We have had the privilege of meeting some of the most wonderful people through
all of this. But, in the minds of the public at least, the more balanced reporting
just was not always as visible. The more sensational is what sticks in our minds,
so that is what we need to deal with here.
Is the media to blame for Lindy being found guilty, spending nearly
three years in prison, and struggling eight years to prove her innocence? The
short answer is 'no'. Let me say very clearly, right at the beginning - the
'media' is made up of people that, like the public at large, are a mixture of
the good, the bad, and the 'just go alongs.'
It is individuals that made every decision along the way. There
is unquestionably bias in reporting, but it is usually 'our kind of bias', which
is a reflection of the public at large. With some media it is like being in
a 'club'; you have to have the right behaviour, viewpoint, or bias, to get in.
For example, a reporter who wishes to work the police or government beat regularly
will find it difficult or impossible to get interviews with those people unless
they report in the way that the police or government wants them to report. We
all want to see our friends win, and the media can have a strong influence on
attitude toward the police or government as well. It does not mean the police
or government are in complete control of the media people they work with, but
there is very likely to be a very strong link there.
Lindy did not expect, nor should she have, any support from
the media for her personally. The attitude of the media in general towards Lindy
changed many times, as they reversed their reporting in order to keep people's
interest and keep selling papers / magazines / TV adverts. The availability
of information to report also changed daily. The Northern Territory government
usually had something new for the reporters, but the Chamberlains were busy
trying to defend themselves, and only released new information during actual
court cases. The Chamberlains were in a difficult position though; the 'news'
from the NT was about bloody handprints, slit throats, and arterial blood spray
under the car dashboard. All of this salacious information was coming out in
the media without the defence being notified, or even shown it at all. It is
not a selling headline to say, 'no, it is not true.' Throughout the case, some
reporters attitudes never changed - some were always against the Chamberlains,
some always remained open-minded, and some always thought she was innocent.
So, initially the general media was 'for' the Chamberlains. But
within about three weeks, in response to rumours started by members of some
media and some government agencies, the media began to go against the Chamberlains,
as the reporting of rumours started. The rumours turned out to be false, but
by then the damage had been done in influencing public thought. Then, after
the first inquest which found the Chamberlains innocent, the media reporting
again was 'for' the Chamberlains. At the reopening of the inquest and to the
trial they switched again to be 'against', and then, following the trial verdict
and Lindy's sentence of life imprisonment, they switched to be more 'for' the
Chamberlains. At the Royal Commission, the reporting was 50/50 'for' and 'against',
and after the Royal Commission finding, the media was once again 'for' the Chamberlains.
This 'swinging' is sometimes a natural human thing, but often
it is a way, at the higher levels, to keep a story 'alive' and the public interested
in it, therefore assuring more sales. It is a form of serialisation which keeps
the reader interested in what will happen next. Sometimes we have seen headline
rumours that are supposed to 'hook' a person into viewing the programme or buying
the magazine / newspaper, and then, when you read the article, it basically
says that it was a rumour they heard, and could not confirm. But the headline
sold the story. Reporters employed specifically to do this are called 'swing'
This sort of 'revving up' the headlines can only be related to
sales, as it certainly is not needed to help report real news. In early 2006
we saw a national newspaper change editors, and the headlines become more 'racy'
or controversial. Circulation is reportedly up, and one can only assume that
is what the new editor was brought in to do. Don't cast the blame on the editor,
or newspaper owner though - it is us, the public, who is buying the paper, and
rewarding the editor for his headline choices.
Everyone has a viewpoint, and if you have ever talked with someone
who saw something happen that was later report in the media, they will tell
you that it was not very much like what they said at all. Mass media does not
have the time, or inclination, to really dig deeply and get the full story.
They tend to seize on the short, easy to read / view bits, and keep them going,
until the next exciting thing comes along. Usually, court and daily news reporters
fall into this category.
That is not to say that all media take the shortcut easy way.
There are very good, balanced, and insightful media reports, but they are the
ones that generally don't make it to the front pages, or on the current events
shows. Those formats just don't do those types of stories - they take a lot
more time and money overall. Perhaps it says more about us, preferring the sensational,
than it does about the media.
A film about the case was made for television during the time
Lindy was in prison. It portrayed the Crown prosecution case, with Lindy sitting
in the front seat of the car, cutting her baby's throat. (That film is still
around, though not in Australia I believe - as it is now libellous.) It reinforced
the viewpoint of many that the Crown had achieved justice in this case.
On the other hand, Kevin Hitchcock, a well-known and respected
10 Network television newsman at the time, made an excellent documentary that
showed the other evidence available, and was critical in influencing the tide
of public opinion to swing in favour of the Chamberlains. The way he came to
make the documentary is quite remarkable.
