As Crikey has reported on Tuesday and Wednesday there are real concerns at Yuendumu and across central Australia about the way that some journalists went about their business reporting on what should have been, and largely was, a good news story.

The opening this past Monday of the Yuendumu swimming pool was the result of years of hard work by locals and their supporters.

Of the large media contingent that descended on Yuendumu last Monday, most reported the opening of the pool as the result of that sustained local effort. But two, Russell Skelton of The Sydney Morning Herald and Natasha Robinson of The Australian reported that the opening of the pool, directly or indirectly, was somehow linked to the Jenny Macklin’s NT Intervention.

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There are real local concerns about these articles and they arise from two issues — firstly the false links between the swimming pool and Macklin’s NT Intervention, and secondly, whether journalists get and write their stories in a fair, balanced way that accords with local ethical standards. At the centre of this second concern is the perception that journalists may be acting unethically or unfairly by conducting interviews with, and attributing comments to, local people without properly explaining who they are, what they do, where their words will go and for also failing to ensure that locally-specific language and cultural issues and sensitivities are properly recognised and respected.

This last issue has been of particular and long-standing concern to the Pintupi, Anmatjere & Warlpiri Media and Communications organisation (PAW Media — formerly known as Warlpiri Media).

As long ago as 1988 Warlpiri Media established protocols for media, film crews and photographers wanting to work at Yuendumu and nearby Warlpiri lands and were based on a number of concerns raised by yapa (Aboriginal people).

As noted in the PAW Media Filming and Photography Protocols as at October 2008 these concerns included:

  1. Insensitive coverage of Aboriginal people and issues due to cultural misunderstandings of kardiya journalists.
  2. Filming or photography of culturally sensitive areas and cultural activities within the Yuendumu settlement,
  3. Taking away of images and audio of yapa without any copies being left or returned to Yuendumu,
  4. Loss of the ability to exercise intellectual property rights to Warlpiri content recorded/filmed by external media,
  5. Loss of control of photographs or films in which deceased people were portrayed,
  6. Impacts on the privacy of yapa going about their daily business in and around Yuendumu.

PAW was established specifically to ensure that yapa could gain at least some degree of control and participation in how they were represented by the media and to make their own decisions about what was appropriate to record and report on.

In 1988, at the direction of senior people and Warlpiri traditional owners an approval process was initiated based on a legal document that would be familiar to any film and media crew in Australia — an Agreement to Film — this is similar to the uncontroversial access and rights processes familiar to journalists across Australia and established by, for example, these procedures used by local government in New South Wales. In the NT both the Northern and Central Land Councils have long-established media protocols for media and filming access to Aboriginal land in the southern NT.

And, as PAW Media points out, there are real benefits for the media in complying with PAW’s media protocols. These include assistance with planning a project, facilitating communication by way of briefings on local cultural norms and practices, establishment of a cooperative process between the media outlet or film crew and the community, assistance with interpretation and translation — a vitally important matter on the Warlpiri lands where most people speak English as a second or third language — and ensuring that people do not breach important local cultural protocols, particularly in relation to mourning rituals.

But perhaps the most important role for PAW Media’s is its offer to act as a cultural “fixer”.

As the PAW Protocols note:

The role of the fixer is a well accepted and paid role in relation to foreign journalists. It is important to reflect on places such as Yuendumu, where English is not the first language and where strong cultural practices remain largely unknown to mainstream Australia, as being in a sense ‘unknown country’ where a guide can make the difference in getting the story or not getting the story.

And, it seems that, rather than going through PAW Media’s protocols or using PAW as a local fixer, Minister Macklin’s staff, with no local knowledge or agreement, took that role on for themselves.

Crikey understands that Macklin’s staff “backgrounded” selected journalists on the day — particularly on the content of the private meetings between the Minister and community members from which the media were excluded. PAW Media sought to record the meetings on video for later local broadcast but were told to leave by the Minister.

And, as Russell Skelton notes in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

Ms. [Peggy Nampijinpa] Brown was interviewed by the Herald in the presence of a member of Ms Macklin’s staff as she left the shop.

And it seems that Russell just can’t take a trick. In relation to the Statement by Peggy Nampijinpa Brown, the bi-lingual text of which was published in Crikey yesterday, he describes that as “…a statement released in Ms. [Peggy Nampijinpa] Brown’s name by the Intervention Rollback Action Group…”

Russell should have a closer look at Nampijinpa’s statement — when he does he will see that it was signed by Nampijinpa and witnessed by one of her classificatory sisters. Nampijinpa’s Statement was written and released from here at Yuendumu.

Crikey also understands that late yesterday afternoon Russell had a long and sometimes heated telephone discussion with a local woman who offered him the opportunity to return and make his apologies and to sit down to hear the real story from the women of Yuendumu. Russell apparently refused to offer an apology as he was “not obliged to” but would accept the offer to return “when he has the time.”

The PAW Protocols also raise local concerns about the effect on media access of the recent changes to permit system on Aboriginal land in the NT introduced by the previous Federal government and make a plea for respect and commonsense:

“Where access for journalists without an entry permit is legislated for, the Yuendumu community requests that journalists abide by normal standards of journalistic integrity and have special regard for the sensitivities of remote Aboriginal communities.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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