legal victory that I’ve thought about since. Its pointlessness strikes me as significant.
I was driving my wife’s car and I was stopped by the police. It’s a Mercedes, they probably thought I was a drug dealer. They stopped me and the policewoman asked:
‘Is this your car?’ ‘No.’
‘Who does this car belong to?’ ‘A woman in Canberra.’ ‘Does she know you have it?’ ‘Probably not.’
‘Please step out of the car, sir, we are going to search it.’
So the police find this ornamental Chinese knife, about this long, in the dash that someone gave me. And then they find out that the car belongs to Marie Gerlach.
‘Who’s Marie Gerlach?’ ‘My wife.’ ‘Why didn’t you say?’ ‘You didn’t ask.’
So they charged me with possessing an offensive weapon.
We go down to the station and I am arguing with the duty officer, and he gets so sick of the whole thing. He picks up the knife by the handle and he holds it over the bin:
‘I am going to drop this knife into this bin and we are going to forget all about this,’ he says.
And I say: ‘If you drop that knife I am going straight to the ombudsman and I am going to lodge a complaint.’
So they had to charge me. [On the day of the trial] I wrapped up a whole lot of kitchen knives in a towel and I took them to the courthouse. I produced them in evidence. ‘Are they offensive weapons too?’
The judge agreed with me. The police said I could pick up the knife from the station. I said, ‘Why can’t I have it right now?’
The judge looks at me, and then he says: ‘Just give him his knife.’
Armin’s contradiction is that he loves rules – he would go to court over and over for rules – but he won’t condemn his own past. In a life where so many things went wrong, he loves things to be right.
Everything that Armin tells me leads not to an ending but to another story that should be investigated. His grandfather Herbert was in the Luftwaffe and was killed by a bomb in Eastern Europe. His father, another Herbert, joined the Hitler Youth and was caught by the Russians at the end of the war. As a 14-year-old, Armin’s father was sent east as a prisoner of war, and came back four years later an alcoholic and a wild man. Uncle Ziggy worked for Colonel Gaddafi, protecting the oil lines. His grandmother once ate human flesh.
Bernd Schmidtke? No, Uncle Bernd is quiet and straight. He was never kidnapped by the East Germans.
Armin has an ordered mind. He doesn’t leap to unsupported conclusions. He doesn’t call me ‘mate’, and his stories don’t ring false. He doesn’t mind being asked about anything – his crime was selling amphetamines, he went to Goulburn jail – but he won’t tell me the name of his old bikie club.
The image of the burned house in Queanbeyan occurs to me. I ask Armin how he met Tim Villa, looking at his face to see if the name makes an impact. Nothing.
‘He called me out of the blue and tried to sell me drugs and things,’ he says.
I ask him about that morning, when the kids were found and the house was on fire. Did he see it?
‘This is Queanbeyan – I think everyone went and had a look,’ he says.
Why did the children try to blame their father for a crime committed by another man?
He doesn’t know.
We talk about jail, we talk about the police, his children, his failed marriage, Clifton Bricks – ‘they were like my family’ – about the courts, never pleading guilty, never giving in, about going to the High Court, about drugs, about the shop he had, the boarding house, non-smoking laws, leaving Canberra under threat of death, ocean liners, Adelaide and his own natural ability.
At the end of the conversation, I ask him about the picture of the frog on the snake.
‘I just want to know: why did you call it “the lion and the lamb”?’
For a moment it’s clear Armin doesn’t know what I am talking about.
‘Is that what it’s called?’ He smiles. ‘That’s the thing about that photo,’ he says. ‘I didn’t take it.’
‘I didn’t know how big it would become. It’s not my picture.’
I ask a few more questions and then I leave Armin under the wooden ‘Arminland’ sign hanging over the bar at the back of his house. The day has clouded over and heated up. The sugar cane is high and woolly on the way back to Brisbane.
The plot gets even thicker
It had always worried me, about the snake and the frog, that the picture might be a fake. Sure, we had checked it before. We had spoken to the person who had sent us the photo. We spoke to him twice. But how much effort do you put into disproving a harmless story that you really, really want to publish?
The editor answers: whatever it takes to sleep easy. Some stories you know the whole world is going to buy into. It’s in no one’s interest for these harmless, entertaining stories to be fakes. That’s what makes them most likely to be fake.
I call up Ross Alford, a biology professor at James Cook University. He identifies the frog in ‘the lion and lamb.jpg’ immediately.
