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For the real story on Indigenous Australia, social beats old media

Prime Minister Tony Abbott caused controversy earlier this week when he said that living in remote Indigenous communities was a ‘lifestyle choice’. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

With support from its friends at the federal level, the Western Australian government has dusted off and rebadged the template for the Howard government’s 2007 intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. This was an act that former minister Alexander Downer admitted was an attempt to get a jump in the polls.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said earlier this week that the WA government’s plan to close up to 150 remote Indigenous communities is a good idea, as taxpayers cannot be expected to support the “lifestyle choices” of those living remotely. His argument has since been demolished by Indigenous and other commentators, notably on social media.

However, the furore over Abbott’s comments both sidelines and highlights the lack of real discussion on the policy’s intention. As Luke Pearson, the founder of rostered Twitter feed @IndigenousX, remarked:

Research has shown time and again that although it is held dear by journalists, Australian journalism’s democratic watchdog role is severely lacking when it comes to representing the interests and perspectives of Indigenous Australians.

The causes are partly economic, partly cultural, and largely systemic. My PhD research (currently under examination and part-published) has shown that the routine journalism practices involved in newsgathering, news-writing and news-editing work against a fair and balanced representation.

As in 2007 regarding the NT Intervention, in 2014-15 there has been a general failure among the mainstream media to ask basic questions regarding the WA and now the federal governments’ claims and motives since Barnett first announced that the communities may close.

The WA government initially outlined its plans to close the remote Indigenous communities on the grounds that they are “unviable”. It then shifted the discussion of reasons for the closures to one of child abuse last week. Barnett foreshadowed and pre-empted an apparent ongoing investigation that he claims will reveal child abuse in those communities.

This is the 2007 NT Intervention template, with one difference. The WA investigation – or “comprehensive look” – would not produce a report. Barnett said:

I’m not into reports, that’s not my style.

However, there was a report in 2007. The Little Children Are Sacred report was the result of a year-long inquiry into child sexual abuse in remote NT Indigenous communities.

The Howard government claimed that the intervention was a policy response to the report. However, a close reading of the report reveals how the policy was nothing of the sort. The report made 97 recommendations – but in devising the intervention, the Howard government ignored them while bringing in measures, such as welfare quarantining, that were not recommended.

The child abuse nightmare scenario painted by the Howard government in 2007 was not supported by the report. Research shows that child abuse claims are a powerful consensus-builder for policy. There is no suggestion that there was not child sexual abuse within the NT communities, but there is no evidence that it was anywhere near at the level painted by the government.

The media duly reported the government claims used to justify the policy. However, it was as if many journalists had not even read the report – they had simply taken the government’s arguments at face value.

Lately, Australia’s mainstream news media has largely been reprising this role. As in 2007, it is not only not attempting to seek out or represent Indigenous opinion on this matter beyond that of Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine, but it has been actively ignoring different voices than those supporting the WA government’s plans.

The Australian, which claims to be the only newspaper that has taken Indigenous affairs coverage seriously, has published two articles from its associate editor Chris Kenny defending the policy and deriding any opposition to Abbott’s remarks. It has published others with criticism of Abbott’s comments and the policy – quoting mainly Mundine and Pearson.

But since 2007, digital-only news site The Guardian Australia has provided a sharp contrast in its coverage of Indigenous affairs, as has a relaunched New Matilda under editor Chris Graham.

Another big difference between 2007 and now is the presence of social media as a news- and opinion-dissemination platform. Indigenous and non-Indigenous social media users concerned about the WA plans did not have to wait for the mainstream media to “allow” their contributions be heard.

In 2007, Indigenous communities in the NT made concerted efforts to be heard in the mainstream media – but were ignored. For example, the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory, comprising 40 Indigenous groups from across the NT, produced an alternative strategy document in immediate response to the intervention announcement. This generated only two small newspaper reports.

While it is commendable these newspaper reports – both in Fairfax newspapers – appeared at all, they demonstrably favoured the government perspective that batted away criticism of its policy without engaging with it. These days, such a reverse-intervention from NT communities would be able to receive much wider and more considered attention through social media.

Mainstream media, up to now, has largely failed to critically engage with the issues arising in WA, just as it failed to critically engage with what arose in the NT in 2007. However, social media – “electronic graffiti,” according to Abbott – has been going ballistic. This noise has arguably come to the attention of the mainstream media, which cannot ignore the crescendo.

But who is the government listening to?

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