After the trial verdict, he became incensed at the Chamberlains
continually claiming they were not guilty. He knew that there was still a large
group of the public who felt she might be innocent. Knowing also that the criminal
trial had been difficult to understand, and used standards of evidence unfamiliar
to the general public as well as 'tactical' behaviour, he decided to investigate
the entire story himself. He would not be bound by court rules, politics, or
lawyers. He would use his own common sense, find the final truth, and expose
the Chamberlains for the liars that he believed them to be.
To his great credit, he went with an open mind. Though he was
convinced of the Chamberlains' guilt, he went looking for the truth. He interviewed
all of the rangers and eyewitnesses, including the Aboriginal people who had
tracked on the night. He was so impressed with their abilities, and their staunch
support of the dingo attack that the Chamberlains told of - even though not
one of them had had any connection with the Chamberlains before that Sunday
that Azaria died. As he looked further into the evidence he realised that a
great miscarriage of justice had occurred. He convinced his superiors at the
television station of his findings, and his documentary, Azaria: A Question
of Evidence was broadcast - and on the same network which had broadcast
the docudrama depicting the Crown case against the Chamberlains - giving equal
time for the opposing scenario!
The media is a powerful institution, and can be used to make society
better, or, if society demands it, to feed their cravings for sensation. The
previous two examples show both ends of that spectrum, I believe. We have been
talking about the mainstream media as a whole, as I believe that the 'scandal'
media (usually newspapers) appeals to a smaller group of people, and is generally
seen for what it really is. It usually only has a passing acquaintance with
We have been told that during much of the 1980s and early 1990s
that just putting the name 'Lindy' on the cover or front page fairly guaranteed
sales increases of 20% to 50%; some magazines even had to double their print
run, making a several million dollar windfall for them. In some cases reporters
apologised to Lindy about the headlines on some of their articles, saying that
the editor, or, in the case of one newspaper group, the owner, had come through
and dictated the headline to make it more sensational. It is the 'hook' that
makes us curious enough to watch the programme, or buy the paper or magazine.
Such attitudes can be so prevalent among some editors that
we were told not to worry about what was in Lindy's book, or be concerned about
proper formatting. Indeed, we were told that a good cover of words and pictures
would be all that was necessary to sell it, and its content was basically irrelevant,
since the average shelf life of a new book is six weeks. Because Lindy's goal
was to have an excellent book - which all the feedback and thousands of letters
have said it is - she made sure that what is in the book is even better than
the cover. Apparently those interested only in sales would think that a waste
We have also seen instances where a television interview was broadcast
which was edited in such a way as to cause the public to be misled. In one case,
Lindy told the programme host exactly why the information they had was wrong.
Apparently they needed the boost in ratings that the show was getting from broadcasting
the incorrect information, so the bulk of Lindy's interview was cut from the
programme. That way they managed to keep the story alive for a few more weeks,
though Lindy will not do any more interviews with that programme host.
In another instance, because Lindy would not give the answer
they wanted, they cut the answer to another question and added it to the one
they wanted, so that it appeared that Lindy was answering the question they
wanted, and in the way they wanted her to. Sadly, we have even experienced a
situation where a story was put out, supposedly quoting Lindy, the seeming intent
of which was to get Lindy sued. Once private information is used to defend oneself
in court it becomes public domain. Then the media has something else to report
on! Fortunately, the type of behaviour mentioned in the last few paragraphs
is practiced by the minority. Unfortunately, they are a visible minority who
get a lot of attention and are sometimes widely reported.
When something so horrible, so outside our normal range of understanding
happens, we often do not know what to think, how to think, and what response
to have. It is a known, and well studied phenomenon that, in absence of knowledge,
we will accept the first seemingly plausible (and sometimes not so plausible!)
explanation. From that point on, we will subconsciously, and continually, interpret
all further information to agree with our first conclusion. Perhaps that is
why some of the rumours persist so strongly.
The Northern Territory government, and the Crown, was not sharing
their information and evidence with the Chamberlain's defence, which is normally
required by law to be done. The Chamberlains and their defence team were often
forced to find out from the media what the prosecution or government was planning,
as the prosecution would tell the media their side, without informing the Chamberlains
- even to the daily witness lists for court. From a tactical standpoint in terms
of winning the minds of the public, it was brilliant. But as you will see elsewhere
on this site, that did not go both ways. If the media published the Crown's
position and the public was influenced to believe untruths, well, that was alright.
But, if the public and the media pushed for Lindy's release, well, that only
made the Northern Territory government more determined to keep her in jail.
It also meant that by the time the truth was unearthed, and Lindy had proven
herself innocent of yet another untruth, the public and the media had already
moved on and it was stale news, and therefore ignored or subject to minor news.