‘This is a green tree frog – it has a distinctive silhouette,’ he says. ‘I can’t be sure about the snake because I’m not an expert, but it looks like a red-bellied black snake. A red-bellied black snake would certainly eat a frog.’
Because Professor Alford is a scientist he won’t commit to certainties, but he thinks the photo is authentic.
‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was genuine,’ he says. ‘Green tree frogs can swim but they don’t like moving water – they tend to want to get out of it.’
I make another call, to the president of the Queensland Frog Society, who asks his members and everyone agrees it is possible. No one has seen it before, but that can’t be the acid test of reality.
Next step is to examine the data itself. The online service Foto Forensics analyses a compressed digital image and highlights variations in the error rate – the amount of detail the compression has removed – in different areas. A distinct difference in defined areas is evidence of one image having being dropped into another.
‘The lion and the lamb.jpg’ shows an almost unmarred expanse of black. It is clear. The frog was really there, on the back of the snake.
The Darling Downs, after you come down the road from Toowoomba and approach the town of Dalby, gets very flat. The grass is dry beside the road, and the paddocks stretch out. Occasionally the shades of brown are interrupted by new green wheat. All along the way you are escorted by telegraph poles with arms set at wacky 45-degree angles: it’s like the engineers found the freedom to express themselves out here.
How much effort do you put into disproving a story you really want to publish? Not much, if you are in the online business. But if you happen to break the meniscus of the ocean of stories, you are in for a ride. I’ve done it now, and I’m starting to feel like there could be a whole book in that photograph. Back at the office they don’t really get it. I don’t get it. Three years on and I’m here following up the lead Armin gave me, taking holiday time. I have a name and I’m looking for the true source of ‘the lion and the lamb.jpg’.
My rented car has an abused feel. There’s a looseness in the steering and a beeping alarm sounds every time I take a corner. With a home-made map resting in my lap, I pass through the town, over the river and past the grain silos and find the turn-off. I take a dirt road until I reach an open gate with home-made signs in dripping red paint: ‘NO PIGGING. PIG DOGS KILLED ON SIGHT. TRESPASSERS PROSECUTED.’ I move further in. Above the ripple of tyres on the dirt road, crows and other birds are calling and there’s an exotic scent on the air. The place is alive.
The name Armin gave me was ‘Bernie Von Pein’. It was not hard to find Bernie. According to the internet he’s ‘the father of organic farming in Queensland’. He has a farm called ‘Hereward’. Because Bernie comes from a time when people were comfortable having their names and addresses in telephone directories, I know where he lives and where his children live. Like Gerlach, Von Pein is not a common name.
Now I’m standing on Hereward, among a cluster of buildings: three houses, built on stumps, and a few sheds surrounded by farm equipment. Surrounding that are the fences and paddocks that make up the rest of this 850-hectare property. Like Armin’s workshop, the place feels ramshackle, but here there’s a lot of space between things.
Bernie is in front of me: tall, square-shouldered and ancient. Next to him are his son Doug and Doug’s wife Chrissie. Bernie and Doug have white beards and enormous, strong hands. I get the impression that Doug is much shorter than Bernie, but later, looking at photographs, I will find I was mistaken. There’s maybe an inch in it. It’s one of those impressions your mind provides to make sense of the dynamic, and the dynamic here is clear: Bernie is the boss.
‘Farming has been the only thing in my life,’ says Bernie. ‘I’m not a sportsman or anything. Farming has run through my parents, my grandparents – it’s their experiences that have gone up into this brain.’
We are listening to a man who seems to be the essence of agriculture itself. His accent is a mix of drawn-out words and dropped endings that startles you every now and then with some unexpected sound. Bernie is Australian through and through but seems to have acquired his accent in another place entirely. Which, if the past is another country, is true.
Bernie speaks of growing up on the farm, his earliest memories of snakes and poddy calves, then of taking over and introducing a system of farming in the early 1970s that required no artificial fertilisers.
‘Dad was never chemically orientated. He knew we needed a legume. Well, his life ran out, and brother and I took over the home piece here off Mum and Dad. Brothers, when they marry, quite often they don’t get along too well, that’s a natural thing with wives. And I had to take the place over in 1969, this home piece, or walk away. I took it over. To pay brother out, I had to borrow a heap of money. So okay, I had no money. It was a drought year, and you couldn’t afford to spend money on fertiliser.’
That was the start of the organic movement in this part of the world. Bernie farmed Hereward for over 40 years, founded Biological Farmers of Australia, introduced exotic crops and dealt with drought and hardship. In all that time he never experienced a flood to rival what would hit the place at the end of 2010. By that time he had passed the stewardship of Hereward to Doug, and he was living on the coast.
