A monument to slave trader Robert Towns in Townsville, Queensland. (Image: Wikimedia)

If you believe the media hype, Townsville is in the midst of a crime wave that has driven locals in the north Queensland city to take matters into their own hands.

Locals like Robbie, who cruises around Townsville in a clown mask roughhousing “suspicious-looking” teens.

The ABC talked to Robbie. An article published yesterday called him a “self-described patriot”, quoted him liberally (and uncritically), and documented his exploits scouring the streets for potential young offenders. The article, which warned of a “youth crime surge”, was splashed across the ABC News home page.

“We’ve got a theory that if you look suss, you are suss,” Robbie said of his approach to meting out justice. He also admitted to giving some of the kids “a bit of a whipping”.

Red flags should have been flying.

First, Robbie’s admission of criminal behaviour went pretty much unchecked by the ABC. As did his use of the term “patriot” — a favourite dog whistle among white supremacist and far-right groups trying to appear respectable in front of naive journalists (think Blair Cottrell’s United Patriots Front). 

Aunty retreats

The article copped plenty of criticism on Twitter for its sympathetic framing of vigilantism, including from ABC staffers.

Aunty backtracked quietly. A revised version removed the loaded “patriot” description — with no explanation. By mid afternoon, the article had been revised again to include quotes from a Griffith University criminologist and another local, questioning the effectiveness of vigilantism as a policing tactic.

Just after 5pm, an editor’s note was added, explaining that the article had been “amended to include context on some underlying factors in youth offending and additional comments from members of the Townsville community”.

No explanation was given for removing the “patriot” references, even though ABC editorial policies indicate that any removal of material will generally be explained with an editor’s note.

The ABC told Crikey: “This was an oversight which was rectified as soon as possible with an editor’s note.”

Is the crime wave real?

As The Guardian reported last week, the narrative of Townsville being overrun by crime isn’t reflected by the data. And in a town named after a slave trader, Robert Towns, there’s a real element of racial animosity to it.

Indigenous groups say hysteria about a crime wave is a racialised moral panic, whipped up by local news outlets and politicians playing the pre-election tough-on-crime card.

They’ve long raised the alarm about vigilantes targeting Indigenous kids. 

Facebook groups calling for vigilante justice against delinquent youth were also blowing up in Kalgoorlie right before Indigenous teenager Elijah Doughty was killed in 2016.

But all that nuance barely got a run on the ABC — local Indigenous elder Russell Butler was quoted only briefly in the final line.