Open any newspaper, tune into any TV or radio station, and you’ll hear that the rise of the internet and social media has sent Australia’s Fourth Estate into serious decline. But the Australian media has been in decline for a very long time, argues CHRIS GRAHAM*. Social media has simply has made it a lot more obvious. In this special feature, we bring you the story of how the Northern Territory intervention was extended last month by the Gillard government for another decade with the support of the Liberals and Nationals, despite the fact the policy is failing badly. And it couldn’t have happened without the support of the nation’s media, one institution in particular. The ABC, also known as Aunty.
Self praise is no recommendation, so when television personality Tony Jones last year described ABC Lateline’s 2006 coverage of sexual violence in remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities – reporting which led directly to the 2007 NT intervention – as among the best he’d ever seen, I was a little underwhelmed.
Jones, of course, is the former anchor of Lateline, now the face of the popular Q&A program.
My sense of unease wasn’t helped by the fact that Lateline’s coverage proved extremely popular with politicians.
Generally speaking, when conservatives get ‘excited’ about Aboriginal affairs, some blackfella somewhere in the country is going to get done over. But excited they got, and few more so than Dave Tollner, Country Liberal Party MP, and the Member for Fong Lim, in the Northern Territory parliament.
In my career, I’ve only ever had one encounter with Tollner. It was in Alice Springs in 2009, when the Northern Territory parliament moved south to Alice Springs for a session, to bring ‘democracy to the people’.
I sat directly behind Tollner throughout much of the proceedings, and for several days watched him surf Facebook on his laptop.
Occasionally, he’d leap to his feet to bag at the Opposition, only to sit down and resume his Facebook pursuits.
In fairness to Tollner, while his internet habits ultimately led to the website being banned during sittings of NT Parliament, he does have a more serious side.
In December 2011, Tollner appeared on the Q&A program, filmed in Darwin and hosted by Tony Jones.
After lamenting that there wasn’t a single hairdresser employed on either side of the Stuart Highway – evidence, apparently, that there was no economic development – he weighed in on the meaty topic of the Northern Territory intervention. Co-panellist and Central Australian Aboriginal leader Rosalie Kunoth-Monks had suggested that government needed to engage properly with Aboriginal people, “not hunt us like dogs”.
Tony Jones invited a response from Tollner.
“Let’s put some things into context here Tony, and I do acknowledge your role in the intervention…” said Tollner.
A clearly pissed off Jones interrupted. “I had no role in the intervention, that was done by a government.”
“No, no, no, but it was your show that lifted the lid on many of the problems that occur in remote communities and I acknowledge that,” said Tollner.
“That led to the major inquiry that resulted in the Little Children Are Sacred report, so I do acknowledge your interest in this area.”
As with so many things that perennial class clown Tollner says, it drew laughter from the audience, although it had a distinctly cynical tone to it.
Of course, Jones is right. The NT intervention was a government policy. But Tollner was also partly correct. It was Lateline’s reporting that led directly to the Little Children Are Sacred report, a landmark inquiry into sexual violence in NT Aboriginal communities.
And it was the Little Children Are Sacred report on which the federal government relied to launch an unprecedented assault on the rights of the nation’s most disadvantaged people.
That, and the launch of their 2007 re-election campaign.