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Cleo Smith and The Lost Child Syndrome

In the twenty-four-hour news cycle, scraps of information become flecks of distracting gold. Information sifters go through coverage with anorak enthusiasm. Instead of good copy and measured consideration, journalists are encouraged to become manufacturers of news in the hope that what they produce lasts for posterity.

For eighteen days, four-year-old Cleo Smith could not be found. She had gone missing from a campsite north of Carnarvon in Western Australia, “last seen,” according to a notice, “at 1.30 am on 16th October 2021.” The Western Australian government had promised a $1 million reward for information on her disappearance.

There was a feast of coverage. Google’s search engine was cluttered (the latest search reveals some 85.5 million results). Bounty hunters, melting at the prospect of a reward, moved in. There were stretched claims that 65,000 “average Aussies” were deployed in the search effort. That number was taken from the Bring Cleo Smith Home Facebook group, established to drum up publicity for the cause. In the social media age, such voyeuristic engagement can count as physical participation. The administrators of the group were keen that only acceptable members join: anyone questioning holes in the account, inconsistencies, and motives (the Daily Mail charmingly called them “liars and trouble-makers”) were blocked.

With Smith’s discovery by police at a house in Carnarvon a mere seven minutes from the family home, every word, and detail, was documented with hagiographic attentiveness. “My name is Cleo,” came the words of the child, according to a statement from Western Australia Police Force Deputy Commissioner Col Blanch. Smith, at that point, had just been gathered into the arms of one of the officers, a point the WA Police were not shy in promoting. The police had broken “into a locked house in Carnarvon about 1 am.”

This moment proved heavily lachrymose for those covering it. Nine News Perth reporter Lucy McLeod shed tears in describing the “ordeal.” Usually more hardened ABC journalists were also barely able to suppress tears. There was little evidence that the child had endured a traumatic ordeal – it was simply assumed she had. A released image from the Western Australian police showed a girl, in bed, cheerily waving and ready to tuck into her frozen treat.

The police accounts, at best, suggested that the person who allegedly abducted her was “opportunistic.” There are few other details supplied, including the nature of the “intelligence” received about Cleo’s location. Suffice to say, the WA authorities were keen to inform the public that such an intelligence effort had been formidable, with the girl being deemed as difficult to find as a “needle in the haystack.” According to the ABC, it did not involve “a tip-off,” “an accidental sighting” or “pure chance.”

As for the alleged abductor, “There’s no family connection,” WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson told ABC Radio Perth. “I’ll simply confirm, there’s a 36-year-old man in custody.” The individual in question was not on a list for known sex offenders, despite prurient curiosity from some journalists that he had shown an “unhealthy interest in children.”

When the voracious news cycle moves to covering gruesome details – a murder, an abduction, an atrocity – the hunt for the explicating or revealing facts can become maddeningly obsessive. But facts are often less important than the troubling narrative. A telling of an incident can soon assume the nature of a myth. In terms of the lost child, this is particularly pervasive. This is even more notable for the fact that the lost child is often, at least in the disturbed public imagination, not so much lost as taken.

The Beaumont children: Jane, Arnna, and Grant.

In Australia, the motif exerts a particular hold. The country’s cultural history, as Peter Pierce reminds us, “has long been gloomily fascinated with the figure of the lost child.” The idea of loss features, at least to a degree, as part of the Anglo-European settler complex, a fear of “having sought to settle in a place where they might never be at peace.”

In 1953, Clive Hamer would note with orthodox obviousness that “the story of a lost child occurs with remarkable frequency in early Australian fiction.” The ingredients for this disappearance vary in terms of plotline but the results are often the same: panic, anxiety, innocence lost. The Australian expanse captivates; the child ventures off. Initial excitement in free play turns to desperation and a yearning to return. The absence of the child is noted by parents, the authorities. Adults are mobilised, sightings sought and documented. Often, the attempt at rescue is futile. Most of the time, these lost children are Anglo-Australian.

The Australian public’s matronly-minded imagination has been particularly fixated with the vanishing child. In 1966 on Australia Day, the Beaumont siblings Jane, Arnna, and Grant vanished from Glenelg Beach, leading to such sweeping, unprovable assertions of a country’s loss of innocence. (Is there such a thing as a country’s innocence lost?) The widespread coverage of the children’s disappearance induced fear and panic. Neighbours came to be suspected. Decency came to be doubted. A “slim man” of some 30 years was supposedly sighted with the children. But the children were never found. Since then, tattling suppositions and tabloid journalism have served to revisit them with claims of a new “lead” or a warming trail long left cold.

Azaria Chamberlain’s 1980 disappearance from an Uluru campsite had it all, becoming the subject of a murder investigation, accusation, and an indigestible Hollywood portrayal by Meryl Streep of the distressed mother, Lindy. Eventually, a coronial finding pointed the finger at the native dingo, another useful alibi for the Australian terror of the interior.

In Western Australia, the disappearance of Smith caused heart-wrenching despair, insomniac disturbances, and a stretch of intense intrigue. She was spoken of in familiar, intimate terms: we know Cleo, our girl, our innocence lost. There were the markings of old, jaded narratives: the car spotting; the sightings that seem to multiply with viral force. In one news report, the child had been sighted some 200 times.

As is sometimes the case, the more sightings, the less likely the figure will be found. This was not to be. Unlike any number of others such as William Tyrell, who vanished while wearing a Spiderman suit in 2014 from his grandmother’s house in New South Wales, Cleo was found. The rest is emotive exploitation, social media shares, and promotion.