NATIONAL: Aboriginal affairs in Australia is paved with the corpses of people with good intentions. Some of them are bureaucrats. Some of them are politicians, writes CHRIS GRAHAM.
And many of them are journalists.
I am, of course, referring to the recent coverage of the crisis engulfing the small NSW Aboriginal mission town of Toomelah.
While some media outlets like the Sydney Morning Herald and the 7.30 report acknowledged residents’ views that the closure of CDEP was the major cause of the community’s problems, most media coverage –with the notable exception of the Koori Mail – has focused on the problems, rather than the causes. This is a regular feature of media reporting of Aboriginal communities, as though the Australian people are unaware that blackfellas live in poverty.
Misha Ketchell, the former editor of Crikey.com.au coined the phrase ‘fishbowl journalism’ to describe the practice of media reporting the problems in Aboriginal Australia one day; only to forget that yesterday they’d reported on the problems in Aboriginal Australia, and so were planning a feature for tomorrow on the problems in Aboriginal Australia. Not unlike a fish that swims around a bowl and forgets it’s already completed a lap.
The coverage of Toomelah, in particular by the ABC’s 7.30 report, has all those hallmarks.
That said, I acknowledge you can’t address the causes of disadvantage if you pretend the problems don’t exist. And like the Einfeld report in 1988, the recent SMH coverage has helped to thrust Toomelah back into the public consciousness.
That’s a good thing. But some media coverage has been far less helpful, and ironically it’s come from two media outlets that specialise in Aboriginal affairs.
National Indigenous Television – a broadcaster on the Pay TV networks – weighed into the story on May 10.
The piece was riddled with errors, and caused the angst-ridden community of Toomelah even greater concern. It also made the job of a senior NSW Aboriginal Land Council employee, who was working in the community to try and help them resolve their problems, substantially more difficult.
NITV opened their coverage with presenter Natalie Ahmat telling viewers, “Pressure continues to mount on the NSW Aboriginal Land Council following reports that it suggested an intervention or complete closure of the town of Toomelah”.
One problem: no media had reported NSWALC (publisher of Tracker) suggested complete closure of the community, because NSWALC had suggested the complete opposite. On May 8, the Sydney Morning Herald, on which NITV’s story was based, had reported that NSWALC supported an “Aboriginal led intervention” into Toomelah.
The choice of the word ‘intervention” was that of the Herald, and wasn’t particularly helpful given the history of the word. That said, the rest of the Herald article focused on the fact that NSWALC had sent a senior Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) support officer into the community to assist in rebuilding the LALC, and quoted a NSWALC spokesperson that “government intervention or forced relocation was not the answer” and would be vigorously opposed by NSWALC.
NITV, presumably, either didn’t read beyond the first paragraph, or decided to ignore the rest of the article.
Ms Ahmat then cut to an interview with a former resident, Doug McGrady, who stated that NSWALC officials – or Toomelah residents – would die if NSWALC tried to close the community down. Way to help an Aboriginal community in crisis NITV! Quote someone threatening others with death, over a story that you invented.
The fact that NITV filed their yarn from Sydney and the Central Coast, without actually visiting Toomelah, might explain some of the errors. But certainly not all of them.
And definitely not this: “Other north west communities are now banding together to support Toomelah, blaming the land council for the poor state of health, housing and education.”
Three points: Firstly, NSWALC is not – and has never been – responsible for “health, housing and education” in Toomelah, or anywhere else for that matter. NSWALC is responsible for land rights, and culture and heritage. That’s a fact that even the most junior reporter should know, let alone an Aboriginal reporter from an Aboriginal news station covering Aboriginal affairs.
Second point: the ‘other north west communities’ backing Toomelah turned out to be one individual. And he didn’t even live in the north west.
Ahmat told viewers: “Vincent Scott from Bellbrook Aboriginal mission, not far from Toomelah, says his community is no better off, and that more than 60 houses there are condemned.”
Bellbrook is almost 500 kilometres from Toomelah, and it’s not in the north-west. It’s inland from the NSW mid north coast.
