A few weeks ago I got a call from an old mate in Darwin who asked me What the fuck has happened to the National Indigenous Times?”

I’d been out of the country for a while and had missed the last few issues of the National Indigenous Times (the NIT). I’d been aware that Chris Graham, who’d edited the fortnightly since it began in early 2002, had stood aside to be the NIT’s editor-at-large some time in the middle of 2009 and that Amy McGuire had been running the show as acting editor in his stead.

In February 2002 the first issue of the NIT was launched with the kind of proud and ambitious motherhood statements typical of every new media venture trying to cut out its patch. Then general manager Owen Carriage — who 10 years before had launched the only other indigenous newspaper of note and quality, the Koori Mail — told readers of the fledgling fortnightly that:

“We will champion the cause and pursue the decision makers to demand they rights the wrongs. We will publish without fear or favour and we will proudly accept the challenge of defending the absolute right for indigenous people to be given a fair go.”

Roll forward eight and a half years and Graham, many of his staff and their promises to publish without fear or favour have been thrown overboard in what new editor Stephen Hagan described in issue 202 of the NIT as a “coup d’etat”.

Running a fortnightly newspaper, particularly one aimed at such a small and fractured audience as Aboriginal Australia, is never easy. For all its occasional faults and inevitable stuff-ups I reckon that the NIT punched well above its weight and maintained a consistently high standard of editorial rigour and a healthy cynicism about the reams of propaganda spewed out by governments and those on the lunar fringes of indigenous politics.

Along the way the NIT won a Walkley Award in 2005, was highly commended for another and in 2004 won a Human Rights Award from the Australian Human Rights Commission for it’s coverage of the “stolen” wages and entitlements owed to NSW Aboriginal people.

In 2006 the NIT broke its biggest story to date, catching ABC TV’s Lateline out when it presented a federal government staffer posing as an anonymous child worker at the Mutitjulu community in the Northern Territory — a story that continues to irk some of the more sensitive souls over at the national broadcaster.

In issue 202 of the NIT, published in late May this year and Hagan’s first as editor, Hagan noted that:

“This editorial is also an opportunity to acknowledge principal past editors, columnists and staff who have seen the company through taxing times: Chris Graham, Amy McQuire (sic), Brian Johnstone, Jacqui Newberry, Larissa Behrendt and their staff who have moved on to new endeavours. Graham Ring makes his last appearance in this edition …

“It is also the intention of the NIT to be inclusive of all Indigenous groups, irrespective of their political views, in providing them with an opportunity to have their say on matters that concerns (sic) them.”

Just how “inclusive” the new NIT would be was apparent at page 26 of issue 202, with a whole page dedicated to what is little more than an unpaid advertisement for the Cape York Institute and the Cape York Land Council.

Crikey has obtained an email that Hagan sent in mid-June to several Aboriginal Land Councils and peak bodies in which he advises that:

“… one of the first things I did in my new position was to offer a page to an organisation I believe was previously excluded from our paper; those organisations linked with Noel Pearson. As you can see by the attached articles (on page 5 and 27), (sic) I’ve developed a rapport with the Cape York Land Council and associated organizations and now have an arrangement with them whereby they provide the NIT with their page of news and layout. I’m pleased to advise that they’ve featured in my first two editions. I’ve also said I would consider any prominent stories from them to go to the front of the paper, depending on its (sic) currency as a news item.”

Hagan goes on to make a similar offer to his addressees as that made to Pearson’s “organisations”. I reckon that it would be appropriate and ethical for Hagan to at least make it clear to his readers that any material from such sources that he presents as “news” should at least have some disclosure as to the source of the material.

This is particularly so when the NIT runs material as contentious as the “news” material generated by the Cape York Land Council in relation to its High Court challenge to the Queensland government’s “Wild Rivers” legislation and the material on the pages under the bold header “Unity News” over the logos of the Cape York Land Council, the Cape York Institute, the Cape York Partnerships and the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation — all of which are linked to Noel Pearson or his brother, Gerhardt.

And it seems that the new spirit of inclusiveness isn’t just restricted to “peak” Aboriginal organisations, with much of the “news” content in issues 202, 203 and 204 consisting of word-for-word reproductions of press releases from various federal and state government agencies, political parties and interest groups.

The most amusing — and concerning — of the many apparent lapses in the NIT’s approach to journalistic standards in these recent issues is the word-for-word reproduction of the most recent issue of the NIT of this joint presser, issued on June 19, 2010 by federal government indigenous affairs ministers Jenny Macklin and Warren Snowdon. Hagan reproduced that presser on page 7 of that issue under the original header “Improving community safety under the Northern Territory Emergency response”.

Apparently Hagan thought he hadn’t given FaHCSIA’s spinners enough of a free ride so he ran the same presser — but under the header “Emergency Response improving community safety” on page 15 of the same edition — this time matched with a large photo of Macklin.

It is early days for Hagan and his new team at the NIT and Crikey wishes them well — we need strong and independent voices in indigenous affairs journalism — but the early signs are not good.

Crikey understands that up until about late May this year four young Aboriginal cadets were employed at the NIT in various roles under the Indigenous Cadetship Support (the ICS) scheme operated by the Federal Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and that their employment — and their cadetships — have now been summarily terminated.

Earlier this week Crikey emailed several questions to Stephen Hagan and NIT’s general manager Beverley Wyner seeking information on the circumstances of Hagan’s appointment as editor and his previous experience as an editor or journalist and whether he would, in light of his employment as a Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, be undertaking his editorial duties on a full- or part-time basis.

Crikey also sought information on the number of journalists currently employed at NIT and the number, if any, of Aboriginal cadets currently employed by NIT under the ICS scheme.

Despite repeated attempts by email and phone to contact Hagan or Wyner, no response was received from either of them before deadline.

Peter Fray

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