For the purpose of this essay I will be considering Nils Christie’s (1986) concept of the ‘ideal victim’. In considering this concept, I will discuss what is meant by an ‘ideal victim’ and will also be focusing on the high profile Australian criminal case of Anita Cobby in Blacktown on 2nd of February 1986. Anita Cobby was only 26 years old when she was abducted, brutally raped and murdered by four ‘ideal offenders’. This essay will also consider, the ways in which the media and criminal justice system have constructed Anita Cobby as an ‘ideal victim’.
Nils Christie explains that there are certain characteristics that make a victim an ‘ideal victim’. These characteristics are, young, old, weak, doing something respectable and legal, attacked by a stranger, in a public place, struggles valiantly and someone that brings the matter to the attention to the police (Christie, 1986). Individuals that perceive themselves to be the ‘ideal victim’, and those of which who are in the most danger of becoming victims do not necessarily fit under the term of an ‘ideal victim’.
As Christie (1986) states, an ‘ideal victim’ is ‘…a person or a category of individuals who – when hit by crime – most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim’. People that may have previously been in trouble with the law, also those with drug problems and the homeless would not be perceived as being an ‘ideal victim’, for they are seen to be not living a clean and pure lifestyle and are on the fringes of society. Also middle aged men are not perceived as being ‘ideal victims’ for they are seen to be strong not weak, and are able to protect themselves.
For there to be an ‘ideal victim’ there needs to be an ‘ideal offender’, without one there cannot be the other. As noted by ‘…. Christie (1986), the more ideal a victim is, the more ideal becomes the offender. The more ideal the offender, the more ideal is the victim. ’ The ‘ideal offender’ is different from the ‘ideal victim’, it could actually be said that they are the complete opposites of one another. An ‘ideal offender’ is seen as a very evil, heinous psychopath that is disturbed and inhumane. They are also generally a stranger to the victim.
Greer (2007) noted that, ‘…. there exists a hierarchy of victimisation, both reflected in the media and official discourses’. People that are classified as ideal victims generally attract higher levels of media attention than those that are seen to be undeserving victims. Undeserving victims are seen to be people that participate in violent or criminal behaviour themselves and may be hurt by another. The media also has a major influence on the wider communities’ perceptions of an ‘ideal victim’ and an ‘ideal offender’.
The media plays a very important role in the construction of an ‘ideal victim’, for they are the main source of information to the wider community. Media outlets help to portray selected victims as ‘ideal victims’ by informing the wider community of their innocence and vulnerability, while portraying the offender(s) as evil and inhumane. The media will also focus on newsworthy stories that will have the most impact on society. Thus, appealing to the wider communities own fear of crime and community safety.
The media can also work with police in furthering their investigation in criminal cases, in the form of media conferences and re-enactments. This form of media coverage is used by the police to try and gain valuable information from the public to help them in furthering their investigations and help to bring the offender(s) to justice. The coverage is also beneficial to media outlets, for it gives their audience a more visual account of the crime and allows them to hear from the families about their pain and suffering.
The visualisation of victims and their families helps to make the story more real to the viewer and also helps to keep interest in the news for an extended period. As noted by ‘…. Innes (2003), As well as being assumed to increase the likelihood of public co-operation in a murder investigation, police are also aware that ‘emotional displays of this kind make a good story for journalists and thus the case may receive more media attention than it might otherwise do. ’ Producing stories about crime and deviance within the media can also help the state to show the wider community that, criminal deviants will be punished for their crimes.
This can help the wider community understand their own moral obligations and behaviour within society. As noted by ‘…. Smolej (2010), portrayals of crime and deviance in the media are often seen as essential parts of social control since the media has a central role in defining what is deviant and condemnable. ’ Like the media, the criminal justice system and organisations in and around the criminal justice system play a major contribution in the construction of an ‘ideal victim’. As stated by ‘….
Rock (2006), Institutional practices shape the public representations and private understandings of victims of crime’. For instance, in Australia there are many organisations that help victims and their families of serious crimes. Although on the other hand, there are limited or no services available to victims of minor crimes. This was further explained to Rock (2006) by a member of the New South Wales Witness Assistance Service (WAS), ‘…due to resource reasons WAS has to prioritise the services it provides.
