News Limited journos on Alice Springs’ Centralian Advocate fear they could be charged by police with failing to mandatorily report child abuse after publishing a story purporting to lift the lid on under-age s-x in the red centre.

On Tuesday, the 8,000-circulation Advocate reported (not online) that 13-year-old Trish and 16-year-old Petty (not their real names) had been plied with alcohol by a pimp called “Madam” and offered up to “boys” outside the town’s Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The yarn immediately drew the attention of the Northern Territory Police, who demanded the Advocate furnish them with hard evidence to support the claims. Under the Territory’s Care and Protection of Children Act, suspicions and knowledge of child abuse are required to be immediately reported to the authorities. A failure to do so can lead to criminal charges.

Advocate Managing Editor Dallas Frakking says the approach puts staff in an invidious position in relation to the protection of sources. Police were annoyed because “we’re doing the job they’re supposed to be doing,” he said, and the paper would continue to probe the alleged s-x trade in future editions.

Alice Springs Superintendent Michael White confirmed to Crikey that police had met with newsroom employees this week to enquire into the background behind the yarn by Mluleki Moyo that was re-published the next day in sister paper Northern Territory News.

Yesterday, police HQ issued a press release stating the force was “reviewing whether or not there have been any breaches of the mandatory reporting requirements in regards to child abuse.”

“The public should be aware that making reports to the media does not constitute mandatory reporting…the legislation is quite clear and requires immediate reporting to occur to Police or the Department of Children and Families.”

The Advocate was not mentioned by name, however the running battle is expected to escalate as the investigation continues over the next week.

In January, an NT youth worker was charged for failing to report s-xual abuse — the first such case under the legislation introduced in 2007.

The revelations will deepen the rift between the media and local police after a March 1 statement from the Territory’s top cop John McRoberts claimed there was no evidence of child prostitution in the Alice, despite weeks of allegations in the Territory Parliament and elsewhere in the media.

“Not only has nobody been charged but there is nothing on police records to suggest that prostitution with children has raised its head in Alice Springs in the past,” McRoberts said.

In the weeks prior, the Advocate had published several editorials by local independent MLA Alison Anderson on the town’s often violent nightlife. Anderson claimed she saw a carload of Sudanese men pick up an under-age girl in late February, a suggestion vigorously rejected by community leaders.

The lurid anecdotes were also retailed in the NT Parliament are understood to have provided much of the context for her partner Nicolas Rothwell’s portrait of the problems published in The Australian on February 19.

Rothwell’s piece sparked a huge response, with The Australian‘s letters section and New Matilda running critical responses questioning whether he had unfairly sensationalised the problems with s-x and alcohol in the Alice. Anderson responded two days later.

There is now speculation that the duo could also be charged for failing to report the alleged abuse, however neither Rothwell nor Anderson responded to Crikey‘s requests for comment this morning. Anderson says she has kept the police in the loop at all times.

The fresh heat brings to an end a eventful week for the Advocate, after it was charged with contempt of court and forced to issue a front-page apology for an incorrect piece on the notorious Ed Hargrave murder trial.

On Tuesday the paper said that a juror was related to both of the accused in the case, drawing a stern rebuke from Justice John Reeves. The fracas ended up being reported by the Guardian‘s respected media writer Roy Greenslade.

The Advocate was forced to run a front-page apology in today’s edition.

Peter Fray

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