Doug is different from his father. He seems to grow a little away from him. He talks slowly, with an air of resignation that disguises the relish with which he tells stories. Sometimes his enthusiasm gets the better of him and he ends a sentence at full volume.
Doug and Chrissie have three daughters. Their eldest, Kylie, was pregnant and due to have the baby when the flood struck and sealed Hereward off from the world. The waters crept over the banks of the Condamine, swallowed up the farm swamp and kept growing. Animals were moved into different paddocks, away from the river, as the water took over more and more of the place. Soon the benchmarks set by previous floods, even the big flood of 1956, had been passed, and they were talking about the monster of 1893. Bernie once met an old-timer who had experienced 1893, who said the farm ridges were the only thing left dry. In 2011, soon enough the ridges went under, and there were only trees and these houses on their stumps, standing in the middle of an immense lake.
‘We sat watching the water rise, measuring it with sticks and things,’ says Doug. ‘You looked out here and all you saw was waves. I looked out the window and I thought, “If only we still had the sailboat.” It was like that.’
‘There were whitecaps,’ says Chrissie. ‘We went to bed for a couple of days with the water going gurgle gurgle, lap lap, just like you were on a boat.’
The family was anxious, moving valuables and guns to high places, but didn’t panic. Suzanne, another daughter, blew up an air mattress and started floating around for fun. She had to retreat immediately because the water was alive with spiders and insects.
That’s the thing about organic farms – the wildlife thrives. The whole food chain benefits from the absence of pesticides. Lots of insects, and therefore spiders. Lots of spiders and insects, lots of frogs. Lots of frogs, lots of snakes.
‘At the peak, when the peak arrived, it went mirror-calm. Dead calm. That was unique.’
We get into a four-wheel drive and start bumping over the farm. Doug explains how the crop rotations and animal grazing work together. The exotic scent I smelled on arrival at the farm is fenugreek, a herb used in Indian cooking that is also a legume.
The flood peaked at night. The next day Doug and Chris got out a dinghy and rowed down here along what used to be the main drive, to check on the livestock.
‘Anything dry was covered in creepy crawlies – you didn’t want to put your hand on anything. There were a lot of snakes in the water. So I was letting off shots, into the water, you know, to deter the snakes from the boat. I had my handgun – I was popping off foxes as well, that had gotten stuck on fence posts.’
Doug shows me the gun. It is a spotless Smith & Wesson revolver with a long barrel, ‘all properly licensed and registered’. He tells me a story of killing wild pigs with it, indicating he is pretty quick on the draw, and I believe him. All Doug’s slowness disappears when he decides to move.
We are travelling along the dirt road I entered by, and Chrissie points out a small tree standing under an old gum on the fence line.
‘That’s the spot.’
‘We saw this snake going past, and Chrissie said, “I think there’s something on its back.”
‘It was a frog. Quite comfortable it was, and it went right by the boat. Not too far away. The snake swam up to that fence post, the frog hopped off onto the post, and then the snake backed off and went down the fence a way. It wrapped itself around the wire.’
‘The thing about that snake – you would swear he was giving the frog a lift on purpose. That it went up to that fence post just to drop it off. When the frog was on the post, the snake went on its way.’
Chrissie hands me a sheet of paper. On it is the photo of the frog on the snake that Armin sent us, as well as the original, uncropped photo. Looking at this shot feels like a historic moment for me. The original is a wide-angle picture showing a shrubby tree with bright green leaves half buried in floodwater. Next to the trunk is a mostly submerged fence post and two lines of fencing wire, one barbed and one plain. There’s the snake in the water, familiar, heading for the post. On its back is the frog, tiny and distinct. There is a lot of brown water in the foreground.
Chrissie is the source. Not Armin and not Doug. She is the one who, sitting behind Doug in the dinghy as the snake cruised past them with its little green passenger, struggled with the camera and got the shot just before the ride ended. The farmer’s wife is the end of the line.
I ask one more question: why do they think this picture of the frog on the snake became so popular right around the world?
Chrissie answers, polite but matter-of-fact.
‘It’s because it’s unusual, isn’t it? It’s just highly uncommon for a frog to ride on a snake.’
It’s as simple as that.
Later, Doug brings up something that has been troubling him since he told me the story of the frog on the snake. He has been stewing on the dead foxes.
‘I don’t like killing things. When I go out to the paddock and see a pig or a roo, or even an introduced species, I will ask myself, do I have the right, at this present moment, to take its life? There might be an economic reason I have to remove it from the scene, but I’m not going to eradicate it, I’m not going to curse it. The curse is on me, not it.
