It’s been 40 years since Lindy Chamberlain told the world a dingo stole her baby. A new documentary unpicks the grotesque perversion of justice she faced.
It’s been 40 years since Lindy Chamberlain told the world a dingo stole her baby. A new documentary unpicks the grotesque perversion of justice she faced.

Unpicking the lingering bigotry against the Chamberlains

Half an hour before a dingo snatched baby Azaria Chamberlain from her parents' tent, the same dangerously tame animal or its mate nosed around a campervan next to the Chamberlains' camping spot, looking for food.

Murray Haby saw the yellow dog watching him, and took photographs of it that he has kept for four decades. Like other potentially vital evidence, those pictures were never let into any of the many court proceedings that turned the Chamberlains' personal nightmare into a public hell over 32 years.

Haby's calm account and photographs are aired in a new documentary on the Seven network on Sunday, marking the 40th anniversary of the cold August night Lindy Chamberlain screamed words that would enter popular culture: "A dingo's got my baby!"

Those camped next to the Chamberlains near Uluru that night had no doubt a dingo took the tiny girl, nine weeks old. People such as Sally Lowe, also a young mother, who heard Azaria cry out (when the dingo grabbed her) and alerted Lindy.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain enter the Supreme Court in Darwin in 1982.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain enter the Supreme Court in Darwin in 1982.

If police had listened to Haby and Lowe, and others, and treated them as honest witnesses rather than an inconvenient obstacle to a bogus murder theory, the Chamberlains' tragedy would not have been twisted into state-sanctioned persecution.

That's also true of the ranger who'd warned his superiors of the danger of dingo attacks. Then there's the expert aboriginal tracker who trailed a dingo hours later, pointing out where it had put the baby down in the sand on its way back to its den.

But those who knew the facts weren't listened to, or deliberately avoided or intimidated, while cherry-picked "scientific" witnesses who didn't know were paraded as experts.

And so, on top of their tragedy, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain copped hatred and monstrous injustice in a shameful legal lynching. That includes tame reporters who swallowed cynical police leaks against the Chamberlains, to the disgust of a few.

 

UNPICKING THE CASE AGAINST THE CHAMBERLAINS

Now, television journalist Denham Hitchcock has made a compelling and moving documentary that relentlessly unpicks the case that caused lingering bigotry against the Chamberlains long after it was exposed for what it was: part stuff-up, part stitch-up, part Salem witch trial.

Lindy Chamberlain holding baby Azaria on Ayers Rock.
Lindy Chamberlain holding baby Azaria on Ayers Rock.

Surprisingly, given the huge past exposure, Hitchcock uncovers footage and facts and interviews not aired before. He links them with a pungent, pithy rundown of a story most Australians think they know, but few really do.

The documentary, The Lindy Tapes, pays homage to Hitchcock's father, Kevin, who in 1984 made a brave documentary, Azaria: A Question of Evidence, that helped shift the mindless public opinion against the Chamberlains in the 1980s.

In revisiting the subject he grew up with, Hitchcock junior underlines that the Chamberlains were victims of a grotesque perversion of justice that saw Lindy, Azaria and "the dingo" literally become jokes world-wide, in everything from The Simpsons to Seinfeld to stand-up comedy routines and tee-shirt slogans.

The case is held up as a rolled gold example of trial-by-media. It is. But that should not obscure who caused it - or how and why.

Hitchcock's powerful summary might encourage other police, politicians and lawyers (and the media) not to repeat the same mistakes.

 

 

DINGO DANGER EVIDENT TO EXPERT

The good guys should be listed, too. Only weeks before Azaria was taken, the head ranger of then Ayers Rock park, Derek Roff, complained to head office that increasingly bold dingoes were a danger to children.

Roff, disciplined and diligent, followed the chain of command, requesting high-powered ammunition to cull rogue animals rather than take matters quietly into his own hands.

Aboriginal tracker Nipper Winmatti gave evidence at the judicial inquiry into the death of baby Azaria Chamberlain.
Aboriginal tracker Nipper Winmatti gave evidence at the judicial inquiry into the death of baby Azaria Chamberlain.

