Melissa Dinnison is at the centre of a media storm she wasn’t expecting.
The 25-year-old Indigenous student is one of three people who lodged a complaint against Bill Leak’s controversial cartoon, which depicted a drunken Aboriginal father who couldn’t remember his son’s name.
The cartoon was published as a response to a Four Corners report into systematic abuse of Indigenous youth in Don Dale’s Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
Since submitting her complaint to the Human Right’s Commission (HRC) under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Melissa feels her privacy has been breached.
Referring to an article about her published in the Australian on Thursday, she reveals “the photo that they’ve used has been pulled from my boyfriend’s Instagram.
“Accessing our private social media accounts seems like they just want to prove what they can do to me”.
The relentless media attention has taken a toll.
“I’ve been pretty anxious for the last month or so, so sleeping is not part of my agenda anymore.”
Melissa told NITV this is not the outcome she had hoped for when she decided to contact the HRC with her complaint.
“I didn’t ask for this at all. I just thought I was exercising my rights. I read on their website [Human Rights Commission] what the process was before I did it, so I presumed it was going to be confidential, like it was meant to.
“It’s him [Bill Leak] and The Australian who have chosen to make this public. They’ve chosen to splash this. Nearly every single day they’re publishing articles about this… I don’t have a platform to spread what I think about this case,” she says.
Melissa is a student. She volunteers for an Indigenous organization and plans to work for Indigenous human rights in the future. She has a vested interest in Aboriginal affairs, and solutions to Indigenous issues are something she often thinks about.
Harassment 'too much to deal with'
Melissa had initially decided to complain about Bill Leak’s cartoon because it affected her deeply. But the harassment she claims to have experienced made her backpedal.
“I sort of hoped [the media attention] would die down when I stepped aside from the complaint, but it has manifested in a different way.”
She says it’s not the articles that bother her, but the invasion of her privacy.
“Having reporters at the front of my parent’s house has probably had more of an impact on me,” she says.
It has been a battle between the powerful and the voiceless.
“I’m a student and I didn’t ask for this media attention … I’m just giving people an insight into what it’s like to go up against a newspaper. This is the reality of the situation. This is what they’re doing to me and my family.”
Melissa’s anxiety has been downplayed and contested by Bill Leak and The Australian.
Bill Leak told The Australian that his life had been thrown into “utter chaos” as a result of the complaint and that Melissa had “put him through a month or so of incredible stress.”
But Melissa believes she has had more to lose.
“He goes to work, all his friends from the newspaper have defended him. He’s not going to lose his job.
“He has lawyers that work for him at newspaper he works for. He gets to go home every day. I don’t know his wife’s name, I haven’t been hacking into his kids’ Facebook accounts,” she says.
The ABC’s Hack program interviewed National Chief Correspondent for The Australian Hedley Thomas, who dismissed Melissa’s feeling by saying she was “grossly exaggerating”.
When questioned whether reporters from The Australian had intimidated Melissa by “the amount of contact and the nature of contact”, Heldey responded:
“Well, would you feel threatened if a reporter rang you for your side of the story? Like, every contact I had [with her] was really courteous. We just wanted to give her the space in the paper to express herself. That’s part of what happens in a democracy.”
On Wednesday, Melissa herself became the subject of a Bill Leak cartoon referring to her feelings of being “too scared to go home”.
Melissa has seen it and told NITV: “It seems to me that Bill Leak is having a very public tantrum. This was the reaction of someone that is backed into a corner and is desperately trying to defend themselves.”
Despite her current anxiety, she says that she is not deterred to go through the process again if she felt strongly about something.
“I am going to work in the future towards making Indigenous Australia a better place, a more inclusive place to live by doing something a little better than drawing cartoons.”
18C and the conciliation process
Melissa believes her experience makes it evident that section 18C is vital to the Racial Discrimination Act, and that this protection shouldn’t be diluted.
“The free speech debate also needs to be balanced against my freedom of not being racially discriminated against.
“We need 18C so that we can balance these two things. If you water it down and you get rid of it, then you’re basically leaving Australia open to just not giving everyone an opportunity to defend themselves.”
For Melissa, 18C is there to protect the interests of common people over powerful interests.
“It’s massive corporations like the newspaper who have the ability to bully people into submission and to shout people down that want it gone. That speaks for itself.”
Melissa sustains her claims are legitimate, and clarified that the Human Rights Commission had not even gone through the process of fully actioning her claims or granting conciliation, by the time she decided to pull out.
"The HRC doesn’t just blasé pass through a complaint. There were a series of steps I had to go through to argue my complaint before it was going to be accepted by them. By the time I stepped aside, they had not even accepted conciliation.”
Melissa worries that all the publicity on this case has skewed the 18C debate and even put a partial question mark over how the Human Rights Commission administers policy.
“I don’t think Bill Leak and The Australian are above the law. They’re not in a position to tell government agencies what they can and cannot do.”