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Politics

Jun 10, 2008

ABC clears ABC over Mutitjulu reports. Quelle surprise.

The Lateline scandal is a very intricate story. It's also bloody fascinating, writes Chris Graham.

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From The Australian newspaper’s Media section last week: “The ABC’s Lateline has been given the all-clear over its coverage of the troubled central Australian Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu after a “cynical” campaign against the program by residents and Northern Territory Labor politicians.

“In a 47-page report, the ABC’s independent complaints review panel found no breach of editorial policies in 29 out of 30 complaints against the program, which eventually led to the former Howard government’s intervention into NT Aboriginal communities.” (Read the Independent Complaints Review Panel’s full report here.)

Wow. The ABC cleared the ABC. My point being, self praise, or in the ABC’s case — self-total-vindication — is no recommendation.

So excuse me while I remain underwhelmed. And I excuse you, Crikey reader, for remaining confused. The Lateline scandal is a very intricate story. It’s also bloody fascinating. So here’s what all the fuss is about:

In April, 2006 Lateline reported the claims of Central Australian prosecutor Nanette Rogers that violence and s-xual abuse in Aboriginal communities had reached shocking levels.

Mal Brough, then new to the Indigenous affairs portfolio, appeared on Lateline a day later and, amid a growing media frenzy, promptly put his foot in his mouth by claiming that “everyone in those communities knows who runs the p-edophile rings”.

It was a claim that Brough would come to regret, and in fact abandon, within 24 hours. But not before some embarrassment and a few ‘difficult’ media interviews.

A month later, however, Lateline followed up the story with a piece entitled ‘S-xual slavery reported in Indigenous community’. Lateline revealed that it had found evidence to back Brough’s claim about p-edophile rings. Among several witnesses, it aired the statements of an ‘anonymous youth worker’ whose face was blacked out and voice digitised, purportedly to protect his identity for ‘safety reasons’.

“I’ve been told by a number of people of men in the region who go to other communities and get young girls and bring them back to their community and keep them there as s-x slaves …” the man claimed.

As it turned out, the ‘anonymous youth worker’ was none other than Gregory Andrews, a senior official in Mal Brough’s department. Lateline knew Andrews’ identity, and his links to the minister. Lateline knew Andrews had never worked as a ‘youth worker’. Lateline broadcast his claims regardless. Almost every one one of them has since collapsed, including a story he spun about reporting incidents of s-xual abuse in Mutitjulu to police.

The community of Mutitjulu filed a complaint to the ABC, and the complaints review panel has since seen fit to dismiss it. That is, of course, the panel’s prerogative.

My personal belief is that the implications for the ABC more broadly are profound — if sensationalism and opinion can be paraded as fact without sanction, I think Aunty is in some trouble. I’m also quite surprised that nobody, amongst the legion of ABC reporters, has had the balls to take this issue up.

But that aside, for the record, a group of lawyers will meet tomorrow in Sydney to discuss a Mutitjulu community request to take the matter to the Australian Communications and Media Association (ACMA). Lateline is by no stretch of the imagination out of the woods yet. And neither is Andrews. He is the star witness in the prosecution of a former federal public servant accused of leaking information on this issue. The trial gets underway in Canberra in August.

I mentioned earlier that this the story is very complex, so in the interests of moving forward, let’s forget all the claims and counterclaims of Lateline , NIT , Crikey et al. Let’s focus instead on the two central allegations in the Lateline story: that petrol was being traded for s-x with children; and that children were being used as s-x slaves throughout Central Australia.

Since the broadcast, a Northern Territory police investigation, responding to the Lateline allegations, found no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that petrol was being traded for s-x.

As to the p-edophile ring claims, the Australian Crime Commission reported to a Senate Estimates committee a fortnight ago that despite extensive investigations in Central Australia (and throughout the nation) they have uncovered “no information to substantiate that claim”.

Now, either you believe the claims of Lateline , a former politician and his adviser, or you believe the Northern Territory police and the Australian Crime Commission, a body given massive coercive powers and a budget to match to specifically investigate Indigenous child s-xual abuse.

Or, of course, you could believe The Australian newspaper and its editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell. He took up Lateline’s cause on Friday in his editorial: “Vindication of Lateline’s reporting of social breakdown, including children trading s-x for petrol, at the Mutitjulu community near Uluru … is most welcome,” the editorial said.

More than anything, the Lateline experience underscores the difficulties involved in breaking through the insiders’ club that has acted as gatekeeper as conditions have spun out of control in many remote Aboriginal communities.

