Rumblings up north. The reporters are fighting. But are there grave issues of journalistic principle at stake, or is it more a matter of political posturing in the public eye?

“This is a stunt by Toohey. I guess its about the byline and publicity.” So said Northern Territory based Fairfax journalist Lindsay Murdoch to Crikey this morning about Paul Toohey’s dummy spit in The Australian.

Toohey announced today that he is returning his Walkley Award to the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance in protest at a proposed new code on reporting Aboriginal communities.

Toohey has runs on the board for reporting Aboriginal communities and for good journalism generally. But is he right in this case? I think he is overreacting.

But let’s deal with the background first.

Northern Territory journalists were more or less united in supporting former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough when he scrapped the permit system regulating access to Aboriginal communities. They believe the system has served to make these communities secret societies, in which pathologies can grow unchecked and vested interests are never held to account. On this, Toohey and Murdoch are agreed. And for what it is worth, having done a small amount of reporting in Aboriginal communities myself, I tend to agree with them too.

This stance has brought them into conflict with the MEAA, which has advocated retaining the permit system.

When the Government changed and announced that the permit system would be reinstated, Lindsay Murdoch in particular was active in campaigning for journalists to be allowed free access. “These societies absolutely have to be opened up,” he told Crikey this morning.

About three weeks ago Murdoch was on a trip to Groote Eylandt with the Minister, Jenny Macklin. She told him that while journalists would be exempted from the permit system she would insist on a Code of Conduct. Could Murdoch help draft something, and get the MEAA involved? Murdoch and Macklin agreed that it would be better for journalists to write the code than for it to be done by bureaucrats.

So Murdoch and other colleagues wrote a draft. This was distributed by the MEAA to journalists for comment, and included as a “suggestion” in this letter to the Department.

Alliance Federal Secretary Chris Warren tells Crikey that no process has been decided by which the code might be adopted or made formal. This seems, to put it mildly, surprising. Surely there should have been more consultation before it went to government?

Warren also said that the Alliance was not wedded to the wording, and it could be changed. I would argue that it should be – but I also think Toohey is over reacting.

First, the code is at this stage only a suggestion (though arguably it shouldn’t have gone to government in this form). Second, it would in any case be voluntary. Third and most important, the majority of it is not objectionable.

The first clause says journalists in Aboriginal communities should carry proof of their identity as journalists – probably good advice in any case and hardly onerous.

Points three and four are about trying to be knowledgeable and sensitive to cultural issues. Likewise good advice, and not onerous.

The last clause is about respecting privacy – which is already covered by the MEAA Code of Ethics, the Press Council principals and just about every other code on media practice. Hardly objectionable.

The only clause that raised my hackles on a first reading was the second one: “On arrival in a community media representatives will report to the police and council at the first opportunity and inform them what they intend doing in the community.”

To say the least, this could be better worded. To what extent is a journalist expected to brief the authorities on what they intend doing? And why on earth should they, when the council and the police are quite likely to be at the pointy end of the story?

Murdoch conceded this morning that the reference to the police could perhaps go, but argued that informing the council of your presence is current practice, and sheer good sense. It was easy, particularly for journalists not used to reporting these communities, to blunder in. He gave the example of branches laid across a road to indicate that a mourning ceremony is taking place. To intrude would be grossly offensive, yet without asking first visiting journalists could hardly know.

He also pointed out that journalists would be allowed into these communities when members of the public would not, so it was only reasonable that they be able to establish that they were indeed bona fide journalists.

Murdoch emphasises that the whole code will be voluntary. Depending on the story, journalists might choose not to inform the council of their presence – although in practical terms they would probably know you were there in any case.

Meanwhile MEAA Federal Secretary Chris Warren told Crikey this morning that he sees the code as an extension of the existing ethical obligation on journalists to identify themselves before seeking interviews.

It still seems to me that the second clause needs rewording. As written it suggests that the existing ethical obligation on journalists to identify themselves before seeking an interview applies differently to Aboriginal Australians, It suggests that Aboriginal people are under the protection of the authorities in a way that is not true for other Australians.

At the same time Murdoch argues that these communities operate differently from your average country town. Informing the council (rather than seeking permission) is common sense.

Warren says it is a tactical matter, rather than one of high principal.

“The question is do we try to engage with the process here, or do we stand on the sidelines and chuck rocks,” he said this morning. Toohey, it seems, has chosen to chuck rocks.

So should Toohey have sent back his Walkley? I think his move is premature and melodramatic. The code is in draft form. He had a chance to make sure it is reworded. If he was still not happy, that would be the time to spit the dummy.

Meanwhile, I hear that the journos who were finalists the year he won the Walkley are now wondering if they can now have the gong.

Peter Fray

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