The infamous Australian murder trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, who claimed that a wild dingo was responsible for the death of their infant daughter, provides an interesting study of the news media and its influence on public opinion. In 1988, the trial was dramatized by Fred Schepisi in the documentary-style film A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain and Sam Neill as Lindy’s husband Michael.
A Cry in the Dark was released in Australia less than two months following the exoneration of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain of all charges associated with the death of their daughter, Azaria, eight years earlier. The film begins with the Chamberlains vacationing near Ayers rock, where baby Azaria disappears under suspicious circumstances in 1980, and follows their ordeal from the first coroner’s inquest through the trial, conviction and eventual pardon of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain in 1988.
From the outset, director Frank Schepisi makes it clear that Lindy’s trial is a trial by media, with an aggressive press spreading sensational rumours and encouraging the Chamberlains’ guilt in the eyes of the viewing and listening public. Using a documentary style with a clear bias in favour of the Chamberlains—including a scene depicting a dingo leaving Azaria’s tent the night of her disappearance—Schepisi forces the viewer to confront the unfair prejudice of the Australian media, the flimsy evidence of the case, and the incompetence of the investigators involved in the trial in an obvious attempt to garner viewer support for the Chamberlains’ innocence.
The Disappearance of Baby Azaria
The investigation into the disappearance of baby Azaria, in fact and in Schepisi’s film, was characterized by inept investigation techniques, dubious scientific-evidence, and harsh public opinion. Although the first coroner’s inquest found the Chamberlains not guilty, the authorities, media and general public continued to suspect the couple.
When further investigation resulted in claims that tears in Azaria’s clothing were caused by scissors rather than an animal and that blood splatters in the Chamberlains’ vehicle were consistent with fetal DNA—evidence that was later found to be faulty—the case was reopened and Lindy was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
It was not until 1986, when baby Azaria’s matinee-jacket was discovered in a dingo lair at the base of Ayers Rock, that Lindy was released from prison. Two years later, following a court appeal, the Chamberlains were found innocent of all charges related to the death of their baby daughter.
The News Media and Public Opinion
Throughout A Cry in the Dark, Schepisi suggests that the news media directly influenced public opinion of the Chamberlains. Criticism of the couple at the time focused on Lindy’s apparent coldness in her interviews with the press and the Chamberlains’ religion, Seventh Day Adventism, which was considered by many Australians to be a devil-worshipping cult. The media and public also had difficulty believing that a dingo could be responsible for carrying off a 10-pound baby; such a far-fetched accusation seemed to provide further evidence of the Chamberlains’ guilt.
Schepisi frequently sets scenes with average Australians discussing these criticisms and condemning the couple. The film also shows the news media manipulating interview footage, spreading rumours (for example, the baby’s clothing is said to have been folded when in fact it was found in a messy pile), and harassing the Chamberlains to get the best story. As Lindy (Meryl Streep) notes during the trial portion of the film, “There are only about five reporters who write what you say and the rest use a little bit of license.”
In fact, the film closes with a telling image of the press hounding the couple as they leave a church service in honour of baby Azaria and in celebration of the couple’s innocence. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how important innocence is to innocent people,” Michael (Sam Neill) says to the reporters, an indictment of both the media who made a spectacle of the family’s tragedy, and the public who condemned the couple out of hand and sat back to enjoy the show.
In her autobiography, Through My Eyes (1990), Lindy Chamberlain indicates that she worked closely with Schepisi on the film version of her story. In her book, however, Chamberlain makes even more damning statements about the media and the public. She refers to the press as the “megalomanic media machine” (ix) and censures the media’s focus on tragedy to boost sales.
Yet Lindy reserves her harshest criticism for the viewing and listening public:
“Why blame the media? It is the public who demand the goods—so if there is no news today—well, spice it up to what the public wants or ‘produce’ some, and they do, and up go the reaction of demand and money and supply and greed. No one can be blamed alone.” (760)
A Cry in the Dark is available on DVD from Warner Home Video, 1999.
© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.