Pressing matters of state (the Australia v NZ Rugby League test) prevented my attendance at this year’s Northern Territory Media Awards at Darwin’s Holiday Inn on Saturday night, but by all accounts it was an absolute cracker! The stage was set by the spray delivered under Parliamentary privilege by the Northern Territory’s Deputy Chief Minister, Syd “Vicious” Stirling in the Legislative Assembly last Thursday night, aimed at Lateline‘s Tony Jones, the chosen host for Saturday night’s awards.

In a long speech he took several swipes at the ABC and particularly the Lateline program and its host, Tony Jones, for their part in what has become known as the Mutitjulu scandal. Stirling called Jones a “grub” and the Darwin Press Club, organisers of the Media Awards, were described as ‘disgraceful’ for having the temerity to invite Jones to Darwin to present at the Awards:

Lateline and Tony Jones are up for a Walkley Award. Nothing could be more disgraceful in Australian journalism. The fact that this program has been nominated undermines the Walkley Awards…

…There can be no bigger beat-up. You have an old woman who has not lived there for seven years, you have got a doctor that has not lived and worked there for four years, and you have got a staffer from the federal minister’s office intent on creating as much mayhem as he can in this area. They put all of these lies together, present them as fact that this all occurred in the days and weeks and months prior, run this drivel out.

…My final word is I think it is an absolute disgrace that he is invited here for the media awards on Saturday night, because as much as the nomination of his program devalues and undermines the credibility of what ought be the highly prized and ethical award, the Walkley Award, so also is the evening on Saturday night in the Northern Territory press awards by having such a grub in their midst.

This set the stage for a real barney. Jones landed at Darwin airport on Friday morning unaware of Stirling’s comments and the sh-tstorm he had flown into.

The Lateline host was briefed as soon as he got off the plane and by Saturday night Jones was well primed. He presented his speech in the form of a memo to Clare Martin, the NT Chief Minister.

By some accounts he gave a well-reasoned and vigorous defence of Lateline and the way they ran the Mutitjulu story and related s-xual abuse claims. Others thought that Jones failed to address a number of matters of serious concern, including perceived ethical breaches, raised by the Lateline broadcasts and the subsequent conduct of Lateline editorial staff in relation to the saga.

Jones took questions from the floor and a host of local journos, some no doubt enlivened by liquid refreshments, gave him an absolute roasting for a tense 20 minutes of vigorous and sustained questioning that included scathing comments about Lateline’s handling of the Mutitjulu scandal.

At least Jones fronted up and met the locals. “Vicious” was nowhere to be seen.

What does all this matter? Well, to the hacks of the NT media it matters a lot – they see Lateline as having trampled on their turf by sensationalising a story they’ve been reporting for years but that has been largely ignored by their editors, politicians and readers.

They are also upset by the “moral panic” approach that Lateline and other national media have taken to a story from the NT media’s own backyard, and they despair at the clumsy handling and the subsequent vigorously prosecuted debate over ethical standards in reporting sensitive issues concerning indigenous culture. Most of all, they hate being scooped on a story of national significance.

There is a lot of angst about these matters up here, and it has spread from the ranks of ABC radio and TV journalists concerned about the trashing of their collective reputations into the wider news community. Hopefully it will lead to a healthier profession with heightened editorial and ethical standards … but the monsoonal build-up season is here and the locals aren’t renowned for their reason and commonsense when the temperature and humidity climb and life looks a lot better through the bottom of a glass.