The more things change, the more they stay the same. Particularly when it comes to responsible reporting of Aboriginal poverty.
Last week, Four Corners pointed its lens into a few Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and produced a beautiful piece of promotion for the WA government and its plans for a catastrophic assault on Aboriginal homelands.
Every year, there seems to be a new story on Aboriginal poverty. But it’s more than just “poverty porn”. This is called “fishbowl journalism”, where the Australian media arrive to film devastating pictures of the Aboriginal problem, feel outraged, dismayed and shocked by it, and then a couple of months later do basically the same story from another remote corner of the country.
Then, a year later, they do it again; effectively swimming in circles, drunk on their own reflection, viewing Aboriginal Australia through the distorted view of their own privileged fishbowl.
Last week’s Four Corners was a good example of fishbowl journalism, complete with the usual images of poverty within Aboriginal communities and allegations of domestic violence, child sexual abuse and alcoholism, voiced predominantly by non-Aboriginal people in positions of power.
Four Corners even filmed Aboriginal people living in the parks and streets of Broome, struggling with alcohol abuse. One has to argue about the ethics of that.
Four Corners’ intention was to provide an “unflinching portrait” of WA Aboriginal communities in order to discover if the WA government’s plans to stop funding services to up to 150 remote communities is justified.
The plans were announced following an agreement signed between the state and federal governments, offloading the Commonwealth responsibility to fund essential and municipal services in remote Australia onto the WA government.
It sparked anger around the country after Prime Minister Tony Abbott backed WA Premier Colin Barnett, saying taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to fund the “lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal people who choose to live remotely. The plans have been the subject of protests that drew tens of thousands of people around the country, but which were largely ignored by mainstream media.
Four Corners promised to confront the “uncomfortable truth” about these communities. But instead it presented a distorted one. What is more uncomfortable for journalists is taking the time to untangle the complicated history of Aboriginal affairs, to look at the enormous level of government neglect and disempowerment and examine how that has led to the sad situation facing many Aboriginal people in remote Australia today.
It is easier to take the soundbites of people like non-Indigenous lawyer John Hammond, who claimed that remote communities are a “disgrace”, of state Indigenous affairs minister Peter Collier who regurgitated the same tired government lines about “sustainability” while facing no challenge from the journalist, the WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan in a state that jails the highest number of Aboriginal people per population, and a representative of the Broome Chamber of Commerce, who doesn’t believe in alcohol restrictions for the town because tourists don’t want to be told what they shouldn’t drink: “It’s not the Australian way”.
Interspersed with these interviews are comments from Aboriginal people, who largely talk about their own experiences, but are not given the opportunity or the time to outline their own solutions, unless they are talking about Aboriginal people taking more responsibility for their poverty and deflecting blame from government.
The program probed the community of Oombulgurri, which was bulldozed in 2011 after the state evicted the last remaining residents following cases of child sexual abuse.
The government could do this because, while the local Balanggarra people won native title following a 20-year fight in 2013, it did not include the Oombulgurri community. That land instead remained in the WA government’s Aboriginal Lands Trust.
After the eviction, the community lost their ability to practice their culture. They own a barge that transported them across the Forrest River, which was seized by the government and now prevents many traditional owners from going back to country to exercise the native title rights they spent 20 years fighting for.
The residents’ white goods and other items were seized. People were forced into the nearby town of Wyndham, where many slid into homelessness among a reported increase in suicides.
The ongoing trauma was documented by Amnesty International’s Tammy Solenec who understands that while it is important to try to deal with the problems afflicting remote Australia, further disempowerment will only traumatise an already traumatised people.
The Barnett government’s 11th hour justification to close the communities — that they are havens of domestic violence and child abuse while failing to present any evidence — is given little scrutiny by Four Corners.
It is reminiscent of the media complicity that helped the Howard government pave the way for the Northern Territory intervention.
That policy is still the greatest Aboriginal rights abuse in recent times and was supported by months of reporting on child sexual abuse led by the ABC’s Lateline, which broadcast lies about a predatory paedophile in the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu. The community had actually kicked out the man months before, but was nevertheless placed under administration.
Lateline’s reporting led to a moral panic from white Australia, the majority of whom have no contact with Aboriginal people and are used to viewing them as the “other”. The ensuing media coverage slandered the majority of Aboriginal men with the lie that they are all child abusers and painted Aboriginal communities as protectors of paedophiles and people who do not care about the safety of their children.
The media uncritically accepted the lies put forth by then-Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough that there were “paedophile rings” in every community, a claim that was obviously false and later proved to be so.
What was left out of the discussion was the fact that for years the NT and Commonwealth governments had underfunded and underspent on communities in the Northern Territory, and that this systematic neglect — such as overcrowding and poor housing — had a direct impact on rates of child abuse.
The NT intervention led to a deep sense of disempowerment across the prescribed communities, and attempted suicide and self-harm rates more than quadrupled. When the ability to control your own life is taken out of your hands, it is very hard to see a future.
The role of trauma, and the ongoing negative effects of intergenerational trauma, in Aboriginal communities will not be solved by closing down communities, nor by again taking power away from of Aboriginal people.
That’s what Four Corners did last night. By prioritising the views of non-Aboriginal people and acting as if they are guardians of the solution, it again pushed Aboriginal people to the periphery. It also let government off the hook for their failures, which will continue to re-traumatise and compound the problem.
The only time Four Corners reporter Deb Whitmont put any heat on an interviewee was when she chastised the chair of the local Oombulgurri council for not doing enough to stop child abuse in the town.
And the ending comments again deflected blame back onto the shoulders of Aboriginal people, by repeating the lie that they are not taking responsibility for their own lives.
Whitmont ended the piece by opining: “The challenges for remote communities won’t be solved simply by mass closures, nor can they be solved entirely by governments. Some believe it’s time for Aboriginal people to step up.”
The piece then quotes Susan Murphy, CEO of the Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation who says, “As an Aboriginal woman I’m of the opinion we can’t keep giving them handouts. That at the end of the day there are some of us out there saying enough is enough, we have to start being responsible for our own actions and decisions … we have to start showing governments … that we can do it.”
The problem is, Aboriginal communities have been waiting for 200 years for government to step up. And when Aboriginal people do step up and want to have a say in their own future, they are told their solutions are worthless, and then they’re ignored.
An example is the dismantling of the two successful ATSIC programs — Aboriginal devised and run. One is the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which provided a form of employment to Aboriginal people in remote areas where there were no jobs. The other is the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP), which helped provide finance for infrastructure in remote communities.
As Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt said: “The psychological impact of withdrawing from these successful programmes has been undeniably negative. It’s only one dynamic among many, but the government’s own data shows escalating levels of unemployment and welfare dependence and continually low school attendance; self-harm and suicide rates have doubled since 2007.”
You don’t see any of this context in this piece of “fishbowl journalism” purporting to be Australia’s premier investigative news program.
While it was a great “investigation” for the Barnett government, it was less so for Aboriginal people, who have a right to live on their country and determine a future free of another paternalistic, racist government intervention.
[This article first appeared in New Matilda.]