Martin van Beynen: Why the David Bain story needed to be told one more time
The slaughter at Every St, Dunedin, was 23 years ago. There have been two trials, numerous reviews, half a dozen books, a guilty verdict and a not-guilty verdict, millions of dollars spent and millions of litres of newspaper ink spilt since then. Seriously, is there anything left to say about the Bain family murders?
Actually, says veteran journalist Martin van Beynen, there is. Loads.
So much in fact that on Monday, Stuff will release a 10-part podcast series, written and narrated by van Beynen, which will tell the strange story of the Bain family murders and their aftermath once again, starting with that disturbing 111 call of June 20 1994, when David Bain announced that his family – father Robin, mother Margaret and siblings Arawa, Laniet and Stephen – were "all dead".
The series is called Black Hands, a reference to something Bain said to his aunt and uncle soon after the murders, when he read a news report and grew distressed, putting his head in his hands and repeatedly talking about "black hands taking them away".
The Bain case, says van Beynen, is just one of those stories that is so complex and so unusual that the public fascination never ends, even after all those books and the wall-to-wall trial coverage including a famous TV fist-pump, and the sequels concerning judges who disagreed, a payout that wasn't a payout and, most recently, a name-change and emigration.
He's been following the Bain case in one way or another for two decades, and the podcast in particular has consumed a phenomenal amount of his time and attention. But he says it's wrong to assume he's obsessed with the case. People don't believe him when he says it, but "it's never been under my skin".
This is just something that sometimes happens in journalism: you follow a case, and you develop some understanding of it so you keep getting asked to follow it, and then one day, without really meaning to, you discover you've become some kind of expert.
INSIDE BAIN HQ
Van Beynen's home is in Diamond Harbour on the south shore of Lyttelton Harbour, 45 winding minutes' drive south of central Christchurch.
Upstairs, the bedroom that used to belong to van Beynen's oldest son Jack (himself a Stuff journalist) is now Bain HQ. The single bed is covered in ringbinders of court transcripts and evidence files. A bookshelf contains five Bain-related titles, including three by Bain's longtime supporter Joe Karam. A pinboard by the bed holds a diagram of 65 Every Street complete with body outlines, an aerial photo of suburban Dunedin, and a blown-up photo of the Bain victims' joint headstone.
Pinned alongside are van Beynen's scribbled notes to himself: "Why the keys in the red anorak?"; "Alibi – out on my round as normal"; "wash hands, clean up, 111".
Van Beynen was aware, of course, of the sensational 1994 murder and the 1995 trial that found David guilty of killing his family. He was working at the Press in Christchurch and knew Dunedin from his days at the Otago Daily Times. But he didn't engage with the case journalistically until 1997, after former All Black Karam published David and Goliath, laying out the case for Bain's innocence.
Van Beynen says he was assigned the Karam interview mainly because he happened to have a law degree, which meant he often got the justice-related yarns. The pair had a drink at the Crowne Plaza and at one point went to Karam's room so he could change.
"I remember seeing him in his underpants in his hotel room, and I thought, this guy is really quite confident. No qualms about that at all."
He was also impressed with Karam's book, but he did his own research and talked to reporters who'd covered the trial and were convinced of Bain's guilt, "so I balanced that against what Joe was saying."
After the piece ran, Karam "said I was the 'most conscientious journalist in New Zealand'. He wouldn't say that now."
Then in 2009, the Bain retrial came to Christchurch, and van Beynen was sent to cover all 12 weeks. It was a national obsession, and feeding the demand was a hard slog: online updates six times a day, something fresh for the daily print story, plus a weekend feature wrap-up.
He wasn't the only reporter there for the entire retrial, but once it was over, and Bain was found not guilty, he did something out of the ordinary.
He'd been chatting with Fairfax's then-executive editor Paul Thompson about how the jury seemed to get it wrong second time around. Van Beynen had gone in with a reasonably open mind; he'd listened to all the same evidence as the jury, and as far as he was concerned, the evidence clearly pointed to Bain's guilt.
"And Paul said, 'Why don't you write something for us?'"
So he did, and the response, says van Beynen, was amazing: hundreds of emails and phone calls and letters, mostly along the lines of: "This needed to be said."
Van Beynen says he is in no way a campaigner or a crusader. "I was just a journalist who tried to cover the case in an honest way, and I came up with some conclusions."
BECOMING A PODCASTER
Van Beynen is 58. He was born in Christchurch and raised in Auckland, and studied law at Auckland University. He was a lawyer for a bit but claims he was "terrible". He'd always wanted to be a journalist, but his first application to Canterbury University's journalism school was rebuffed, so he kicked around for a few years instead: milkman in London, builder's labourer, timberyard worker.
"It's a bit embarrassing now that I think of it. To be so easily derailed isn't a particularly good look."
Eventually, though, he got back to journalism. He admires the "new journalism" of American writers such as Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson, and is rather proud of some of his own humorous first-person pieces, such as a daft account of being a latte-sipping townie assisting a high-country sheep muster.
Latterly, he's carved out a reputation as a Press columnist – or, as his left-leaning critics on Twitter would have it, as a retrogressive grump who makes a twit of himself for saying women swear too much, that "rape culture" doesn't exist, and there's no inequality crisis in New Zealand. (Van Beynen thinks they've got him wrong: "I would plead not guilty to being your classic grumpy old white guy. Look at some of my views about Maori issues. I don't think people read the columns very carefully.")
But it's serious journalism that has won him awards and the respect of other journos. He's uncovered academic cheats, dodgy businesses and corrupt officials. His Canterbury quake stories earned him the rare honour of being named both reporter and feature writer of the year at the 2012 Media Awards, and provided the basis for a book, Trapped.
And then, in 2012, he nearly died.
He's embarrassed about this too: in 2008, for a first-person article, he underwent a battery of medical tests. One of them showed he had polyps on his bowel, and a radiologist suggested he follow it up. Instead, he did nothing.
Four years later he suddenly lost a lot of weight and was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, "all because I couldn't be bothered doing the test". Luckily it was treatable. There were months of chemo, "and I cost the taxpayer a huge amount of money", but he's now healthy and expects to remain so.
He didn't exactly have a near-death epiphany – "It should make you appreciate your family and life and every day, but look, I'm a miserable prick and I'm just as miserable as I was before" – but it did make him think about some goals he's been putting off. Such as a book about the Bain case.
Because that's how this podcast began its life: from 2014 to 2016 van Beynen researched and wrote a 100,000 word manuscript that contained significant new research and told, for the first time, the entire Bain story. When a publishing deal fell through van Beynen thought it was destined for a bottom drawer, but Fairfax's South Island editor-in-chief Joanna Norris reckoned it might make a great podcast.
Van Beynen said yes, and the rest – including a horrifying realisation that podcasts are totally different from books, a 50,000-word trim, a total rewrite, many hours in a recording studio, battles with Bain's legal team over access to the courtroom audio from the trials, more edits and fresh interviews with sources – is history.
He wasn't a podcast listener before, but he's listened to many now, and reckons this one's pretty good. He doesn't want to give too much away, but there's some fascinating new material from the diaries of Bain's mother Margaret and new interviews from people who knew David well.
The podcast is totally different from the book it was based on, says van Beynen, but the purpose remains the same: to set the record straight.
"This is New Zealand's most talked-about case, maybe its most sensational case and yet I'm not sure that people really understand what the facts are. That was one of the reasons – to make sure there was a balanced account out there somewhere."
- Your Weekend