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Why armchair detectives need to take a back seat

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I can still recall the rising panic I felt on seeing a silent, empty backyard where my four-year-old had been playing just minutes earlier – a gate standing open to the road behind.

The thought of that terror enduring for days would be any parent’s worst nightmare.

That nightmare is still unfolding for the parents of four-year-old Cleo Smith, who went missing five days ago from their family tent while camped near Carnarvon.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone experiencing that sort of torment for days on end could muster the composure to front a TV camera.

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To me, as I watched their media interview, Cleo’s parents appeared anxious and exhausted after days of waiting as the fruitless search continued for their little hazel-eyed girl clad in pink pyjamas.

But to some armchair detectives who saw the interview with Cleo’s mum Ellie Smith and her partner Jake Gliddon as a type of “performance”, it did not ring true.

Commenting from the smug safety of their keyboards as their own children slept soundly in their beds, social media critics claimed the couple’s behaviour was suspicious.

They apparently did not shed enough tears to satisfy some observers. And the fact they crossed their arms at one point was seen as an indication of defensiveness rather than discomfort.

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But there were also plenty of people pointing out that no-one really knows how they would react if they were faced with a TV camera while fearing for their child’s life and numb from days of little sleep.

And they noted the dangers of making snap judgements based on someone’s perceived emotional state – as happened, for example, when public opinion turned against Lindy Chamberlain, wrongfully convicted for the murder of baby Azaria who was taken from a tent by a dingo.

Time has dimmed my memory of why a backyard gate always kept shut was open that day.

But what I can clearly remember is struggling to keep it together as I ran from room to room, searching for my son. Trying not to cry as I rang the police and called my husband at work.

Forcing back sobs as I raced to the four-year-old kindy at the end of my street, in case my blonde-haired moppet had walked there by himself.

My ordeal lasted for less than twenty minutes – though it seemed so much longer. My son eventually emerged from his hiding place (under a chair where I swear I had looked) and I was able to hug him tightly.

That four-year-old moppet is now an adult. He rang me from his home in Sydney when I was on deadline with a story about Cleo’s disappearance and too busy to take his call.

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But I was able to speak to him later. I only hope Cleo’s mum gets the chance to do the same.

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