Federal Politics


Lindy reminds us of media at its feral worst

ONE OF THE things which crucified Lindy Chamberlain, everyone agrees, was trial by media. Dr David Stephens was perfectly correct to chide me for neglecting to mention its role when, on Wednesday, I pointed out how all of the checks and balances of the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial sides of our justice system repeatedly failed the Chamberlains, and that the justice they had now belatedly received had come from outside the system.

I did not focus on the media's fascination with Lindy, because it did not seem particularly relevant to my argument. On reflection, perhaps it was. The case was news for years, and, as with such stories, some parts of the media could never get enough. Some journalists were feral, and many had no decency. It sometimes seemed as if everyone in Australia had a vehement view about it, and even many who were agnostic found themselves drawn into the speculation, the cruel jokes, the amateur ethology and psychology focused on how mothers behave after the sudden death of children, the natural behaviour of dingoes, and the strange supposed habits of Seventh Day Adventists.

It was not, of course, all one way. The Chamberlains had strong champions in the media. Two who immediately come to mind are Crispin Hull, editor of The Canberra Times during much of the 1980s, who pointed repeatedly to the weakness of the case put before the jury, and Malcolm Brown, of The Sydney Morning Herald, who was indefatigable in following almost every rabbit into every burrow. Brown, if measured and neutral in his style of reportage, left little doubt that he thought the Chamberlains innocent. As ever, however, even good coverage is suffocated by the bad. The lasting images are of the atrocities, whether in the tabloid press, women's magazines or infotainment current affairs programs, each of which regularly sliced up one or other of the Chamberlains - and sometimes their children - for amusement. One had only to see the pack in full cry to understand how sexist was the coverage and how primeval the mythology on which the story idea was based.

Lynch parties in full cry are rarely constrained by any decencies, but what gave each fresh atrocity its zest was the private assurances of Northern Territory politicians, lawyers and police that Lindy did it - a conviction many of those most involved in the miscarriage of justice have never recanted. There was never any good evidence for their belief - and there is no ''fact'' (sadly inadmissible but true nonetheless) ''proving'' guilt that did not come before the courts. The media treatment contributed to the cloud of prejudice that enveloped the jury.

The moral, for public officials, is from the message of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, to the synod of the Church of Scotland in 1650: ''I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.''