Striving for facts in a post-truth world
For someone who has chosen to dedicate their life to searching for and telling truths, it’s perhaps a bit strange that it was a false news story that lit my desire to enter journalism.
In 2006 there were many stories about remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory that sensationalised black suffering.
On a personal level I disagreed with many of them – my grandmother’s family is from Warlpiri country, west of Alice Springs, and what I read did not reflect the people I knew and experiences I’d had.
But there is one story from 2006 which has stained that year for me and many other blackfellas across this country.
The ABC’s Lateline aired a report about a place called Mutitjulu, which sits in the shadow of Uluru and is traditional country for the Anangu.
In less than 10 minutes the journalist and six people connected to Mutitjulu wove a tale of a community steeped in drug abuse and home to a paedophile ring. The story claimed that children were given petrol to sniff in exchange for sex with senior Aboriginal men.
It took months and years before many of the claims in Lateline’s report were held up to the light, largely by then editor of the National Indigenous Times, Chris Graham. This included the revelation that one of the story’s key witnesses, allegedly a former youth-worker whose identity was hidden at broadcast, was in fact a senior public servant from Canberra who reported to the Minister.
Despite his best efforts, Chris Graham’s thorough fact-checking of Lateline’s work came too late. Within months of its broadcast an inquiry was announced, resulting in the Little Children Are Sacred report. In July 2007, the Howard government used that report, and suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, to implement the Northern Territory Emergency Response – known as “the intervention”.
ABC Fact Check was so popular that politicians would reference it in speeches and doorstops. So when the unit was defunded following the 2016 budget, it wasn’t long before a new partnership grew.
It was reborn this year as RMIT ABC Fact Check. Russell says partnering with a university has created new possibilities for the unit: just recently RMIT has opened the New Media Precinct as part of its Academic Street upgrades.
“It is absolutely whizz-bang, with TV studios and podcasting facilities and a whole lot of other things. And they’re teaching things which come into our space as a Fact Check unit, and they’re after something to anchor the new media precinct with… and we’re it,” Russell says.
The body of the research comes out of RMIT and the broadcast element from the ABC. Three full-time researchers, an online editor and a chief fact checker work underneath Russell Skelton, with the opportunity for students at the University to intern and academics to work part-time.