‘We cursed ourselves in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were given the choice of eating from the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. They chose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. God warned them that if they did that they would die, and begin dying from then on. [Until then] animals lived together in companionship, which is why Chrissie called [the picture] “the lion and the lamb”.’
I get back in the hire car, bound for Brisbane. It’s dark, and the lights of the oncoming cars are powerful. The damn alarm is still beeping in the car for no good reason and I’m sleepier than I should be. I reach over and grab something Doug gave me before I left the farm: a sprig of leaves. This is gumby gumby. Doug reckons the foliage of this rare tree can fix pretty much anything. He believes gumby gumby cured his mum’s kidney cancer. I have a cold, so I bite into a leaf.
It’s as bitter as anything I have ever tasted. It is like malaria medicine. I can’t swallow. Saliva flows profusely. With one arm I push my bag off the passenger seat to get to a bottle of water and for the first time the beeping alarm stops. The car had been registering a passenger. False positive.
The Von Peins are good people. When the flood receded they got Kylie out and she had her baby in Toowoomba Hospital. They laugh about Armin, no trace of resentment that he took a photo off Bernie’s computer when it was in his shop being repaired. It is a source of hilarity that he has a criminal record. Their religion gives them this thing that others don’t have – that I don’t have. It gives them peace and acceptance in the face of adversity. I am thinking about something Bernie said to me, fixing me with a look from beneath his shaggy brow: ‘If I can put it to you ... you’re a witness. I can’t change your heart. It’s up to the Holy Spirit to change your heart, and that means you open your eyes a little bit. I can’t change you.’
The big questions
I am sitting on a lecture hall stage, behind a desk with four microphones. On my right are radio comedian Mikey Robins and veteran journalist Paul Barry, on my left BuzzFeed Australia editor Simon Crerar. In front of Simon and me are glasses of water. In front of Paul and Mikey are glasses of wine. This is one of those things I do regularly: hold forth, with others, on the future of media in Australia. Tonight, the divisions in opinion will mirror the beverages. Simon and I are optimistic, happy to be part of organisations that are spending more each year on their newsrooms. Mikey now recognises the importance of the digital revolution, but he doesn’t like recent cuts in Fairfax’s newsroom staffing and he’s worried. Paul, an experienced journalist and author, is familiar with the digital territory but can’t shake the feeling it’s all pretty shabby and cut-rate. He finds it difficult to imagine a world where a critical mass of journalists is employed online,
enough to keep the bastards honest. ‘The two questions are,’ says Paul, ‘what’s the place for
journalism, is it going to be possible to make a living out of it? The second is – is anyone actually going to be doing the digging, getting stuff that we can all then have an opinion about? In terms of the quality of journalism, that’s where the question lies.’
They say, on panels and at conferences the world over, that journalism is in dire straits.
If by that they mean that a way of life is coming to an end, they are right. The institutionalised spending on big newsrooms is over, at least until the makers of the serious money in digital – search engines and social networks – find a use for large groups of professional writers and reporters. Even then the culture won’t be the same, because those places have their roots in engineering. Instead of drinking after work, these guys will be staying back polishing up PowerPoint presentations and preparing for performance reviews.
The world of the alpha male editor, the world of subeditors and stone subs and compositors, of foul language, cheap interiors and ‘the perpetually boiling urn’ – all these details of the craft that produced a ‘book’ or a bulletin every day – they are gone. That is what people mourn so publicly. Maybe they are justified. But they dress up that emotion in language that stretches further than sadness.
When you talk about journalism as if it’s something beautiful, sacred and terribly endangered, you are making a classic psychological mistake. You are thinking that ‘what you see is all that there is’. You are forgetting all that could be.
I don’t really know why I chased the story of the frog on the snake. I found something out, and beyond that I saw something else interesting, and on it went. Think about it for a moment: the original deceit of Armin; the words of an orphaned child at the scene of her parents’ murder; the struggle over the right of the common people to sit in judgement; the kidnap of a boy; the death of a fox; the father and son. These things are fascinating. It is only the telling that is missing.
The story behind the story of the frog on the snake went beyond the elements of shareability – ticking the SENT boxes and finding a place in the NIT – and ended up as a justification for the optimism that runs through the Share Wars project.
If I stop writing now it’s because, like everyone else, I have a deadline to hit. I am pretty sure journalism is going to be okay for the same reason the Von Peins believe us cursed: we always choose the Tree of Knowledge.