Monday, April 03, 2006

Media hits, and misses

It is not the first time that the front page of The Age newspaper has been splashed with another story of poverty, substance abuse, violence and child abuse and neglect amongst regional and remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

Yesterday’s front page of The Sunday Age reported on the shocking rape and murder of an Aboriginal teenage girl who lived in the town camps outside Alice Springs. The town camps are poorly resourced shanty towns where Aboriginal people from outside the Alice Springs come to live, and it was horrible to read of the violence and sexual abuse amongst young people in Alice Springs.

I really feel for the family of the young girl who was attacked and left for dead. She died later in an Adelaide hospital. This kind of violence is never acceptable, and should be stopped.

The journalist covering the story, Russel Skelton, and The Sunday Age’s editorial rightly questioned how governments and white Australia can look away as the tide of poverty, substance abuse and violence continues to overtake many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

What makes this last lot of reporting on the issue a little different from previous occasions is that The Age also took pot-shots at the ‘Indigenous leadership’ for either not acting on the issues or trying to cover it up. In particular they criticised the leadership of Tangentyere Council, the Aboriginal council who look after the town camps and the Aboriginal people who settle there.

It’s not surprising to see the media taking this tact. I suspect that accusing Indigenous leaders of failing their own people, and trying to cover it up, is more palatable than once again copping abuse for criticising white Australia and the Howard government for failing to make any headway in improving the lives of Indigenous people.

However, what I suspect is more at play here is that Russel Skelton got pissy with the leadership at Tangentyere because they wouldn’t let him visit some of the town camps they help look after, and they wouldn’t let him, or help him, get access to an Aboriginal elder from one of the camps to interview.

So, he accused them of covering-up how bad things are in the town camps and of failing to deal with the violence, abuse and alcohol in the town camps. I can’t help wonder if Russel Skelton’s journalistic vanity was hurt because someone refused to let him go where he wished or interview whomever he pleased – on Aboriginal land.

This is bad form from The Age for taking this tack with Tangentyere, and for letting prissy white-boy ego get the better of good journalism.

These town camps are usually home to those who are not the traditional owners of the Alice Springs area (the Arrente), and thus have had to develop their support networks and services, alongside very inadequate housing, without the benefit of being the traditional owners of the area.

For various reasons poverty, substance abuse, violence, unemployment and child abuse and neglect are very bad in this area, as The Age stories point out.

However, instead of taking pot shots at Tangentyere, some basic research could have shown that this Aboriginal organisation has been trying to tackle substance abuse in its communities, and poor literacy and school retention amongst the town camp kids, amongst a host of other initiatives, but has been struggling to get enough funding and support from governments – both the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments.

Earlier this year, Tangentyere Council was forced to cut daytime patrols of trouble spots in Alice Springs because the Northern Territory Government refused to commit to fully fund the service at a cost of $350,000 a year.

The patrol staff support people and families affected by alcohol and other drugs. It is exactly this kind of initiative that tackles the nexus of substance abuse and violence and sexual assault.

Despite the Council lobbying the NT Government, no further funding was forthcoming as of January this year.

Last year, a highly successful, Tangentyere supported Indigenous education initiative for town camp kids had its funding withdrawn by the NT Education Minister.

Despite strong, widespread support for this learning centre, which aims to reach the kids of the town camps who don’t go to school (many of whom are homeless and neglected) and strong arguments in favour of its achievements in getting kids into the classroom and involving their families in their learning, the centre lost its funding.

Why? Because these highly disadvantaged kids, who hadn’t been going to mainstream school at all before they started attending the Centre, were not achieving the same literacy, numeracy and attendance benchmarks as kids in the rest of Australia.

So, instead of giving the school more money to help these kids do better, the NT government took the money away and insisted these kids attend the mainstream schools that they had been avoiding like the plague in the first place…

I don’t remember this great injustice getting onto The Age’s front pages last year when the story broke – mainly on the ABC.

And do you know what broke my heart to read? That the girl who had been brutally attacked, sexually assaulted and left to die had been a student at Irrekerlantye school.

The Age should have used its front page to take on the NT and Commonwealth governments for their inadequate support and funding of effective and successful initiatives run by Aboriginal community organisations to tackle substance abuse, violence and sexual assault, poverty, homelessness and child abuse and neglect in Indigenous communities.



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