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Michael Chamberlain and me

Michael Chamberlain was destined to live a wholesome life, promoting God and healthy living, using radio and local newspapers to spread his religious message. The lovely Lindy Murchison was happy to be a pastor's wife. And how it could all have continued! But for a momentary lapse at Uluru on that fateful Sunday night on August 17,1980, when for a moment the tent was unzipped.

It had only been intended as a three-day stop at the Rock, where Lindy had been as a teenager, then it was off to Darwin. But the intrusion of the dingo left them stunned.

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When I met the couple in Alice Springs in December that year, at the beginning of the first coroner's inquest, Michael was still stunned, thrust so far out of his comfort zone he might as well have been stranded on Mars. Like every other reporter, I tried to get close to the couple. When they found I was a churchgoer, to wit an Anglican, they thought here might be someone they could trust.

The first inquest result, putting the dingo squarely in the frame, caused no problems. But when the case was reinvestigated in September 1981, fuelled by what turned out to be hopelessly flawed scientific evidence, there were plenty.

My confidence in the Chamberlains was shaken by evidence that baby's blood had been found in the car and other items. On Wednesday morning that week Michael invited me to go jogging along the Todd River with him, his brother, Peter and a friend. Jogging along in the early morning, Alice Springs still asleep, I saw this hapless man ahead and thought he might perhaps just keep on jogging. But he stopped and returned to face the turmoil.

I thought: "This man cannot be guilty!"


The jog was meant to have been off-record, and for two days I wrote nothing, then succumbed to temptation and wrote it up. I thought he might not notice but it was front page Herald, Saturday morning, with a byline. Michael's faith in me was shaken. After the inquest finished, and he and his wife were committed for trial, he took me to task at a meeting in Cooranbong. Lindy was not taking sides.

Then I mentioned that in London a couple of years before I had spoken to a prominent Anglican theologian, the Reverend John Stott, in London. Michael jumped up and said: "Oh, I have just been reading him!" He jumped up to get the book, and Lindy said: "We knew there was something different about you!"

At the trial in September-October 1982 I sat behind them, suffered with them. When the jury came back with their guilty verdicts, I called after the parting jurors, questioning their paternity, a rash act that could have had me cited for contempt. Appeals came and went to the Federal and High Courts, and the couple remained convicted.

The NT Attorneys-General and Solicitor-General, backed by government kept on saying that if everyone shut up, Lindy would be pardoned and released. I don't think any of the boffins enjoyed this. They were husbands and fathers as well. But people did not shut up, and the NT government hardened its stand, refusing to let public clamour override the result of judicial proceedings.

I interviewed the chief minister in late 1985. His press secretary said that every bit of stirring that came from the south meant that Lindy was "in for another six months". The chief minister concurred and my heart sank. I fell into a profound depression and wrote to Michael in January, 1986 suggesting he focus first on getting Lindy out, then worrying about exoneration. It was a false move on my part, stepping across the line and giving advice to a party, and I got justifiably short shrift from Michael.

A few weeks later, Azaria's matinee jacket was discovered and the NT government released Lindy and ordered an inquiry.

Michael and I had a falling-out after his response to my letter but that was patched up. The royal commission started under Justice Trevor Morling. In Darwin I was woken in my motel room early one morning by a gentleman who said he was the manager needing my TV set for another room, and I let him take it. He happened to be a conman and thief, and when it all came out, everyone had a field day. The story went all round Darwin, delighting among others Ian Barker QC, representing the Crown.

The NT Police ensured that the news went all over Australia and Lindy, so long being the subject of my judgement, castigated me for being such a chump and announced she was going to put that into her book (which she did). On that occasion, I found, Michael was not taking sides.

Michael's marriage came under terrible strain because of the case and in 1990 it was creaking badly. I got onto the story that divorce was in prospect and rang him. He gave me an edge of his tongue as I have never heard it before. "You think you are God, don't you!" he yelled. "Intruding into people's lives like that! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"

The couple divorced in June, 1991 and they both remarried. Michael went off with his new wife, Ingrid, to start afresh in Cooranbong and they had a daughter, Zahra. My wife, Ingeborg, and I had a picnic with them in the Lake Macquarie hinterland. Ingeborg and Ingrid had a lot in common, both having been born in Germany in 1954.

There were other coincidences. Two of my children, Grace, born June 11, 1982, and Douglas, born October 2, 1987, had birthdays exactly corresponding, if some years removed, with those of Azaria and of Michael's son, Aidan.

When compensation did come through for Michael and Lindy, after an agonising wait, Michael getting "a six-figure sum", he was secure and devoted himself to writing and academic work. I proof-read his book, Heart of Stone, published in 2012 and last year had him speak at the Rotary Club of Parramatta City, where I was president.

Michael spoke about the problems of full-time carers, which had taken his notice after Ingrid had been crippled by a stroke in 2011. I walked back with him to Parramatta station and he seemed at peace with the world, bitter about what had happened to him but not vindictive.

It came as a terrible shock on Monday this week when his lawyer, Stuart Tipple, texted me that Michael was gravely ill, having gone into a coma the previous night. Michael did not last the day, and with his passing I felt my world was somewhat lessened.