The Fourth Estate is as Gullible as the Rest of Us

For the School of Journalism,
Royal Melbourne IT University.

John Bryson.

Macaulay’s jibe at the media, for those of you who would have to look it up, (as I did,) reads, ‘The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.’ Now, I’m not using it here as some sort of rhetorical device, but because it can have significance in our understanding of things. Macaulay’s vantage-point was from high ground, almost as high as there was then, his Estate was the Peerage, and the chamber he had in mind was the House of Lords, but change centuries and change hemispheres, bleach the walnut panels to become blondwood (and switch on the air-conditioning) so the chamber becomes Courtroom Number Two in Alice Springs, in December 1981, where the public gallery was so over-crowded that it seemed a fair re-arrangement of space to move the press corps to the jury benches, where reporters from newspapers, radio, and television then sat throughout, a helpful image, looking back on it now, because there was a sense in which the media had been sitting in the jury-box for a year and a half.

Were you then a camp-follower of those proceedings, you’d be already astonished, and maybe excited, by the appetite of the nation for this case, for rumours of darkest ritual, of religious madness, admiration for the tireless efforts of police and scientists tracking down the elusive truth, and for the meticulous wisdom of forensic technologies.

Sure there were shortfalls in reporting, it was inevitable. And we’d had a very early taste of some dangers here. The name Azaria was not a code for Sacrifice in the Wilderness, as was first reported, Adventists were not more interested in slaughtering children than anyone else, the baby could not have been dead days or hours before she disappeared from the campsite. But the reporting task, even in the time around the first inquest was made difficult by a curious mechanism. Gullibility seemed to have taken on an attraction of its own.

Barritt, the first coroner, had seen it first. Until that inquest, reporters knew only what someone in the police investigation team was prepared to tell them. Barritt had, of course, the advantage of knowing what was in the entire police brief, and the investigators had begun, by then, to discover some of their own errors, though they weren’t keen to hang them out to public view. Where anyone knew – anyone who lived in a city, anyway – knew dingoes don’t attack babies, Barritt saw from the police brief, so otherwise was the fact, that the Chief Ranger had warned the Conservation Commission that babies were now in danger of becoming prey. It had been reported to the world (and this was how the Chamberlains first knew of it) that forensic scientists had been unable to find any dingo hairs in the family’s tent, but Barritt found that the police officer from the scientific unit who examined the tent – she was supposed to be looking for dingo hairs – was so new to the identification of hair of any sort that she pulled one from her own head to see what it looked like under a microscope, and threw out any which didn’t look like hers. And a dentist, seconded to the investigation, had discovered, on the baby’s blanket, the marks of a knife, but Barritt saw from the police brief that another scientist, using greater magnification, had traced those marks to wool-moths which had eaten their way through the fibres, leaving neat slices, and still lay asleep there.

Now what troubled Barritt about errors of this sort was not the foolish mistakes of a police officer and a consulting dentist, but that some detective on the case had leaked to the press the serious information that the Chamberlain tent had contained no dingo hair, and that the baby’s blanket bore the marks of a weapon. So this was what the nation might believe. He took the step, much criticized at the time, you’ll recall, allowing the televising of his finding, direct, not to be edited, to the livingrooms of the nation.

Barritt wouldn’t claim to be any specialist in jurisprudential theory, but there is a liking for fairness built into him. He saw then, as maybe we see better now, that (altogether apart from the selective newsleaking of information) there was simply too much, at every one of the Chamberlain hearings, too much information to be taken up and delivered. The conduits are simply not big enough. So I think there we find some first level of understanding – not far about the ground floor yet, but something of a view, anyway: In complicated and intricate cases, proper reporting is disabled by, among other things, volume.

By the time you get to the second Inquest in number two courtroom, which are the surroundings we began in, you would know all this. You would know the first inquest finding was quashed in camera, and another appointed, under a different magistrate. (Though you may have wondered how it came about that a detective was able to tell the Chamberlains that Barritt would not preside, well before the decision was taken at any higher grade.) Before this inquest opened, you would have seen – from television and in the press – reports that the baby’s clothing had been examined under fluorescence by two of the world’s leading forensic scientists, in London, that it bore marks inconsistent with dingo teeth, and the blood patterns there indicated the baby’s throat had been cut. Your curiosity, and that of the nation at large, would have been at least matched by the Chamberlains’ own, since that’s the way they first found out about this evidence, too.

