Tuesday, May 22

When a mother abandons her baby, does a question mark matter?

How could a mother abandon her newborn baby, on Mothers Day, on the steps of the Dandenong public hospital​? Note the question mark – it's one strand in the web of thoughts which follow.

Those thoughts include the responsibility and ethics of journalists – and those who consume their work – as well as people's attitudes to a mother who may be depressed or greatly distressed, and for whatever reason, gave up her child. Yes, and the thoughts even run to the desirability of punctuation in headlines.

The saga of baby Catherine, as hospital staff named her, was a good story, but probably would have run its course in a few days before most of the public became bored and moved on to something new.

However, Sydney Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy has an unerring feel for headlines which hit with emotional force. On Tuesday a week ago, above a picture of the little foundling, he splashed this heading across the front page:


Note the absence of question or explanation mark. Daily Telegraph style is to avoid question marks in headings – Telegraph headings should be assertive, not ask questions. And exclamation marks were done to death in the old Daily Mirror.

But that lack of punctuation may account for differing responses to the headline. Prime Minister John Howard saw it as a reasonable question. Editor Penberthy says the same. The day after it ran the headline, the Telegraph reported the controversy.

Columnist Miranda Devine also saw it as a query. Indeed, she went further and supplied the question mark which wasn't there.

In her column (read through to the second item) in the Sydney Sun-Herald a few days ago, within quotation marks, she said the heading which attracted “pious criticism” was “How could she?”

I have other issues with Ms Devine's comments, and will return later.

But I'm sure former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett saw an exclamation mark – something which would emphasise (in some people's minds) the enormity of a mother's crime against nature – when he read the heading and launched a furious attack, calling for Penberthy to be sacked.

Kennett is chairman of the anti-depression organisation BeyondBlue.

I believe he had an earlier run-in with Penberthy over the editor's headline, Brogden's Sordid Past – withdrawn after one edition, when it led the former NSW Opposition Leader to attempt suicide (the headline may be seen in a post further down this blogsite.

As I've noted elsewhere, I remain a member of the journalists' union, and accept its code of ethics – but I'm still unable to define the ethical issues about the coverage.

Newspapers published the baby's photo, and the appeal for the mother to come forward, with court permission and at the request of Victoria's Department of Human Services.

I do not know whether a newspaper like The Daily Telegraph should display compassion, but it's not to be found in its headline, and I think the paper is the poorer for its absence.

As for understanding, I feel the Telegraph and Ms Devine failed. She says the mother has made her decision, and asks how the authorities could employ “such heavy-handed tactics to bully the mother into doing what she went to great lengths to avoid?”

She concludes: “She loved it [it ??? Surely the correct pronoun is her?] enough to want to give it a better life than she felt she could provide. No mother could love her baby more.”

Perhaps Ms Devine should visit BeyondBlue's excellent website where she could learn that 14 per cent of mothers have suffered post-natal depression. Or is Catherine's mother going through some crisis which could be resolved with treatment, counselling and understanding?

She should also consider that if the mother does come forward – and manages to avoid the hyenas from 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, et al – and is steadfast in giving up her baby, she will serve her child best by signing adoption papers. That would allow Catherine to begin right away on bonding with her new family instead of spending three to 12 months with temporary foster parents.

In last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, a feature summed up many of the issues. It quoted social historian Shurlee Swain, who teaches at the Australian Catholic University, saying that in the 19th and early 20th centuries child abandonment and murder were “exceedingly common”.

Of last week's reporting, Swain said it was a page right out the 19th century, in that it suggested something “unnatural” about the mother.

And for a 19th century view, may I direct you to a piece by bush poet Barcroft Boake. By today's standards it's full of mawkish sentimentality, but even a Quadrant editorial board member might be tempted to reach for the tissues. And for more about Boake.

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