One of the protest signs at Mutitjulu that greeted the arrival of Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough in October 2006.
Dr Stewart had begun prescribing Viagra to the man, aged in his 60s, in late 2000. On several occasions, he’d documented concerns the man was mis-using the drug.
In April 2001, Dr Stewart wrote: “Is using Viagra to have sex with young females”.
Despite this, he continued to prescribe Viagra for another 10 months, before finally cutting the man off in February 2002. Before leaving the community for a new posting, Dr Stewart marked the man’s health record with a warning that he should not be given further prescriptions of Viagra.
Subsequent doctors who worked in the community ignored the notes, and for at least another two years the drug was provided through the Mutitjulu clinic.
That Dr Stewart prescribed Viagra while he believed the man was using it to target young females is extraordinary. But that he then appeared on a national current affairs program and blamed Aboriginal people for creating an environment where the elderly man was able to target young women beggars belief.
Lateline’s handling of that revelation, however, was even worse.
In the original story, Lateline revealed details of a leaked report to the Northern Territory government which, viewers were told backed the theme of Lateline’s story – that powerful Mutitjulu men were protecting the elderly paedophile.
What Lateline declined to disclose is that the report also alleged that doctors in Mutitjulu were prescribing Viagra to the man, against the wishes of the local community.
Why Lateline chose to keep secret this information, and why it chose to give the very doctor who was doing it air-time to allow him to blame the community for the alleged abuse, remains unanswered.
Unfortunately, the problems with Lateline’s reporting went beyond its two chief witnesses.
Bob Randall is a respected Aboriginal film-maker and the writer of Brown Skin Baby, an anthem of the Stolen Generations. He was running the Mutitjulu Health Clinic during Dr Stewart’s reign, and was accused by Lateline of harbouring the elderly alleged paedophile, and of protecting other violent men.
In the lead up to Lateline’s 2006 scoop, Randall was touring the nation promoting a film about his life. He was approached by Lateline for an interview, but once on camera he was ambushed with the allegations about Mutitjulu.
It was the kind of ‘foot in the door’ reporting that might you expect from Today Tonight and A Current Affair. It also happens to be a clear breach of both the Journalist Code of Ethics, and ABC policy.
Lesley Calma, Randall’s nephew, was also targeted in the story. Lateline reported that he had “two convictions for assaulting a female”. What Lateline did not disclose to viewers is that the convictions were decades old.
Finally, it later emerged that the old man at the centre of Lateline’s story had actually been forced out of the community more than half a year before the program aired, because of his behavior towards women (not children).
The whole premise of the story – that Mutitjulu men had protected this alleged paedophile – collapsed.
Yet Lateline followed up its original report with a story inferring the man had fled the community “recently”. Any reasonable viewer would have been left with the impression it was a direct result of Lateline’s reporting.
Tony Jones was right to correct Dave Tollner. The Northern Territory intervention was a policy launched by a government, not by the ABC.
But the Howard government could never have enacted legislation described by the United Nations as “unique” and “striking” in its racism, without the comfort and cooperation of Australia’s media.
On that front, Lateline was the Howard government’s chief ally.
Unfortunately, Jones, Suzanne Smith (the journalist who filed the story), Brett Evans (producer of the story) and the ABC more broadly have not accepted any responsibility.
Not for the intervention that came as a direct result of their reporting, and not for the atrocious reporting itself. Instead, they’ve maintained the fiction that Lateline’s reporting was ‘journalism at its best’.
If Lateline’s coverage of ‘sexual slavery’ in Central Australia is the best journalism the ABC can deliver, then I shudder to think what their worst looks like. And I shudder to think how the ABC would confront ‘its worst’ journalism, given how it dealt with ‘its best’.
After the Lateline story aired, the Mutitjulu community submitted a lengthy complaint to the ABC. It was referred to the ABC Complaints Review Panel, an instrument described by the ABC as “independent” despite the fact it is appointed and funded by the ABC.
Having thoroughly investigated itself, the ABC found that it had done nothing wrong, save for the minor oversight of failing to label vision from communities other than Mutitjulu as file footage.
That’s it. The sum total of the ABC’s concession.
It had no problem with the fact Lateline faked the identity of its chief witness. This was done to protect Andrews’ identity, found the ABC, ignoring the fact that not only was Andrews originally willing to appear as Andrews, but that shortly after filming the interview he spent several days in the Mutitjulu community on behalf of the Howard government without protection, and without incident.
The ABC also found no fault with the ambush journalism employed against Bob Randall, nor the fact Leslie Calma’s criminal record was grossly misrepresented. It had no problem with the fact Lateline never visited Mutitjulu, and never disclosed this fact to viewers.
But what is most concerning is that the ABC had no problem with Lateline’s refusal to report almost all of the revelations that emerged as their story very publicly fell apart.
The allegations that children were being held as “sex slaves” and traded between Aboriginal communities sparked major police investigations, including an extensive inquiry by the Australian Crime Commission. The ACC found no evidence of paedophile rings in Central Australia.
The specific claims by Lateline that petrol was being exchanged for sex with children in Mutitjulu, also sparked a major investigation by Northern Territory police. According to the federal government, up to 300 people were interviewed by police.
NT police Superintendent Colleen Gwynne subsequently staged a press conference, at which she reported that while there was some evidence petrol had been supplied to children, there was “no evidence whatsoever” to support Lateline’s claims that it was being supplied to children in exchange for sex.
Lateline refused to report Superintendent Gwynne’s statements, later claiming that it didn’t have the space to run the story.
It must surely be the first time in Australian media history where an outlet breaks a story that sparks a major police inquiry, and then refuses to follow up with a report on the results of that police inquiry.
Lateline did, however, find space to run a story headlined, Indigenous community expresses thanks for exposing child abuse, a self-congratulatory puff piece that relied on the ‘thanks’ of a single Aboriginal woman from Yuendumu, a community some 12 hours drive from Mutitjulu, and not featured in the original story.
As for the revelations that the other chief witness in the Lateline story – Dr Geoff Stewart – had prescribed Viagra to the alleged paedophile up to 10 months after expressing concern he was using the drug to target young females, as you can probably imagine, the story got a healthy run in mainstream media. It did, after all, feature paedophiles, blackfellas and Viagra – a ‘made for mainstream media’ yarn.
There was only one major news organisation in the country that refused to report the story. And I’m not just referring to Lateline.
Despite the story breaking nationally, not one ABC outlet in the country – no radio station, no TV program, no online forum – ran a single syllable of the revelations.
Journalists in ABC Darwin’s newsroom later complained they’d been prevented covering the collapse of Lateline’s story by management. And for the record, to this day, ABC’s Media Watch program has still never uttered one word of the entire issue.