Priorities are determined on the basis of type of crime and on the basis of victims and witnesses with particular needs such as children, people with a range of disabilities, Indigenous people, and older people. ’ Although under the Victims Rights Act, 1996 all victims of crime are entitled to services by WAS. There are many other services that provide counselling, support groups, advocacy and court support to victims of crime such as the, Homicide Victims Support Group (Inc), Victims of Crime Assistance League and Enough is Enough Anti-Violence Movement Inc.
These services were founded by individuals that were victims or secondary victims of crime. These individuals realised there was a need and lack of services available for victims and their families, to have additional support and understanding from others that had been affected by similar horrific crimes and trauma. In addition, the criminal justice system legitimates an ‘ideal victim’ through the Victims Compensation Scheme. Victims of crime are assessed on their suffering and trauma to determine the amount of compensation they will receive.
For minor crimes there is limited or no compensation. This could also be seen as using a hierarchy of victimisation, the more deserving a victim the larger the amount of compensation awarded. The Police can also help in the construction of an ‘ideal victim’. The police as previously discussed can help in the construction of the ‘ideal victim’, through using the media to engage with the wider community about their investigations to try and develop the communities’ sympathy, support and knowledge of selected crimes.
They may further legitimate the ‘ideal victim’ through their ongoing contact with the victims and their families’ long after the criminal matter is dealt with in the criminal justice system. The government has also played a major role in constructing the idea of an ‘ideal victim’, in 2002 the government introduced standard minimum sentencing of 20 years for murder and a minimum of 25 years if the victim was a public servant, exercising public or community functions and the offence arose because of the victim’s occupation, Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Amendments (Standard Minimum Sentencing) Act 2002 No 90.
They have since introduced a Crimes Amendment (Murder of Police Officers) Bill in 2011, to impose a life sentence on any individual that murders a police officer whilst on duty. Both of these government initiatives help to construct the view that public servants are ‘ideal victims’ because of the role they play within society. As noted previously, the high profile criminal case I will be considering for Nils Christie’s concept of the ‘ideal victim’ is that of Anita Cobby.
Anita Cobby was abducted, raped and brutally murdered in a paddock on the 2nd of February 1986 in Blacktown, whilst walking home from the train station after working at Sydney Hospital as a nurse. She was murdered by five males, John Travers the leader of the group, Michael Murdoch and three brothers Lesley, Gary and Michael Murphy who were previously unknown to her. Anita’s murder attracted wide scale media attention nationally and internationally and has become one of the most high profile criminal cases within Australia.
After the murder of Anita the media showed images and told stories of her life which included, coming from a good family, studying to become a nurse where she met her husband John Cobby and interviews with her family, friends and work colleagues. The media also shared some of the horrific details of Anita’s final moments and death. This showed the wider community that Anita was a respectful and moral citizen of society, who was killed and tortured viciously by purely evil human beings.
Anita was seen and portrayed as an ‘ideal victim’ for she was a young, vibrant upstanding moral citizen of society, who was vulnerable and defenceless against her perpetrators. The criminal justice system has also had influence on the concept of an ‘ideal victim’ through the criminal investigation and the judicial process. The police organised a re-enactment of the night of Anita’s murder to help the public to remember if anyone had any information about the case which may lead them to an arrest.
When the offenders were arrested for this heinous crime there images and details of their past criminal and family backgrounds were told to the nation. Finally everybody could see who was responsible for this murder. The perpetrators were portrayed as the ‘ideal offenders’, they were perceived as pure evil men, with a criminal history and dysfunctional childhoods. During the media coverage there was much outcry and debate around law and order issues and the call for the reinstatement of capital punishment. This sort of outcry and public debate is common in high profile criminal cases, as noted by ‘….
Dowler, Fleming & Muzzatti (2006), Crime news has long been understood to have a profound influence in moving society toward “law and order” campaigns. ’ This was a very hard time for Anita’s family for when she was murdered there were no services available to them to help in the support of their ongoing pain and anguish. Through the acknowledgement of the gap in services, seven years later in 1993 after the death of Ebony Simpson, Gary and Grace Lynch ‘became co founders of the Homicide Victims Support Group Inc whose aims are to focus on support, education and reform’(Anita & Beyond 2003) .
In considering Nils Christie’s concept of the ‘ideal victim’, you can clearly see how the media and criminal justice system contribute to the idea of a hierarchy of victimisation. It is also evident that these types of criminal offences attract the wider community’s attention and sympathy. In relation to the high profile criminal case of Anita Cobby, there is much evidence to suggest that the media and criminal justice system have played a major role in the construction of Anita as an ‘ideal victim’ and the perpetrators as ‘ideal offenders’.