And there aren’t even 60 houses there. The real figure is about 30, and community residents report that just one of them is uninhabitable.
Point three: housing in Bellbrook is controlled by the Thungutti Local Land Council and the Nulla Nulla Boongatti Aboriginal Corporation, not the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
Having completely misreported the story, NITV then cut to interviews compiled by reporter Charmaine Ingram, who took things from bad to worse.
After former Toomelah resident Madelaine McGrady made a lengthy statement condemning the NSW and federal governments for the state of communities in NSW, Ms Ingram asks: “So why do you believe NSWALC would want the town closed?”
She followed it up with this question: “Aunty Madeline, do you think there’s an ulterior motive at play here between the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and the state government?”
NITV did not seek comment from NSWALC before going to air with the story. The matter is now the subject of an complaint to NITV, although the station is being closed at the end of this month, and absorbed into SBS television.
NITV is unlikely to ever correct the story, or issue an apology. It was a pretty spectacular series of errors, although it wasn’t the worst of the coverage.
That honour belongs to the National Indigenous Times (note to readers: this writer is currently one of the shareholders of NIT).
A week after the Herald story broke, the front page of NIT screamed: ‘We were abandoned’. The ‘we’ in the story was Gwenda Stanley, an Aboriginal woman from Moree, over 100kms south of Toomelah.
Ms Stanley has never lived in Toomelah, but that rather significant fact didn’t get in the way of a spectacular story.
“Prominent Aboriginal advocate, Gwenda Stanley, a resident of Toomelah and Moree, has called on the people of Toomelah to take a class action against the NSW Aboriginal Land Council for ‘oppressing their community’,” NIT reported.
Ms Stanley said the NSW Aboriginal Land Council should accept responsibility for the plight of Toomelah residents.
“We’re talking about the biggest Aboriginal organisation in Australia with over $700 million in their bank,” Ms Stanley said.
“And just because the Toomelah Land Council got into a bit of financial trouble this big corporate entity washes their hands of them.
“The Chief Executive, Geoff Scott and his Board should have sent in an administrator to take control of the struggling Toomelah Land Council to maintain and repair the houses that they own but didn’t.
“That’s not showing leadership… that’s taking the easy way out and as a result the residents don’t pay rent and no repairs and maintenance are made to the homes in the community.”
Accuracy of reporting aside (and we’ll get to that in a second) there are a few problems with the comments.
Firstly, Toomelah-Boggabilla LALC didn’t “get into a bit of financial trouble”. They stopped auditing their books.
Secondly, NSWALC has just over $530 million ‘in the bank’ (its actually invested in share markets around the world), and is legislatively required to ensure the fund does not drop below $485 million. If it does, it can trigger an ‘intervention’ by the NSW government.
Thirdly, neither the CEO of NSWALC nor the Board can appoint administrators to Local Aboriginal Land Councils. That power rests with the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. NSWALC seeks to help communities avoid the appointment of administrators because (a) they’re expensive, and (b) the community loses control of a community organisation.
Finally, the homes at Toomelah are not owned by NSWALC, and never have been. They’re owned by the Toomelah-Boggabilla LALC. It is a LALC’s responsibility to maintain its assets. If those assets are not maintained, it’s a bit rich to expect the other 23,000 members of the NSW land rights network to stump up the cash because a group of residents decided they didn’t want to pay rent.
Even so, that is frequently what occurs, because NSWALC understands that many communities face significant challenges.
Still, it’s not as rich as what transpired in the following edition of NIT.
A clearly horrified Ms Stanley demanded NIT publish her letter of apology to the Toomelah community (the errors in the letter are not Tracker’s – we’ve published precisely what NIT published):
“I would like to send a message, apologizing to all my people of Toomelah and Boggabilla people, like many of you I too was quite surprised to see front cover of the last edition of the NIT within seconds of reading the second line, I was immediately on the phone to Stephen Hagan.