But the Darwin-based committee in charge of parks refused permission to cull dingoes. Influencing that committee were powerful figures in the Territory's newly independent Government. One was Chief Minister Paul Everingham. Equally influential, maybe, was the Territory's first Solicitor-General, brilliant barrister Ian Barker QC, soon to reappear as ace prosecutor in the Chamberlain trial.

No sooner had Darwin blocked a dingo cull than a dingo killed a baby: apart from bad publicity for tourism, this was potentially a huge legal liability for a preventable death.

Maybe that's why a rather senior group of police were sent. Would four detectives up to inspector rank attend every fatal croc attack or accidental shooting? Maybe it was just dumb luck that a noisy Keystone Cop, a Sgt John Lincoln, made a spectacularly wrong assertion that would poison public opinion.

The inspector present at first accepted the straightforward story from the campers that a dingo took Azaria. But Lincoln scoffed at the dingo story, claiming such a thing had "never happened" before. When the inspector cited recent dingo attacks on children, Lincoln insisted a dog couldn't carry a "10-pound" baby over distance.

To push his point, he held a bucket of sand weighing 10 pounds (4.5kg) in his mouth for less than a minute - then challenged the others to do better.

Michael and Lindy Chamberlain leave the Law Courts in Darwin on September 16, 1982.
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain leave the Law Courts in Darwin on September 16, 1982.

The fact that various "strong men" have pulled trucks with ropes in their teeth escaped Lincoln and his audience. More to the point, of course, is that dingoes routinely perform feats of strength and dexterity much harder than merely taking a baby.

The dingo is an apex predator that preys on anything up to kangaroos, calves and sheep. It kills mammals routinely, and a human baby is the most defenceless mammal of all compared with spiny echidnas, tough wombats or sharp-toothed foxes, all dingo prey in various areas.

Anyone who'd seen a kelpie pull down a sheep, a pig dog grab a boar, or huskies haul huge sleds, might have laughed it off. But the dumbest cop had the loudest voice. Even in 1980, Fraser Island dingoes often menaced campers (and would eventually kill a nine-year-old) but the Territory didn't want any inconvenient truths.

 

NOT ALL EVIDENCE USED IN INVESTIGATION

The first inquest, rightly, was about dingoes - and the coroner Denis Barritt promptly cleared the Chamberlains. But the Territory police wouldn't lie down. They put their best man on it: Graeme Charwood, out to make his name.

The bad, sad story, of course, is that Charlwood's cowboys discarded any evidence that didn't fit their convoluted theory. They found a dodgy London professor who made outlandish claims about the "blood" found on Azaria's jumpsuit. They engaged a forensic officer with a few weeks' experience, and a biologist, Joy Kuhl, who testified she found "foetal blood" all over the Chamberlains' car. It eventually turned out to be mine dust that reacted to the testing fluid.

Michael and Lindy Chamberlain faced murder charges over the death of baby Azaria.
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain faced murder charges over the death of baby Azaria.

Those "experts" who didn't get into bed with the police were shunned. The camping ground witnesses were treated like criminals.

Barker QC opened the trial with a gruesomely graphic statement that painted the Chamberlains as liars and child killers. He not only presented the police's preposterous mishmash with a straight face, he "sold" it to the hometown jury already primed with police propaganda.

Barker bulldozed the defence like a truck running over a tortoise, even making jokes about "snowdropping" dingoes collecting baby clothes - encouraging sniggers at the grieving mother of a dead child. Barker is old now, and prone to issue lawsuits and demand apologies over comments on his part in the disgraceful treatment of the Chamberlains, but he must regret that courtroom banter sometimes.

There's a fair chance he won't watch the show on Sunday. If he does, he will again see a tough old reporter, Malcolm Brown, repeat what he said when the jury returned its "guilty" verdict all those years ago.

"You bastards!" Brown said. Indeed.

MORE RULE:

WHEN A MAD DOG CRIMINAL MET A FEARLESS COP

HOW FAMILIES HELP SUBURBAN KILLERS

RACING ROGUE'S ROUGH TROT IN JAIL

 

The Lindy Tapes airs on Sunday, August 16 at 8.30pm on channel Seven.

Originally published as Unpicking the lingering bigotry against the Chamberlains