Vocal critics of media reporting, including, ironically, the editor of the National Indigenous Times , Chris Graham, have done little to demonstrate they are in fact serious about improving the living conditions of those they claim to care most about. The thinness of the complaints made against Lateline , particularly given the subsequent findings of the Little Children Are Sacred report that it spurred, is further proof that the campaign against openness, including calls to retain the permit system for access to Indigenous communities, is based on mischief, not merit.

If only Chris Mitchell had taken the time to read his own paper’s coverage of the issue on August 6, 2006. The page 3 lead story was headlined: ‘Bogus TV interview supports minister’.

“A senior federal government bureaucrat has admitted posing as a ‘youth worker’ when he appeared on ABC’s Lateline program to back controversial claims by Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough that paedophile rings were operating in the Northern Territory,” wrote The Australian .

Greg Andrews, whose ruse was perpetrated with Lateline’s permission, appeared on the program in a June 21 broadcast with his face obscured and his voice altered. Mr Andrews was described as a “former youth worker”, although he has never held that title. He works in the Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination, which is part of the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

My favourite line in The Australian’s lengthy flogging of Lateline is this one: “The ABC conceded the program ‘failed to meet the requirements of balance and impartiality. The story has been removed from the ABC website’.”

The Lateline scandal is by a considerable margin the most challenging story I’ve ever covered in almost two decades in the media, both personally and professionally. And I’m mindful it ain’t over yet.

By contrast, catching out The Australian — yet again — in its half-arsed coverage of Indigenous Affairs is like shooting fish in a barrel.

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9 comments

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9 thoughts on “ABC clears ABC over Mutitjulu reports. Quelle surprise.

  1. Chris Graham

    This is an outstanding story by Chris Graham. It really is quite brilliant – you should believe everything he says. Did I mention how handsome Chris Graham is. He’s a sex bomb. Very smart as well.

  2. JamesK Cont'd

    What does that tell you? These are people of authority. These are the people that white fellas like me and bureaucrats turn up to, who go to consult with about answers to their communities, who we give money and more empowerment to and we walk away saying, haven’t we done a good thing.”

    Lastly with respect to Mr. Graham’s hatred of Brough. I have news for you Mr. Graham it is not shared by all of your peoples:

    ‘Remove children’ plea at Aurukun: Several members of Aurukun’s community justice group, led by Martha Koowarta, widow of a local land rights hero, are urging outsiders to take children from age nine for their safety and education.
    http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/remove-children-plea-at-aurukun/2008/03/13/1205126111240.html
    or
    APY leaders call for Mal Brough:INDIGENOUS leaders in South Australia’s troubled desert lands have delivered a rebuke to federal and state Labor by appealing to former Howard minister Mal Brough to head an independent intervention into their communities.
    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23733362-5013404,00.html

    What have you done in 20 years Mr. Graham?
    You are plainly more concerned about being “right” here than about the welfare of your people.

    Why the hell is Crikey publishing you time and again?

  3. JamesK

    You’re being true to form Mr. Graham. No answer to the arguments so viciously rail against the messenger. Would you physically attack me if you knew my full name and address?

  4. Chris Graham

    BSSSST? WTF?

    In any case, you can REPEAT the word INDEPENDENT all you like Andy, but that doesn’t make your claim any more accurate. The complaints review panel was established by the ABC and financed by the ABC. By your logic, the Queensland Police Ethical Command Unit which oversaw the investigation into the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee was also INDEPENDENT. I repeat INDEPENDENT. As for the conflict of interest, actually I don’t know what you mean, but now’s your time to shine ‘Andy’… log back in using your complete name, and share with everyone… the anticipation is killing me…

  5. Chris Graham

    Isn’t it strange how I’m the only one prepared to put my actual name to things I write… the rantings of ‘Andy’, ‘JamesK’, ‘Steve’… I don’t know why, but sometimes I suspect they might not be who they say they are!

  6. JamesK

    Chris Graham’s recent Crikey contributions:

    “Indigenous Australia thinks Brough is a joke” Tuesday, 27 May 2008
    “Brough and family mock Indigenous accent, culture” Thursday, 5 June 2008

    Now he returns to criticising Lateline, The Australian and The ABC’s Independent Complaints Review Panel……[That’s INDEPENDENT, Mr. Graham]

    Rather tellingly but disingenuously Mr. Graham says: “The Lateline scandal is by a considerable margin the most challenging story I’ve ever covered in almost two decades in the media, both personally and professionally”

    In 20 years Mr. Graham?

