The 1982 case that divided Australia

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When her baby disappeared from her tent at Uluru, Australia, mother Lindy Chamberlain’s account was met with scepticism by the media and abuse by the public. Convicted of murder 41 years ago, in one of the most controversial and divisive cases in Australian legal history, she spent years battling to clear her name. In these exclusive BBC Archive clips as part of the new series In History, she describes what it was like to be wrongly accused.

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Lindy Chamberlain sits back and looks on warily as she is asked questions by the BBC’s Terry Wogan on his show in 1991. Dressed in a powder blue jacket and softly spoken, she has good reason to be cautious. Her life had been torn apart following the tragic death of her daughter, the onslaught of press coverage that followed it and her wrongful conviction for murder.

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Lindy had gained this unwanted international notoriety following the disappearance of her infant daughter Azaria. On 17 August 1980, she and her husband Michael were on a camping trip with their family at Uluru, then called Ayers Rock, when their nine-week-old baby disappeared from their tent.

Lindy reported that she saw a wild dog leaving their tent and believed that the dingo had taken her baby. The subsequent frantic search by the camping group and locals discovered nothing. Azaria’s body was never found. In the aftermath of the disappearance, an initial inquest accepted the Chamberlains’ account but Australian Prosecutors and many parts of the media decided they did not.

The extensive press coverage led to the couple suffering a huge amount of public abuse. They were spat at in the street and even received multiple death threats. “During the first inquest I had so many threats that the court assigned me a police bodyguard,” she told Wogan in this exclusive BBC clip.

Watch: A mother’s real story behind famous quote: ‘A dingo’s got my baby’

She said they had initially agreed to talk to the press because they wanted to help warn other parents, but rapidly found that they had no control over how they were portrayed.

“What the Australian public saw was what the media wished to portray of me. Initially I broke down in the first interview I did, and the media comes towards you and they say:, ‘Look, we are terribly sorry about what’s happened to your daughter. We are upset there is nothing around to warn people. We know you are. Will you help us do it?’ And, of course, you say yes.

“And we did, and that first reporter went straight away and said that the interview was too easy and they didn’t show enough emotion. Despite the fact that she broke down in the middle of it, there must be something wrong.”

The situation was not helped by her belief that the police were leaking information, and their own suspicions, to reporters.

“The police were feeding information all the time to the press, which we had no way of combating. So, the public got these initial pictures of some dreadful woman. And whenever I cried in interviews like this, for instance, they would edit that out because the public would get upset. So, if you smiled at a joke, you were told you were uncaring, if you cried you were acting, and either way you copped it.

“So, this was the witch that everybody knew.”

In History

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

The court case became a huge legal and media event, covered in sensational fashion at the time by the press, and strongly dividing public opinion.

Debates raged about the role of dingoes, at the time not generally seen as dangerous, in the baby’s disappearance. There was also suspicion and prejudice about the Chamberlains’ religious background as Seventh-day Adventists, which led to unfounded accusations of cult-like activity.

A key part of the prosecution case was forensic findings of infant blood in the family car – evidence that would later be widely discredited. The case was based largely on circumstantial evidence, with no body having ever been found.

Throughout the public scrutiny and legal proceedings, Lindy protested her innocence. But on 29 October 1982, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband Michael was also charged, but he was convicted with being an accessory after the fact and received an 18-month suspended sentence.

Lindy was still in prison in 1986, having exhausted all her legal options, when by chance new evidence was discovered. Azaria’s matinee jacket, which the police had maintained did not exist, was found partially buried in an area dotted with dingo lairs in Uluru.

“If they had admitted that I was right about that, they would have to admit that I was right about a lot more,” she said. “So, it presented quite a problem.” The evidence led to Lindy being released from prison, and in 1988 both her and her husband were officially exonerated on all charges. They divorced in 1991, and Michael died in 2017.

Exclusive clip: Lindy Chamberlain describes what made the public ‘cling to the myth’ of her guilt

Despite the miscarriage of justice, the official cause of death remained the subject of speculation and innuendo in the years following. In 1988, the Chamberlain case was turned into the film, A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep as Lindy and Sam Neill as Michael.

Lindy herself wrote a book, Through My Eyes, in 1990 detailing the profound impact the episode had on her and her family’s lives. In the BBC Wogan interview, she said it was almost a form of protection for her three children, whose lives had been dominated by the whole affair.

“They have had so much information that is wrong put in front of them, my children have a right to live with the correct information. And with people continually approaching you in the street and asking you questions, at least this book answers a lot of them.”

In 2012, a coroner issued the final report in the Chamberlain case, formally stating that their daughter Azaria was attacked and taken by a dingo – something that Lindy and Michael had always maintained from the start.

The judgement in the Chamberlain case caused much soul searching in Australia. How so many people in the general population, the media, the police and the courts were so willing to believe an innocent woman was guilty and punish a grieving mother has been difficult for many Australians to reconcile.

“Australians always thought of themselves, and this country, as being the country of fair play,” said John Bryson, author of Evil Angels, the definitive book on Azaria’s disappearance, which the film Cry in the Dark was based on. “That certainly wasn’t the case.”

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

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