'Then Milly Dowler spoke to Britain from the grave.' Photo: Reuters
YET again a major public issue has taken a dramatic turn because of the tragic involvement of children. Last year it was Britain's phone hacking scandal, this year it is US gun laws. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed: "What greater pain could mortals have than to see their children dead before their eyes?"
Certainly, the passing of a child can transform the mood of the public and, sometimes, public policy. Remember the children overboard scandal? The John Howard-led Coalition introduced into the 2001 federal election campaign the emotionally charged issue of alleged attempts by asylum seekers to risk their children to attract attention. On the eve of the poll senior ministers produced photographs purporting to show children thrown overboard by fellow passengers on a refugee boat.
Though it was later exposed as a furphy by a Senate select committee of inquiry, the assessment of many was that the issue changed the course of the election, winning support for the Coalition's tough policy against asylum seekers and helping them to a third successive term in office.
Whether by accident or design, senior Liberals had tapped into public sentiment that says crimes against children or youth deserve our greatest condemnation. Nothing unites humanity quite as much.
In most issues or incidents involving adults, no one is entirely guilty or guilt-free. We ascribe blame according to our prejudices and beliefs. This means that even in the most black-and-white cases, there is some degree of culpability on both sides. But it's not the case with kids. We accept their innocence totally. Then our protective instincts kick in.
Victorian Clare Oliver was a teenager when she started using the sunbeds that she believed caused the melanoma that eventually killed her at 26. Just days before her death five years ago she wrote: "If I could go back and talk to myself when I was 19 I would tell that girl not to use a solarium." It was highly charged stuff that led to public outcry and decisions by both state and federal governments to limit the operation of sunbeds.
Last month, Victoria banned them, effective 2015. Would Oliver's death have had the same effect had she been, say, 56? I doubt it.
In Britain, dogged reporting by The Guardian of phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World was in danger of stalling because of a lack of public interest, even though the paper turned up hard evidence of the hacking of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family.
Why wasn't the issue getting traction? Some believed it was because the public thought the invasions of privacy were a small price such people paid for the gilt-edged lifestyles they enjoyed. Then Milly Dowler spoke to Britain from the grave. She was just 13 when she was abducted on her way home from school in March, 2002. Her body was found six months later, but it was not until 2011 that a man was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
A month after his jailing, The Guardian reported that during the hunt for the killer, private investigators hired by the News of the World had not only got at her voicemail, but even erased some messages, giving false hope to investigators and the girl's grief-stricken family.
Such was the public outcry that a story that had ticked over almost soundlessly for several years, suddenly became an issue of public outrage.
It led to the closure of the News of the World, inflicted great damage on the reputation and profits of the Murdoch empire and may yet see a media regulator able to guard against such excesses in the future.
Now, of course, America is finally grappling with the appalling toll of its ludicrously lax gun laws. But it took the massacre of 20 innocents to bring them to this point. Six adult staff members also died in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, but, sadly, if they had been the only victims of the shootings on December 14, America would barely have blinked and the world would not have noticed.
But because of the murders of those 20 children, the US is having the sort of searching debate it should have had decades ago, and there is now a real chance of a ban on automatic weapons. Hopefully, out of the horror, America will finally shake itself out of its torpor on this issue.
Milly Dowler and the children of Newtown, Connecticut, have again demonstrated that the shortest route to the human heart is through the loss of children. And that once you make people feel, you stand a better chance of making them think. And then act.
Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age and Sunday Age.