Is the media to blame?

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’ reporters.

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 the truth.

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 of time.

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 notimpartial.

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 guilty.

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.

Further Reading :

  • Media

    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. […]

  • Chequebook Journalism

    There has been much criticism about chequebook journalism from the media themselves, and others, so I think it deserves discussion. Simply put, most media worldwide is a ‘for profit’ business. Their owners, outside of small-town media outlets, are generally among the wealthier people in their community, in some cases the wealthiest in their entire country. […]

  • News Images

    This is an interesting picture which was broadcast widely across Australia. It is a good example of how we can be fooled by a headline. The court was visiting the campsite from which Azaria had been taken, and Lindy was sitting with others at the picnic table. One of the camera operators nearly tripped, and […]

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