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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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