You may remember Mal Brough, the ambitious Minister for Indigenous Affairs, from such policy gems as this month’s plan to ‘showcase‘ fine specimens of Aboriginal youth in the lobbies of upmarket hotels. That was wild enough, but Brough has a bigger agenda that is every bit as paternalistic. And some media are in danger of becoming his PR people.
Last month, ABC TV’s Lateline ran an alarming report about drug dealers, ‘petrol warlords’ and paedophiles were controlling the Mutitjulu community in the shadows of Uluru. The source for the most disturbing allegations in this story was an anonymous witness identified as a ‘former youth worker,’ who tearfully told of four-year-olds with STDs and children enlisted as sex slaves:
I saw four-year-old children gambling while their parents were drinking in Alice Springs. I learnt of children as young as five who were watching pornography in abandoned houses while their parents were 200 kilometres away, drinking.
Trouble is, this ‘former youth worker’ turned out to be a senior officer in Brough’s Department. Gregory Andrews is Assistant Secretary of the Communities Engagement Branch within the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination who once ran a government-funded project called ‘Working Together’ aimed at turning around the Mutitjulu community’s dysfunction. But by the time this became public, Mal Brough was off and running, using the Lateline story to ‘back up’ sensational claims he had made in May that paedophile rings are operating throughout Aboriginal communities.
The story was quickly spread by the rest of the media Lateline is a credible, agenda-setting platform, and its reporter, Suzanne Smith, won a Walkley Award for her journalism last year.
Enter the National Indigenous Times (NIT) a feisty fortnightly devoted to vigorously pursuing Aboriginal issues, which doesn’t mind putting noses out of joint. The paper’s editor, Chris Graham, claims Lateline effectively colluded with Federal Government officials to portray a senior public servant under a bogus identity, and that they used Andrews to ‘sex up’ (Graham’s term, not mine!) a story about alleged child sexual abuse.
As a result, Graham claims, Brough has been able to use the outcry over the story to push his paternalistic agenda from limiting land rights to pulling money from Mutitjulu, and then, late last week, putting the community into administration. It’s a pretty strong claim, but Graham is ropeable. He calls Lateline‘s actions indefensible, and the Government’s use of Lateline‘s stories cynical and opportunistic. And Graham links the Mutitjulu mayhem with the Government’s removal this month of ‘Customary Law’ as a mitigating circumstance during sentencing in a criminal court.
‘The Lateline stories have also been used by the Federal Government to undermine the land rights of Aboriginal people,’ says Graham, pointing to the Government’s introduction into Parliament of proposed changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory that would aid government, developers and mining companies.
Graham sent Lateline 40 detailed questions about its handling of the story, none of which Executive Producer Peter Charley has answered. One of Graham’s concerns is that Lateline mis-translated the words of a Mutitjulu elder, Mantatjara Wilson, who appeared to give damning evidence of child sex abuse. Graham asked for raw footage and an unedited transcript of the interview. Charley says he stands by the show’s translation, which was provided by a trusted Pitjantjara source.
New Matilda also asked Lateline whether they knew Andrews was a senior public servant working for Brough when they broadcast the interview. Lateline‘s Peter Charley said he was ‘not at liberty to disclose the identity of our anonymous source This may change if our source agrees to be identified but until then, I can’t add much at all.’
But Charley strongly denied Graham’s major allegation:
I absolutely reject we are pushing the Minister’s barrow. We were contacted by members of the community. You have to appreciate there’s a lot of fear in the community, people are dealing with individuals who they’re identifying as overly aggressive and potentially dangerous.
Charley also wrote to NIT declaring:
Whether we filmed in Mutitjulu or relied upon file footage, whether the paedophile left before or after we went to air, whether an interviewee may or may not have changed jobs since he witnessed violence and abuse has no real bearing on the simple truth that children were abused by a sexual predator and that his behaviour went unchecked despite numerous pleas for intervention.
Thanks to Bill Leak.
Charley complains: ‘I remain mystified by your apparent determination to discredit a story that cannot seriously be doubted and which, it is hoped, will prevent such abuse occurring again.’
On the allegations themselves, Mutitjulu’s community administrative worker, Dorethea Randall, told the Canberra Times on the weekend that a lot of the material in the Lateline program was old. The community had identified a paedophile and dealt with him. He was confronted at a meeting two years ago and had left the community. There had not been enough evidence to charge him. The Chair of the Community Council, Sami Wilson, also told the Canberra Times there was no paedophile ring.
That doesn’t move Lateline‘s Charley. He says: ‘If that paedophile moved to another community, the question must be asked: under what terms and where did he go? It sounds a bit like a paedophile priest who’s moved to another parish where he could potentially do harm again.’
It’s clear, however, that Lateline made an error of judgement in allowing the perception that it was running with the Brough agenda. If it knew Gregory Andrews was a senior public servant, it should not have misled its viewers about his identity. It beggars belief that the journalist who did the story and the show’s producers didn’t know.
But, on the other hand, the notion that Lateline colluded with Government officials to falsely depict someone as a ‘youth worker’ is a very serious claim, and pretty hard to believe. Why would the program risk its impressive track record to over-egg a story when it had already put the issue of sexual violence in Indigenous communities on the national agenda remember its scoop in May from Central Australian prosecutor Dr Nanette Rogers, in which she alleged widespread abuse? What’s more, Lateline presented five other independent witnesses all of them credible which was enough evidence to spark the police investigation now taking place into the allegations. That investigation has yet to yield any concrete results, so we watch and wait with interest.
Brough and Lateline highlight what they call a ‘code of silence’ in Aboriginal communities that stops women and children speaking out about sexual abuse. But isn’t it the case that rape and sexual abuse are vastl
y under-reported in the wider community, as well? The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates as few as one in 20 sexual assaults are ever reported to police. (link here) If there’s a code of silence, it’s not exclusively Aboriginal.
With both sides painting this as a black and white issue, it seems there aren’t enough soapboxes to go round. Meanwhile, it’s clear there are many shades of grey in this story that are proving too difficult for the media and politicians to deal with the strident taking of sides may create a good story, but it doesn’t help the vic tims.
And the water becomes especially murky for the media when it allows a perception to arise that it is colluding with powerful forces no matter how good the intentions to change public policy.
The best that can be said is that important issues are, at least, being debated.
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