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Today's Australian has the linguist Frances Kofod's moving obituary for a Gija painter and law man, Hector Jandany. This is the good side of the Australian's coverage of Indigenous affairs. The bad side however has come to the fore this week.

Today's Australian (15/9/06) also mocks the commercial TV journalist Naomi Robson's claim to have been " trying to save [a six-year old boy] from the hungry jaws of cannibals" in West Papua, with a headline "Robson in tabloid telly's dark heart". The authors don't distance themselves from the assumption that these West Papuans kill and eat children. In the Australian's online news, the Prime Minister is quoted.

"Mr Howard said he was not embarrassed by the saga and defended the right of journalists to chase stories."

Not a surprising comment from the Prime Minister, since this is the week that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, said he was going to revoke the permit system for Indigenous lands. Currently outsiders can't enter lands held by Indigenous people under certain titles if the land owners refuse them permits (there are blanket permits for teachers, government departments etc.). He wants journalists to have free access to Indigenous communities - apparently he believes that they will expose bad things happening on those communities (sexual abuse of children for example). And this free access will somehow reduce the incidence of these bad things.

Brough's move ties in with a campaign by the Australian to get free access to Indigenous communities (and see Chris Graham in the National Indigenous Times for another view of this). The dispute is really over what constitutes private living-space. Journalists can't trespass and enter people's houses. But they can stand out on the streets and talk to people coming and going. However, they can't get access to many Indigenous communities without a permit. So they can't stand on the streets of an Indigenous community and talk with people.

But what is private living-space when you have a large extended family, and you cook and camp out in the front or back yard? Should journalists be able to photograph you doing that? This constitutes more surveillance than most non-Indigenous people would endure, and many Indigenous people have bitter memories of such surveillance in the past. Even in the 1980s it happened - I remember a case in the Tennant Creek magistrates' court where an elderly woman was charged for getting up off her bed, shouting, picking up a stick and waving it angrily. How many of us have made angry remarks about other people in the privacy of our houses? Her bed was in her yard, and someone reported her.

The Australian's argument is that the media keeps people honest by making them accountable. But if journalists don't understand what people say to them, or how to interpret silence, they're not going to write accurate stories. They can do a hell of a lot of damage. It doesn't seem that the Australian cares that many casual readers will now think that in West Papua there are 'cannibals' pure and simple. And this week provided another example of just plain lazy journalism.

Monday's Australian 11/9/06 p.7 had an article with the inflammatory headline Legal push to snare more black killers. The gist of the article is that the Northern Territory Opposition and the Police Association believe that too many people of non-English speaking background (many of whom are Indigenous) are getting convictions of manslaughter rather than of murder. They think this is happening because the police prosecutors can't prove that the accused understood what the police interviewers were saying. So they want to change the rules of evidence to get rid of the inconvenient requirement of the right to silence.

Police Association president Vince Kelly said prosecutors sometimes "chucked in the towel too easily".
He said it could be difficult to prove Aborigines - and others who did not speak English well - understood legal processes.
'At some stage, the community, including the Aboriginal community and the legislature, are going to have to consider whether the rules of evidence in relation to these serious offences need to be changed,' Mr Kelly said.
'The simplest approach would be to review the whole notion of the right to silence. If you can't display that the person you are interviewing understood that they have that right to silence ... and unless you get every step right, you can well lose your record of interview. That's what creates the problem.'

So, if the accused can't understand English, why don't the police use interpreters? Oh the sorrow of the forensic linguists who have been pointing this out for years and years! And why was the headline writer allowed to get away with a phrase like 'black killers' when the text says 'Aborigines - and others who did not speak English well'?

The journalist who wrote this story, Ashleigh Wilson, is not a newcomer to stories about Indigenous people in Australia. Here are a few headlines from news stories with the byline 'Ashleigh Wilson' grabbed via Google:

'PM’s new deal for blacks', The Australian, 7/4/05.
'Black town grows its own creche', The Australian, 2005
'Community follows the plot to growth', The Australian, 2005, p. 3  
'Fears as blood feud grips the Alice', The Australian, 28/8/06
'Bail for teens on boy abuse charges', The Australian 7/9/06
'Boy ‘bound and raped repeatedly’, The Australian 9/9/06
'STDs rife in Indigenous children', The Australian, 23/6/06.
'Call to send army into Territory war zone', The Australian 23/05/06.

What I object to in this piece - aside from the headline - is the laziness. When faced with a statement like that of Vince Kelly, and when (s)he ( these unisex names!) has actually visited Indigenous people in communities where many people speak a traditional language, how on earth could Wilson NOT think of the need for interpreters and raise this in the story?

I did try taking this up with the Australian. I sent them a short & improving e-mail with full name and address (and a note that "I license you to print this letter in "The Australian". I do NOT give you licence "to share [your=my] information with other companies which are helping us to provide or market our goods and services, or with companies related to News Ltd anywhere in the world." - which you are FORCED to agree to if you use their web-based online letter submission!).

Four days later, and the Australian is still exercising the right to silence.

So who are journalists accountable to?

The Authors

About the Blog

The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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