    What about the biggest single threat to the indigenous people of this country?

    Child Abuse on a fathomless scale in

    1.WA, The Gordon Report and others:
    http://www.dia.wa.gov.au/gordon/faq.html
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/08/10/2001763.htm

    2.NT and the Sacred Child Report
    http://www.nt.gov.au/dcm/inquirysaac/pdf/bipacsa_final_report.pdf

    3.SA and the Mullighan Report
    http://www.service.sa.gov.au/ContentPages/sagovt/mullighaninquiry.aspx

    But don’t allow a peripheral issue like the anihilation of aboriginal culture by unfettered child abuse get in the way of the meat n’potatoes of the Greg Andrews nonsense

    We are, however, given an alternative:
    “Now, either you believe the claims of Lateline , a former politician and his adviser, or you believe the Northern Territory police and the Australian Crime Commission, a body given massive coercive powers and a budget to match to specifically investigate Indigenous child s-xual abuse.”
    Supposedly this is the ACC’s response to the Senate Inquiry “grilling” by one Senator Rachel Siewert the self same who described Brough’s NT intervention in August 2007 as “fundamentally flawed”
    Neither the ACC nor Nt police deny now that there is and was child abuse and child sex abuse on a very large scale in these relevant communities.
    However the NT police has it’s own problems
    http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2008/06/08/4331_ntnews.html

    Chris Mitchell is then rubbished seemingly only(!) because of an article published in the same newspaper 2 years before which in fact was to do with the Greg Andrews saga. However, I think Mitchell hits the nail on the head:

    “More than anything, the Lateline experience underscores the difficulties involved in breaking through the insiders’ club that has acted as gatekeeper as conditions have spun out of control in many remote Aboriginal communities. Vocal critics of media reporting, including, ironically, the editor of the National Indigenous Times, Chris Graham, have done little to demonstrate they are in fact serious about improving the living conditions of those they claim to care most about.
    The rearguard action against Lateline has come from many of the same people who have yet to recognise that the corrupt ways of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission were a tragedy for most indigenous Australians and rightly belong in the past. Brian Johnstone, a former media adviser for ATSIC under Geoff Clark and Ray Robinson, and long-time press secretary of senator and accused sex offender the late Bob Collins, railed against Lateline in his NIT column. The thinness of the complaints made against Lateline, particularly given the subsequent findings of the Little Children Are Sacred report that it spurred, is further proof that the campaign against openness, including calls to retain the permit system for access to indigenous communities, is based on mischief, not merit.”
    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23817543-25209,00.html

    or

    TACKLING indigenous disadvantage was being hindered because tens of thousands of people employed in the “Aboriginal industry” were simply collecting their salary and serving out time instead of tackling the hard issues, according to leading Aboriginal academic, Stephen Hagan a lecturer at Toowoomba’s Southern Cross University
    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23757179-12332,00.html

    or

    Mal Brough’s Alfred Deakin Speech 2007:

    “Let me take you to Kalumburu. Kalumburu is up in the East Kimberleys. It is a town of about 300. There are only 90 males in Kalumburu. It’s isolated by the wet for a good part of every year. The wet will set in some time this month.
    Of those 90 men, in the last two months 15 have been charged with child sex offences. Fifteen out of 90 men. These are the charge sheets. Not one page, not two pages, not three pages, four pages.
    They’re all an offence against a child, predominantly penetrating a girl or a boy under the age of 13. Who were these 15 men? They were the mayor, the deputy mayor, two other councillors, the police liaison officer, a truancy officer, two wardens.
    What does that tell you? These are peo

  7. Steve

    It does make one wonder why they’d get someone as bias as Chris Graham to write this – surely someone like Margaret Simons should have written about this… Calling the independent panel’s ‘independence’ into question undermines the entire process – which if it was a legitimate argument it would be a respected one, rather it’s not because its premise is false.

  8. andy

    BSSSTTT. Wrong! It was not ‘The ABC clearing the ABC’…it was the INDEPENDENT complaint panel which cleared them.

    I repeat…the INDEPENDENT panel.

    With that, the entire basis of Chris Graham’s ‘argument’, goes out the window.

    Of course, would Crikey care to point out how the NT Times has a ‘bit’ of a conflict of interest when it comes to this story (you know what i mean!)

  9. Chris Graham's Brother

    Yes, he is indeed a legendary warrior for what’s best for indigenous people. The nation thanks you, Chris Graham.

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