During my career as a news agency journalist I had the great misfortune to cover the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain from a campground at Ayers Rock in August, 1980. I also covered both of the Alice Springs coronial inquests into her disappearance and the subsequent murder trial of her mother, Lindy, and father, Michael. The events surrounding Azaria's disappearance, and what followed, are seared into my memory.
I always believed the first coronial inquest nailed what actually happened. Coroner Denis "Dinny" Barritt, an eccentric former Victorian detective, who died a few years ago, found a dingo had taken the baby. He also found there had been human intervention in the disposal of her body. Some readers may recall seeing him deliver his finding live on national television.
Two years later a heavily pregnant Lindy was led weeping from the dock of the NT Supreme Court in Darwin after a jury had found her guilty of murdering her nine-week-old baby. She had been condemned to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment in Darwin's Berrimah Jail.
The air in the special video viewing room, set up for the huge media contingent, was electric as the verdict was delivered. I'll never forget opening a phone line to Sydney minutes before the verdict was due to be given. It was left open so I could relay it "live" from Darwin to the Sydney news desk. As the jury foreman announced the guilty verdict I repeated his words down the line. The senior editor at the other end, who had closely monitored our verbatim coverage of the trial, queried the guilty call. I repeated the verdict over and over for what seemed an agitated age as he testily questioned my hearing. The verdict was finally flashed to newsrooms around the world but the disbelief of the editor to accept the verdict stuck fast in my brain.
I understood his disbelief. The Chamberlains were convicted by decidedly dodgy forensic evidence against a welter of clear eyewitness evidence against the dingo from a bunch of tourists and a number of Aboriginal trackers led by an old man, Nipper Winmatti. The jury was also swayed by a masterful prosecution led by Ian Barker, QC and a pre-trial tabloid media smear campaign.
I well remember a string of front page stories in the yellow press in Sydney which claimed, wrongly, that the name Azaria meant sacrifice in the wilderness and that a child-sized coffin had been found in the Chamberlain's home in Mount Isa more than 18 months after the baby disappeared. It was clearly implied this was to be Azaria's final resting place. It was, in fact, a standard Seventh Day Adventist prop used in church-sanctioned quit smoking classes.
The coverage of the Chamberlain case in Darwin's sole daily newspaper mirrored the yellow press down south. As the only correspondent in the Northern Territory for a national news agency I found myself having to "match" much of it. Most of this coverage centred on the fate of Lindy Chamberlain in Darwin's Berrimah Prison and the subsequent birth of her child Kahlia. I approached the job with professional zeal but mounting personal unease. One story caused me a number of sleepless nights. A "leak" from the then Northern Territory government that the Chamberlains were seeking to have Kahlia adopted out. I duly reported it. It later proved to be grossly untrue. Michael Chamberlain later told me it caused the family enormous grief.
I had the great fortune shortly after the trial to go to work for the then Northern Territory Opposition leader, Bob Collins. We often discussed the trial and the public mood in Darwin. The media-fuelled hatred directed at her was such that many people openly advocated the death penalty. I had friends who told me she should be hanged. I discussed my misgivings about the verdict with Bob. I went through the casting aside of strong eyewitness evidence which supported the Chamberlain's claim a dingo had taken the baby and growing questions about the "expert" forensic evidence which claimed quantities of baby blood had been found in the Chamberlain's car after it had been impounded from under their house more than 18 months after Lindy had allegedly cut Azaria's throat in the front seat. I believed a Judicial Commission of Inquiry ought to be established. He asked me to provide him with the material raising concerns about the forensic evidence, particularly questions on the so-called 'baby blood evidence'.
I did so and found him in his office the day after with paper scattered all around his desk. He had been up all night consuming the welter of scientific documentation. He was convinced, he said, that he should use his position to call for a judicial commission of inquiry despite the anticipated negative political fallout.
I left to compose a media statement as he informed the rest of the staff. A number of them, who later rose to national prominence in the ALP, told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was about to commit political suicide. He ignored them. He was convinced it was a just cause. He was prepared to put principle ahead of the political cost. The public issuance of that media statement was an act of great political courage.
His decision to champion the cause of the Chamberlains caused a sensation in the Territory ... and the rest, as they say, is history. Lindy Chamberlain, now pardoned and remarried, would later say in her autobiography that she would still be languishing in Darwin's Berrimah Jail if it were not for Collins' public and parliamentary intervention.
His campaign to free Lindy did ultimately cost Collins his parliamentary leadership. It also created many powerful enemies, including some in a Northern Territory Police force later found by a Royal Commission to be disgracefully inept in their pursuit of the Chamberlains. I figured my small part in his decision to launch the campaign helped me square up with the Chamberlains.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
9 posts so far.