Masters Thesis: Accountable to Whom? The Role of the Australian News Media in the Waco Siege.

This is one of the larger projects that I’ve committed to for 2017. Ultimately I would like to finish my Master of Arts this year so I can look at PhD Candidature in 2018. This is the original proposal – the finished product will be somewhat different no doubt.

While a great deal of scholarship exists on the events that transpired at Waco, much of this focuses specifically on who was to blame. Issues surrounding who was responsible for lighting the fire, whether or not the BTAF were justified in their search of the compound, the issues related to child abuse and the role of BATF negotiators have long been contentious issues for scholars as well as those involved with the case and the general public.

Kathering Wessinger and Dick Revis, with their competing views of the case have been instrumental in establishing a background for how public perceptions were formed and have perpetuated in the decades since the event. Private accounts from surviving members such as Clive Doyle, Bonnie Koresh and David Thibodeau have also been heavily utilised in this study in order to create a contrast between other members of the group and Marc Breault. In all of these accounts, the issue of David Koresh and his sexual exploitation of young women and girls plays a role. It is the ways in which these concerns were dealt with before, during and after the deaths in the fire that are of interest.

Similarly, the role of the media in dictating the public response to the Davidian crisis has been a popular topic of discussion, particularly in academic journal articles which have focused on the religious motivations of the Branch Davidians and the particular religious doctrines and beliefs of David Koresh. Primary to these discussions has been the relationship between the BATF negotiators and religious scholars from Texas University, who volunteered their assistance in helping to understand Koresh’s Seven Seals dogma during the crucial stages of the stand-off.

In relation to this, the court reports from the criminal trial into the siege have been used, along with the accounts of religious scholars from the University of Texas, who were there. Although they do not account for a wide field of scholarship, this study has also utilised the written material from the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), which has since been defunct and repurchased by the Church of Scientology, specifically for its account of Martin Kings and his behaviour on the ground in Waco during the early days and weeks of the standoff.

Finally, there role of the media in not only exposing the BTAF on the morning of the raid, but also their coverage of the Branch Davidians in the lead up to it, has been present among academic considerations of the event. While this has focused heavily on newspaper journalism, specifically the Sinful Messiah expose that was run by the Texas Sun on the morning of the raid, what it has failed to account for is the extent to which the Australian press influenced not only public response but the initial interest in the Branch Davidians as a group. Heavily influenced by Davidian defector, Marc Breault, the journalistic work of Martin Kings not only caused controversy in Australia over the practices of the Branch Davidians and the beliefs of David Koresh, but would go on to have a damning impact on the way in which American media outlets depicted the group during and after the siege. Of particular interest to this paper is a consideration of Martin Kings and his career as a journalist and his subsequent partnership with Marc Breault.

The Sinful Messiah text is paramount to this area of the study, as it shows a startling similarity in style and content to Kings own work, which featured in Australia on the television news show ‘A Current Affair.’

Working together in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Kings and Breault hastily published a ‘factual expose’ called Preacher of Death, which focused specifically on the teachings of Vernon Howell/David Koresh and Breault’s attitudes around them. This publication is the focal point of the study and its content, source material and intention will be called into question throughout as attempts are made to account for factual accuracy, journalistic bias and sensationalism. Although trained as a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, there is a solid debate to be made for whether or not he was a reliable source for Kings to use in his ‘journalistic interrogation’ considering that (in his own words) Breault was ‘at war’ with Koresh over his New Light doctrine and had recently defected from the group because of this conflict.

Ultimately, Kings reporting went a long way to establishing public interest in the situation at Mount Carmel, both in Australia and abroad. The basis of that reporting however was not unbiased and partisan and as such, Kings needs to be held accountable to some extent for that events which took place during and after the siege. A large number of the people who died in the fire at Mount Carmel were Australian members of the group, who had been recruited by Breault and Koresh during their numerous trips to the country. As such, Breault also needs to take some responsibility for the role he played in the outcome of the compound raid and the way in which Kings handling of the story influenced public perceptions of the victims.

Picture from history.com

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