The media certainly influenced how the public saw Lindy. Note
how the headlines match the photo of Lindy that they use. There are so many
photos of Lindy that they could always find the one where her face matched the
headline the editor had chosen. Of course, one way to get the photo to match
the headline is to take the photo from a television frame. If you slow down
the video you will see a person's face go through many changes, as they speak
or change facial expressions. If you capture them mid-blink or in the middle
of an expression change, they can appear quite strange.
Where the media may have had some influence on the outcome
of the case is when the jurors read reports in the daily paper which were supposed
to explain to the public what the experts had said in court that day. It has
been reported that jurors found quite a bit of the evidence very difficult to
understand, and read the 'translation' provided in the local newspaper to help
them out. This 'translation' was heavily assisted by the local NT and Crown
attitudes, and was not impartial.
The trial judge, Mr Justice Muirhead, did tell a friend after
the trial that he had "underestimated the power of the media". That
may not mean the media caused Lindy to be found guilty. It may only mean that
the Northern Territory government used it to promote their own view so well
that the jurors knew what they "had to do". And that the jury had
turned to the media to help them understand their job.
The point we must all remember, if for no one more than ourselves,
is that we must continually do a 'reality check'; read and view always with
the question of 'What is not being said? What is just below the surface? Could
this have happened any other way than what is said?' It may take more work,
but if you ever find yourself in a situation remotely like Lindy's you will
hope everyone will do it that way. If the media reports on this website, ask
yourself, did they report it the way you think you might have?
The NT government used the media to push their agenda to their
own voters, and to the country as a whole. But all they were really concerned
about was success with their own voters. It was a good relationship - it helped
the media sell their product to us, the public, and helped the NT push their
agenda. That can be a two-edged sword though, as the media as a whole swung
against the NT after the verdict. The NT used the media to get their view across,
but when Kevin Hitchcock showed his television programme highlighting the flaws
in the case and showing that Lindy - and the eyewitnesses - were telling the
truth, the greater public began to press the NT for a review. At one point the
Northern Territory was getting sixty letters per day from the public about Lindy.
They had to hire someone just to deal with those letters, whom they called 'The
Lindy Lady'. The NT leaders asked Lindy to stop her supporters from writing,
as they were causing the government too much hassle. Lindy replied that they
already knew how to stop the letters - release her! One could say then that
the media was responsible for getting Lindy released. Certainly, when the matinee
jacket - which the Crown had claimed was a 'fanciful lie' - was found, and nothing
appeared to be happening, it was an individual in the media who forced the NT
to release her.
The jacket was at the Alice Springs courthouse on a Friday,
and someone there was afraid it would just disappear. They rang a trustworthy
journalist, who gave up the biggest scoop of his career, and rang the Chamberlain's
lawyers. They in turn organised a press conference for Monday morning, in which
they demanded the NT admit they had the jacket, and to allow Lindy to look at
it, to identify whether it was Azaria's or not. But still, the NT appeared to
have no intention of releasing Lindy. Less than three months earlier they had
released a report twisting the facts, and denying that there was any new evidence
that the guilty verdict might be wrong, even though it had now been proven that
the blood evidence was totally mishandled, and therefore suspect.
It was left to a reporter to force the issue. That reporter
had always accepted that he was being told the truth by the NT government. Then
he found irrefutable proof that he had been lied to and threatened to expose
the government for their lies. He took them the article he planned to print
that day. At the point the presses were to roll, he received a phone call from
the Chief Minister himself, saying that they had an even bigger story for him
- Lindy was being released, and an inquiry mounted. Some of the people who were
in government at that time apparently still believe to this day that Lindy is
But, they are not scientists, and they have been very willing
to say that all of the eyewitnesses on the night Azaria disappeared 'are, at
the worst, scurrilous liars, and at the very best, misguided fools.' Were it
not for the influence of press widely reporting rumour and innuendo, and of
the first coroner choosing to broadcast his findings nationwide, and offending
some influential people, it is possible that the Chamberlains might never have
had to face trial. But since they did, it is even more probable that Lindy would
still be in prison had not the press informed the public, who then put pressure
on the government. Having that type of influence is a heavy responsibility.
Some members of the press take it seriously. Others use it for their own ends.
At the end of the day, the media was not responsible for Lindy
being found guilty. The blame must be laid squarely at the feet of those individuals
in the Northern Territory who were blind - and some choose to remain so - to
the truth. Lindy might not be the person you would like to be best friends with,
you may even think some of her behaviour, as viewed through the narrow focus
of a still photograph, or edited television broadcast, to be strange - in other
words, not what you think you might have done in similar circumstances. But
none of us really know how we would react in such an overwhelming tragedy. You
have to look at the whole picture, not make up your mind on small snippets.
I expect you would find something not to like about yourself if it was presented
in small snippets on television too.
Whether the media is good or bad is dependent only on how it is
used. And that is up to all of us.