I want to make it clear, right now, I think everyone then on the investigation team believed the Chamberlains guilty, and what happened thereafter was merely a reflection of their just quest. But what did happen was this:

The evidence against them had been fully gathered, but the Chamberlains were not charged with anything. They were summoned to the hearing as witnesses, and so without the protections afforded to accused, and this may have been done for the very fairest of reasons, but it coincided with a decision (made somewhere high in the Law Department, it was said) to deny the Chamberlains’ lawyers access to any of the scientific evidence to be led against them, not even a précis, and then the problems were compounded by an unusual order of witnesses, in that the Chamberlains were called to the witness-box first, (although they were, by universal consent, in jeopardy,) called to testify while ignorant of the conditions they faced, so that they were told that they one way to delay examination was to claim, right now, their testimony might incriminate them, and all this in the hot centre of such publicity as never before seen in this country.

Watching that unusual Inquest, even from the press gallery, and its choice (by whoever chose such things) its choice of unusual procedures, the sense of a fine legal tradition was not so high as was the sense of ambush, so that the rising feeling, among a few of us there, was familiar from childhood, from pantomimes, where, to some comically bewildered character, we wanted to shout: For God’s sake, Look Behind You.

It would have been easier to understand it, and the dangers in it, had we known then, as we know now, of the secret meeting held not long after the Barritt inquest, a meeting of police investigators, at least one high politician, prosecution scientists, law department officers, and of people from the government authorities Barritt had so criticized on prime-time television; the meeting inaugurated the task force they coded Operation Ochre, and gave it a status of absolute secrecy. It was joined by a lawyer, whose duties included the guiding of some of its secret ways.

I want to concentrate the gaze on that secrecy, a moment. It has implications beyond those of fairness, I think. I don’t want to understate the importance of fairness, mind you, because in so restless a vessel as is the adversary system, fairness is the ballast.

But apart from that, look what secrecy does. I’ve complained elsewhere that secrecies, wherever expert opinion is in the forum anyway, secrecies disable quite basic requirements in the practice of science: the scientific questions. Does this finding stand up to universal testing? And, Can this result be repeated? And Does it survive disproof? are gone. Secrecy destroys fundamentals in the methodology, in the very philosophies on which the practice of science is based. No less. And see now what it does to the practice of journalism, it’s not so different. Reporters carry away spectacular newsleaks to the world, matters so astonishing they can’t be ignored, and for the best of them some need to be fair about this will well up in them, and they’ll ask someone in the opposing camp (in this case, the Chamberlains) what they had to say, but of course there’s nothing possible from that quarter, and no one can dig further, because it’s not for publication yet, they’re lucky to have what they’ve got. So see what’s happened to them: they’re not only unequipped to understand fully the basis of opinions they carry to the newsrooms, much worse, - and here’s the second pause – journalism is denied its crucial capacity for skepticism.And look at what reporters were made to carry. Keep in mind the rumours we’ve already gone through, and we add to them there from the days before that remarkable second inquest, and it’s fair to add in, too, the assertions of science made during it(because the inquest was so set up as to present no rebutting view,) and we see the waiting public was told the Chamberlains’ cam was awash with blood, (where the volume of blood was such that the very act of testing it destroyed all there was,) that their camping-site was being excavated, their motelroom swabbed, the cistern plumbed, (but not that nothing was found,) that the hairs on the baby’s clothing were cat (now known to be certainly canine,) that the clothes bore the stains of a bloodstained human hand, (Morling found them more like marks reflecting the sandy terrain they were found on,) a bloody rectangle on the driver’s side carpet thought to be the ooze of the corpse secreted in a camera bag, (now the spill of an old milkshake,) and in the passenger footwell the arterial spray, the place of the child’s very last heart-beats, the vivid place of slaughter, (but not foetal blood, not blood at all, a sound-deadening emulsion put there by General Motors on the production line, Dufix 1081.)On and on, such a list as to make the only feasible responses tears or laughter. But pare it down to the dispatches run by reporters before they’re given from the witness-box, dispatches to let the public know what’s coming, newsleaks which have the effect of telling the nation: never mind we might be proceeding in unusual ways, ways you might otherwise distrust, we have something for you, the end will justify the means, here. And right there I think we get close to a third important understanding of what happened in the Chamberlain case, case had become cause, a case had become a cause, and journalists were running alongside it, which meant this: for the first time in our history, the nation was swept up with the headiness of a hunt, and while the hunt was in train.

