Chamberlain case: the story of a lifetime

Malcolm Brown, of The Sydney Morning Herald, has covered the Chamberlain case since Azaria disappeared in 1980, culminating in the ultimate coronial inquiry in Darwin last June which established the baby was, in fact, taken by a dingo. The intervening years did not show the media in a good light.

Brown files copy

Fairfax journalist Malcolm Brown filing his copy on the conclusion of a story he has been covering for almost 30 years after the Northern Territory coroner ruled that Azaria Chamberlain was taken by a dingo at Uluru in 1982. PHOTO: Glenn Campbell, Fairfax Media

The persecution of Michael and Lindy Chamberlain started early. Doubts were spreading like wildfire about the circumstances in which baby Azaria had disappeared in August, 1980. That gossip and innuendo quickly infected the media.

When I contacted the Chamberlains for the first time, Lindy in Mt Isa told me harassment of the couple had started. Denis Barritt, the first coroner, was so concerned that in February 1981 he went on television to try to scotch the rumours. But he simply stirred things up.

When the inquiry into the case was resumed later in 1981, virtually everything was being leaked to the media. UK pathologist James Cameron’s view that the baby’s throat had been cut and she might even have been decapitated found its way onto Channel 7 News, his supposed finding of a bloodied handprint on the baby’s jumpsuit was aired on Melbourne television.

I went to the Chamberlains’ home town of Cooranbong with instructions to get an interview and found the media virtually camped there, outside the Avondale College grounds. I do not hold myself up as an example of exemplary behaviour, but I was appalled by that.

Michael Chamberlain later told me that a reporter from the Sydney Sun fabricated an entire interview with him. Back at the office, I rang the NT News, where a reporter told me that according to the NT police, there was a ‘‘12 minute window’’ in the reconstruction of events when Lindy could have slipped away and done the deed.

When the second inquest began, the Chamberlains turned to me for sympathy. Michael invited me to go jogging with him – apparently the ultimate social compliment from fitness-conscious Seventh-day Adventists.Sydney Sun photographer Russell McPhedran, who got on well with the Chamberlains, asked whether he could take a photo when we went out next morning. I said yes, but be discreet. He was not. He was standing there 17 feet high. Michael was unimpressed but I persuaded him to keep going. Then, in his words, I ‘‘did the dirty’’ on him by writing up the jog.

“Some journalists raising questions received indirect threats from some NT police. Rivalries and enmities sometimes intensified, although several of the media changed their view of the Chamberlains”

Michael Chamberlain, Lindy Chamberlain

Michael and Lindy Chamberlain in Darwin at the height of the judicial proceedings

It was a battle getting copy back. The Northern Territory was 90 minutes behind the eastern states, so 6pm there was 7.30 pm Sydney time. There were no mobile phones or computers, so everything had to be dictated to copytakers, which worked well enough. Except that some copytakers cut in with questions like: ‘‘Did she do it? Did she do it?’’ I was listing the number of physical items mentioned in evidence, like ‘‘tents, torches, pegs, water bottles …’’, all of which the copytaker took down, but her version was ‘‘tents, tortures ….’’

In the trial, September-October 1982, the Chamberlains had already been convicted in the public eye. The media were in a special room. Ian Barker, QC, Crown prosecutor and a skilled advocate, jokingly addressed them by intercom: ‘‘Attention media, this is your captain speaking!’’ He was far more relaxed with the media than defence counsel John Phillips, QC, and that might have influenced the reporting. I broke away, stayed in another motel, and sat throughout the trial in the courtroom.

There was plenty of journalistic camaraderie, and a bit of fun. Journalist Sean Flannery was picked up by the police riding down an Alice Springs mall in the early hours of the morning, full as a goog, singing ‘‘Onward Christian Soldiers’’. A couple of journalists, similarly tanked, went dancing starkers in the desert in the early morning hours at Ayers Rock.

But there was also skullduggery. One reporter made an offer to the police – currying favour with them – to get some specific information from the defence camp. That got back to the defence and the reporter walked into a trap of his own making.

When the Chamberlains were convicted, almost all the media attended a beery celebration with the Crown and police. I did not. I went out to Berrimah Gaol to see Lindy. I expected her to be devastated and crying. She was not. She came out laughing. So that was what I reported, much to the chagrin of defence lawyer Stuart Tipple and the Chamberlains’ counsel. ‘‘Well I’m sorry,’’ I said. ‘‘That was how it was.’’

Brown and Chamberlain

Malcolm Brown (right) with Michael Chamberlain at his mountain retreat near Cooranbong, NSW

During the long process of the failed Federal and High Court appeals, and the campaign for the royal commission, there was much bickering and politicking. Some journalists raising questions received indirect threats from some NT police. Rivalries and enmities sometimes intensified, although several of the media changed their view of the Chamberlains. I noticed that of the two Sydney tabloids that exploited the sensationalism of the case, the Sydney Sun and Mirror, it was only the Sun that bothered covering the proceedings of the Morling Royal Commission in any proper manner. The Mirror, having gone for broke with the early coverage, simply dumped them. But in the end, in June 2012, when the culpability of the dingo was set in stone, those who had stuck by the Chamberlains, or been latterly converted to the innocence camp, were still around, and those who had condemned them were nowhere to be seen.

Malcolm Brown started his journalism on the Dubbo Daily Liberal in 1969, and following National Service joined The Sydney Morning Herald in 1972. He has served in Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle, London and Fiji, covering general news, police rounds, and justice. He has covered four coups in Fiji and the Gulf War, but counts the Azaria Chamberlain case as his ‘‘career story’’.

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