Entertainment Accidental Celebrity: The human cost of our obsession with tragedy

Accidental Celebrity: The human cost of our obsession with tragedy

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Rosie Batty, Bruce and Denise Morcombe and Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton never wanted to be famous, and yet they were thrust into the spotlight in the most unimaginable circumstances.

Years later, they still grapple with the effects of their unwanted fame.

Fiona Reynolds, a decorated Australian journalist and former ABC Regional Director with 30 years in the industry, wrote her PhD on this very topic.

“I had observed a lot of people over the years who, as a result of some kind of traumatic experience, had ended up becoming news figures and then their personal lives were very public,” Dr Reynolds told The New Daily. 

The media turned them into household names, but how did they pick up the pieces?

“We are all very familiar with what happened to them, the events that surrounded them.”

We already know their names and faces, and have had a front row seat as they navigated the most disturbing and distressing events of their lives – but many of these people just want to be forgotten.

After covering some of the nation’s most haunting events, like the 1997 Thredbo landslide and the abduction of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe in 2003, Dr Reynolds has decided to flip the script. 


In her new, six-part podcast Accidental CelebrityDr Reynolds speaks with the unwitting faces of Australian tragedy about their sometimes unethical, often invasive media experiences.

“That’s our job to do that, we we also have to think as humans, ‘Where do I cross the line’?” 

“We in the media are making people publicly recognisable – whether they want to be or not. And then they have to live with the consequences of that.”

Stolen anonymity

For James Scott, surviving 43 days alone in the Himalayan mountains without food in 1992 was almost better than returning to find himself at the centre of a media storm.

“It was really sad that for a while there I thought that I wish I hadn’t been found, I wish I’d died up in that mountain so I didn’t have to come back and face all these problems,” Mr Scott says on the podcast.

“It’s terrible that someone can get to the point where they wish they were dead as a result of what is being reported in the media.”

For Chamberlain-Creighton, whose infant daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo in 1980, everyday things like finding a job, or going to the supermarket without being recognised have become near-impossible

“Not being able to be just, you know, the person next door, having that taken off you, is a nuisance to say the least,” she shares.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton
Chamberlain-Creighton was at the centre of Australia’s most notorious case. Photo: AAP

The Morcombes and Ms Batty, who all scarified their privacy to appeal for, and raise awareness about their murdered sons, describe their ongoing discomfort at being recognised in public.

Unethical practices

Many of us, particularly now during the height of the true crime content boom, have a macabre obsession with knowing all the grisly details of people’s trauma, often without questioning how these details are sourced.

“There is a human fascination of the suffering and survival of strangers, and also the strength of the human spirit,” Dr Reynolds said.

“We become curious about how they manage to endure and overcome, and then we get very connected to them and believe that we feel we know them because we have heard so much about them and their lives.”

Following his rescue from the Himalayan mountains, journalists began paying Mr Scott’s friends for information about him, and he believes they tried to steal his medical records while he was in hospital recovering.

Stuart Diver, a survivor of the Thredbo landslide, had people follow him around – even as he attended his wife Sally’s funeral.

For Todd Russell, who survived the Beaconsfield mine collapse in 2006, telescopic lenses were parked on a hill close to his house.

“He did not expect, when he came back from 14 days underground, that he was going to be met with a wall of cameras and microphones and spotlights,” Dr Reynolds said.

“He thought, ‘Wow, this is a worldwide thing’ – he had wondered whether he’d even make the local newspaper.”

Within a day of its February 1 premiere, Accidental Celebrity shot to No.2 on the Australian Apple podcasts chart, proving our insatiable interest in these public figures is far from over.

Many of them will deal with the aftermath of their highly publicised traumas for the rest of their lives, but passing the mic back to them can given them a sense of control over their stories.