I want to slip in, here, a sort of audio illustration of how wrong these things can go. It comes from a radio broadcast. The station is on the east coast, upper New South Wales, sunny country. It’s an urgent newsbreak. The announcer’s voice is male, friendly, he’s a popular personality around here. He announces the completion of the second Inquest this afternoon, Mrs Chamberlain has been committed to trial, for murder. He’s excited to be able to break the news. “Now,” he says, “the world might find out just why Lindy Chamberlain cut the throat of her tiny daughter.”

Journalists had run the dispatches, sure, journalism and word of mouth, together, had set opinion in cities and townships, but I should tell you, of all the culpable professions, it is journalists who are most ashamed. Everyone knows that the nexus between reporters and police is symbiosis of a strength we’ll never get rid of, but when the Chamberlains were convicted, (and bear in mind that was a shock of some magnitude for nearly everyone in the courtroom – which is, and I make a complicated aside here, which is the real test of just how well the defence had performed from a standing start, we were not looking at a failure of defence advocacy, but at something else of greater mass, greater energy, altogether,) when the Chamberlains were convicted, it was not lawyers, not scientists, not law enforcement officers, who thought maybe something dreadful had gone awry, but reporters, individually for the most part, who began to suspect (along with the lay witnesses, the campside bystanders) that they had not so much watched a criminal investigation, as taken part in some sort of theatre of illusion.

Newsleaks to favoured reporters is no new phenomenon, but here it performed beyond pre-publicity, it seemed to me, more a pre-promotion for a coming bock-buster, and these leaks came, I think, less from the stars than from certain important bit-players - there a scientist with footlight ambitions, here a policeman who believed his cause was just – and maybe nowhere between two or more in concerted effort, but the effect is none the less grave.

Now, I don’t want to heard saying that anything good has come out of the Chamberlain case, but what we now know about it gives us the opportunity of building a hypothetical, a model of another sort, against which to test our immune systems. You can see its shadow already in the U.S., and it’ll reach us soon enough; when someone is arrested in New York now it’s not long before his handsome lawyer appears on television putting the defence case to air, the district attorney is maybe given equal time, and when I was in Denver in February where some multi-killer was holed up in a road-blocked hide-out, all live to the courageous cameras, and we cut to a reporter right then interviewing the huddled neighbours, who said they knew this guy was ready to go off his head anytime, they’d been living in terror for months, so construct a society, now, construct a society in which battles for the jury’s hearts begin so early, battles of news management, legal contests in which the greatest expenditure of money and effort is not in chambers and in the law library, but in the offices of public relations firms.

So let’s guess what happens when the case has some political significance and is ascribed massive funds, employs a well integrated team, its tactics drawn together by someone of experience with reporters, with the widening media; I have a vision of one of the innumerable press aides, maybe, a Mr Fixit, a real trouble-shooter, who understands the huge value, riding that most irresistible of vehicles, if you can climb aboard it: the popular cause.

I want to leave this where we began, so to heighten the sense that we really haven’t got anywhere far enough yet, so at Number Two Court, the second Inquest, because it’s familiar ground, and the view is, in a sense, downhill in both directions. Such newsleaks as we’d tracked down by then were unsettling, but for most reporters, (the majority who got them second hand,) the pressing problem seemed to be that their own contacts weren’t as good as they should be.

News management isn’t new, and often it’s simply a generous trade-off between interests. We use it in the business world to prepare the market for a new product, politicians use it, almost anyone. We know, or we can guess, which journalists moonlight for which PR firms, which sub-editors at which newspapers manage news for their secret clients, we can see which news-items are coming through, given prominence, because of the margarine lobby, or the pharmaceutical, or the medical association, or for the imminent take-over of huge companies. But its appearance within the system of criminal justice, in professional mode, can be expected anytime now, and we have to decide soon whether we like its conquest here, or not.