Border Mail Column Wednesday, June 13, 2012
I have just watched the handing down of the finding by Coroner Elizabeth Morris that on August 17, 1980, a dingo took nine-week old Azaria Chamberlain from her family’s tent at a camping ground at the base of Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock.
Ms Morris expressed her sympathy to the family for their “special and loved daughter and sister. We are so sorry for your loss”.
In a short media conference outside the court, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton apologised for her emotion.
“I wasn’t going to cry, but I think Aiden started me off.”
Thirty-two years ago, it was her apparent lack of emotion and the family’s religion that was in the glare of the public spotlight; a spotlight with intensity we had not before witnessed in Australia.
In the eyes of many, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton committed a dreadful sin for a mother: she did not cry in public and to make matters worse, the Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventist, a denomination outside of the “accepted” Anglican, Roman Catholic or recently formed Uniting Church.
“Trial by media” was a little used term, but Azaria’s disappearance and her mother’s subsequent imprisonment for the alleged crime, cemented the concept in the Australian psyche.
At the time of Azaria’s disappearance, I was a cadet journalist in the newsroom of WIN 4 in Wollongong and remember the news coming in on the telex.
Opinion in the newsroom was divided: the women believed the Chamberlain’s account of what had happened, but the men were sceptical.
Two years later in the newsroom of the Warragul Gazette as the trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain for the murder of their daughter began, there was the same division along gender lines, but outside of the newsroom, men and women had already found the couple guilty.
There were no online polls, blogs, Twitter or Facebook at the time but the afternoon tabloids, news services and evening current affairs programs covered the trial and its outcome extensively.
New evidence after Lindy Chamberlain’s imprisonment failed to convince the Federal and High Courts that her conviction should be set aside, but the discovery in January 1986 of the matinee jacket she had always maintained Azaria was wearing ,led to her release from Berrimah jail.
It is almost 24 years since the Northern Territory Court of Appeals quashed all convictions against the Chamberlains, and today’s finding will see Azaria’s cause of death recorded as the result of having been attacked and taken by a dingo.
For many of us who remember the coverage and the way the Chamberlains were treated by the media and the public, (although Michael Chamberlain today thanked some sections of the media), their demeanour today outside the coroner’s court provides a lesson in courage and perseverance.
However, I wonder how the Chamberlains would fare if the same events were to happen today.
A citizen journalist might capture a shot of the dingo taking baby Azaria, and forensics have advanced in the past 30 years so the scenario may have been very different.
However, when it comes to the possibility of a mother harming or even killing her child, it appears our thirst for the sensational has not waned.
Just two years ago, Shepparton mother, Vanessa Robinson bore the brunt of media and public speculation that she had killed her sons aged seven and nine.
Initially taken into custody and questioned, she was ruled out as a suspect four days later when the gas heater in the house was found to be faulty.
But, according to her father, her trial by Facebook can never be overturned.