“Many of you that really do know me will stand with me on this, when I say that my conversation with (editor Stephen Hagan) was missed interpreted. Realistically, how stupid would I be to say this and without thinking I wouldn’t know the repercussions after it hits the front page.
“[Mr Hagan and I] had a 10-15 minute conversation at which time took place just after meeting of Graham Quirk at Brisbane Embassy and was not recorded.”
Ms Stanley also expressed frustration that her local LALC in Moree had been under administration for more than 15 years – “just another Gubba running our affairs.” How that squares with what Ms Stanley is alleged to have said – that NSWALC should have appointed an administrator to Toomelah-Boggabilla – is quite confusing.
But what is even more puzzling is that Mr Hagan includes lengthy – and some might suggest unusually eloquent – quotes from Ms Stanley in his original story, which purport to be her direct statements.
Given Ms Stanley – in far less eloquent language – now says her conversation with Mr Hagan was “not recorded”, and that she did not believe she was being interviewed, how exactly did he remember, word for word, what was said?
Tracker put that question to Mr Hagan.
He declined to comment publicly. It seems NIT, which promotes itself as a newspaper that ‘asks the hard questions’, is not so keen to answer them in a public forum. But rather than cop Ms Stanley’s letter on the chin, Mr Hagan devoted his editorial in the next edition to defending the indefensible.
He wrote: “At day’s end, we ran a story of our visit and quoted several people who were former residents of Toomelah who were critical of their current leadership.”
No Stephen, you didn’t quote “former residents” of Toomelah. You quoted some unnamed residents, and then a pile of current Moree residents, including Lyall Munro Snr, who now also alleges that he was misquoted.
Hagan then goes further by advancing a conspiracy that in writing her letter of apology, Gwenda Stanley must have been leant on by NSWALC (he clearly doesn’t know Ms Stanley very well, because those who do will tell you she takes instructions from no-one).
“One of those people quoted asked to have a retraction of her comments in the following edition, which we did – albeit 600+ words long – and points to coercion from sources in or close to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.”
In fact, it is not a ‘retraction’ if you didn’t know your “conversation” was an interview. It is a correction and an apology. NIT has issued neither.
Just a self-serving justification of sloppy journalism, and quotes which smack of having been embellished.
Tracker also asked Mr Hagan to provide evidence of Ms Stanley having been ‘coerced by sources in or close to NSWALC’.
Again, he declined.
Readers can make their own judgments about the motives of NIT in its consistent, albeit ham-fisted, attacks on NSWALC, although my view is that the timing is significant – they began shortly after the NSW Aboriginal Land Council launched Tracker magazine, a publication which competes directly with NIT for advertising revenue.
Whatever the reasons, none of this, of course, does anything to advance the interests of Aboriginal people.
It’s one thing – and a bloody good thing if you ask me – to hold the nation’s peak Aboriginal body to account. But that is never achieved by inaccurate and misleading reporting.
Ultimately, the interests of the Toomelah community have been harmed by this style of reporting, both by NIT and NITV.
In mid-June, a former resident was still insisting at a community meeting that Toomelah residents were facing forcible eviction by the NSW government (I guess the upside is that NSWALC had been removed from the ‘conspiracy’).
There is certainly apathy on the part of government. And there are bad policies that have been impacting on the people of Toomelah for decades. But the fact is, there is no conspiracy to move Toomelah, and there never was. It was a fiction invented by a bureaucrat with a propensity for racist outbursts.
On the upside, Toomelah is now getting more attention from government, although how that transpires to services on the ground remains to be seen.
Also on the upside, the reporting of Koori Mail – also a competitor of Tracker magazine – has been of its usual high standard.
It was the Koori Mail that was onto this story in 2010 (see above) and it was the Koori Mail who got the facts right again in 2012.
I hope NIT and NITV, whatever form it may end up, continue to report on the troubles of the Toomelah community, and others. No-one doubts the intentions of either news service.
But if they jettison fact and basic standards of reporting in the interests of a headline or cheap populism, they’re part of the problem, not the solution.
* Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker magazine. He is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and remains a significant shareholder in the publication.