Chris Graham, publisher and editor of New Matilda, as well as founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, has been one of the most prominent voices in Australian media to criticise John Howard’s Northern Territory National Emergency Response of 2007. He has widely condemned the media’s role in the Intervention and has unpacked the ABC’s Lateline program that ‘triggered’ the intervention, by listing a series of serious errors contained in the report.
Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting.
NITV: What did you think of the media’s coverage of the Intervention in the Northern Territory?
CG: It was disgraceful. The media’s coverage was so sensationalised; some of it was fraudulent, to begin with. Much of the coverage was also biased. To be honest, it was some of the worst reporting this country has ever seen.
It was biased because within mainstream media there has always been a desire to see or read about Aboriginal people as they have always seemingly been portrayed, and that is as ‘dangerous’. Few journalists specialise in Aboriginal affairs as many news organisations see it as ‘not interesting’ news, but when they do you can bet that they send people along that don’t have any real knowledge of Aboriginal people, and they send them into communities that they don’t know much about.
NITV: One of the major justifications for the Intervention was a Lateline story that featured a shadowy character. What was wrong with this story?
CG: Yes, there may have been some abject problems that were mentioned in the story, some of which still exist today. But this episode of Lateline showed a blurred figure who was supposed to be a youth worker, who in fact was actually a member of staff for the Minister.
The Doctor who was talking about sexual abuse was in fact actually talking about prescribing Viagra for an elderly man, so what was aired was totally wrong for the time. On top of all that, the ABC didn’t even go to Mutitjulu, they just worked in Alice Springs and Sydney concocting the story.
This story by Lateline really started the intervention. The day after it aired, the NT government set up what would become the Little Children Are Sacred report, and that was picked up by the government, misinterpreted, and that started the Intervention. But the ABC’s misreporting, although acknowledged by them*, they still refused to respond to the part that they played in causing the Intervention.
NITV: From your perspective on the ground, how did you think the Intervention was run, and how in turn was it explained to Australians through the media?
CG: The initial reactions that I saw were positive by the general population, but the total opposite by the Aboriginal community. It caused huge problems for people in the communities. The suicide rate quadrupled, anaemia rates in children rose due to difficulties with people getting food, the rates of children attending schools dropped, and a wider diminished view of Aboriginal people grew.
For Aboriginal people, the intervention was a disaster, for white people they were happy as they were seen to be doing something about the problem, but they really only did huge harm. If the government of today was to have done something like this to white people, there would be a royal commission into how it happened, but it seems no one is interested in having one for the actual Intervention. I’m sure there will be much naval gazing this week by the people who did this, but Mal Brough [former Minister for Indigenous Affairs and ‘architect’ of the Intervention] who’s on a government pension won’t care, and I’m sure neither will John Howard.
NITV: What have been some of the lasting impacts of the Intervention?
CG: It’ll take generations for the locals to get used to this. Local men were absolutely trashed by the Intervention and the ABC. They are still trashed to this day, even by the late Bill Leak and his cartoons that show Aboriginal men as perverts, dysfunctional or just as misfits. Reputationally, Indigenous people will suffer from this for a long, long time.
The Intervention achieved nothing. Housing overpopulation and imprisonment rates have still risen, but education has fallen, all of these relate back to the Intervention, and Australia will continue to pay for this for a long, long time.
*After a review by the ABC’s Independent Complaints Review Panel, the ABC upheld only 1 of 30 complaints about the story, relating to footage of petrol sniffing.