On the wall of my office are the immortal words of Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”.
As an Aboriginal affairs reporter, this means I’ve always valued accountability over anything else in my journalism. More than any media outlet, regulator or court of law, it's Aboriginal people themselves who hold me accountable.
Sadly, they are often unable to speak truth to the power of other sections of the media. That’s why Utopia, a film by renowned journalist John Pilger, is so important to my people.
Every week I hear from non-Indigenous people who are genuinely shocked and saddened by the film. Many Aboriginal people are themselves overwhelmed seeing the truth finally aired not just nationally, but internationally.
This outpouring has not been reflected in the media, which has played its historic role of reducing Aboriginal people to the kind of stereotypes that would not be accepted in other countries – such as post-Apartheid South Africa.
Those with undisclosed agendas have attacked the film – and us – such as the Liberal party pollster Mark Textor, a propagandist for Prime Minister John Howard, who abused the film's "poverty tourism".
This reaction from the conservative white elite was anticipated. Pilger was himself stonewalled when making enquiries into the biggest Indigenous story of the decade: Suzanne Smith's 2006 Lateline report on child abuse in the central Australian community of Mutijtulu, which was one of the major catalysts for the Howard government's Northern Territory intervention.
Smith's story broke on ABC’s Lateline program in 2006. She alleged that a predatory paedophile was trading petrol for sex with young girls in Mutijtulu, and that the community were protecting him.
In fact, the community had already driven the alleged paedophile out months before, a development that Lateline later tried to infer it was a result of its own broadcast. The audacity of this was breathtaking.
But that was only the beginning. The bulk of the Lateline allegations were dependent on the testimony of an “anonymous former youth worker” who, with his voice digitised and his face filmed in shadow, made outrageous and unsubstantiated claims of child sexual slavery.
That man was later revealed to be Gregory Andrews, a senior bureaucrat in the office of Indigenous policy coordination, who was advising the then-Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough at the time. He backed his minister’s public claims of paedophile rings operating in Aboriginal communities.
The NT police investigated Andrews’ allegations extensively following the Lateline program and said they had found “no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the claim petrol was being provided in exchange for sex”. The Australian Crime Commission, which was given star chamber powers under the intervention, also later found no evidence of pedophile rings.
Smith's report not only smeared and demonised the community, and Aboriginal men in general, but ultimately led to the people of Mutitjulu losing control of their lives. First, the community was put under administration, and then under the intervention, which Pilger described as “one of the most savage attacks on Indigenous people in memory”.
That was in 2006. Late last year, following the annual Walkley awards, the Australian media’s night of nights, former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes sent a congratulations via Twitter to Smith, adding "John Pilger please note.”
“Cheeky,” Smith tweeted in response. "Don’t you know I’m part of the state’s apparatus to oppress people?”
At that stage, Utopia was in its final stages of production. Pilger had already approached both Smith and Lateline host Tony Jones about the Mutijtulu story, inviting them to appear on camera in the film. Neither replied; Pilger was instead referred to the ABC corporate affairs department’s Alan Sunderland.
Pilger replied by email to Sunderland:
“I don't recall an ABC or any other television programme in which Mr Jones or Ms Smith have been given the opportunity to answer questions raised by their reporting of events leading to the "intervention"… I am puzzled that such a public journalist should enlist a corporate vetting process familiar to his colleagues in the conduct of their legitimate investigative work.”
To which Sunderland responded:
“There is no sense in which our defence of the ABC’s journalism and our keenness to respond to public attacks on our program makers and our programs is in any sense a ‘corporate statement’.
“As part of the ABC News team, I can confirm we are fully accountable for our journalism and always happy to respond transparently to any questions.”
To date, the only time the ABC has been held accountable for its role in the intervention was on a recent Q&A program. Arrente-Alyawarra elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, sitting with Jones, put it eloquently:
“We do live under trauma. Just look back to 2007. One of the most horrific controls was put on us with absolute lies…. We were all pedophiles. Look at Mutitjulu. That was a lie. Absolute lie.”
That Kunoth-Monks said this is a testament to her strength and determination. That it came from a respected Aboriginal woman, an elder and stalwart of her community, is even more notable.
Instead of responding directly to the criticism, from a distinguished Indigenous woman directly affected by Lateline's reporting, Jones quickly deflected the question.
The ABC has never publicly explained their reporting; they have never issued an apology; they’ve never acknowledged the Mutitjulu community’s suffering as a result of Lateline’s false allegations. In 2006, when Mal Brough visited the community following the Lateline reports, they protested, holding signs painted “Lateline Lies” in red.
Instead, the ABC's independent complaints review panel investigated the story after a campaign by Mutitjulu locals. It cleared the report of 29 out of 30 allegations (the one upheld was a minor issue over mislabeled file footage).
As former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson said in Utopia, it was “farcical”.
“It’s a bit like the police investigating their own behaviour,” he told Pilger.
“It may be a perfectly proper process internally to do that, but then to rely on it as exonerating the programme-makers seems to me to be going a step much too far.”
Especially since Aboriginal people are still suffering under the Intervention.
Earlier this year I was at a Utopia event with Mutitjulu elder Bob Randall and his daughter, who broke into tears describing how their reporting affected her father. How could the national broadcaster get away with a story that demonised strong Aboriginal men, and effectively led to a policy that disempowered her people?
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks is from Utopia, a 12-hour drive from Mutitjulu, but Lateline’s atrocious demonization of this community ultimately ended up hurting her family. The smearing of one community affected Aboriginal people right across Australia.
Instead of responding to the impoverishment and suffering of Aboriginal people in the midst of one of the world’s richest societies – the very issue John Pilger raised in Utopia – the media rallies around its own false assumptions and received wisdoms, or falls willfully silent.
Journalists have a duty to report the truth about the epic injustice perpetrated against Indigenous Australia.
That’s what Utopia did and why Indigenous people all over this country believe it broke a long silence.
It gave voice to the voiceless. It told the truth.
* Amy McQuire worked as a researcher on Utopia. New Matilda editor and owner Chris Graham worked as an Associate Producer on the film.
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