Striving for facts in a post-truth world

Local swimming pool in Mutitjulu, NT
Local swimming pool in Mutitjulu, NT
Photo Caroline Winter, ABC News

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.

Mutitjulu, NT
Mutitjulu, NT
Photo Steve Hodder Watt, NITV.

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”.

The community of Mutitjulu sits in the shadow of Uluru.
– Photo by Caroline Winter, ABC News

Years after the army rolled into remote communities in the NT, investigations by the Northern Territory police and the Australian Crime Commission, failed to find proof of a supposed sex trade or paedophile ring in Mutitjulu.

To this day Mutitjulu throbs with the pain of that memory.

Speaking to my colleague earlier this year on the tenth anniversary of the intervention, community elders and residents described the event as “an invasion“. The trucks reminded them of Stolen Generation days, when government officials came to steal their children. For the men, the hurt has been twofold: with sanctions on everyday life also came a very public crucifixion. The impact of which can be felt in the words of Anangu elder Sammy Wilson ten years later:

“I’m still carrying that thing today: that was 2006 in June. Today I’m still carrying it. I’ll be carrying that thing forever.”

But the community has begun the process of healing, something which was helped when the army returned to Mutitjulu recently to apologise for its actions.

I was in my second year of journalism at RMIT when I scrutinised for myself the layers of failings which resulted in that 2006 news report. What surprised me the most was what appeared to be a basic lack of facts.

Neither the producer nor reporter visited Mutitjulu during their research: the vision it aired was all file tape. And despite interviewing six people, the story contained scant information from official police or medical reports. There is no denying that Mutitjulu, like many communities, faced problems – but the story aired on Lateline contained many unsubstantiated allegations. Despite all this, the ABC’s internal investigation cleared itself of all but one accusation.

About 500 kilometres north of Mutitjulu is another remote community called Papunya. Often hailed as the home of dot-painting, it’s also where journalist Russell Skelton developed a deep passion for facts. Russell had just returned from covering the Iraq war when he visited Papunya for the first time.

“It was like a foreign country,” he says.

Russell saw a community steeped in poverty and mismanagement. What resulted from his time there was a book called King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya. A story, Russell says, borne from facts.

“I decided, you know, rather than just look at what everybody said about the place and all the descriptions of it, I went through all the accounts, I went through all the rules and regulations, I looked up the history,” Russell explains.

“And I suppose that exercise convinced me that facts are really important in this day and age.”

Russell received a Walkley Award in 2011 for King Brown Country. Two years later his appetite for truth formed the backbone of the ABC Fact Check unit.

“Ten years ago… the internet was just taking hold, Wikipedia was taking hold, and 24/7 news was taking hold, and people weren’t digging and reflecting enough in the general coverage of major issues in this country.”

For three years Russell tried to change that, leading one of the only fact checking units in the country. Among its most viral content was ‘Promise Tracker’: tracking the many promises made by the Abbott government, and recording whether they followed through or not.

“Which did so well because of how many promises they broke,” Russell jokes.

RMIT's new Media Portal
RMIT's new Media Portal
Photo by Nathan Clark, Diploma of Photo Imaging student

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.

"This potential is something that a former student, like me, observes with awe and a touch of envy."

Together, the new unit will check claims from politicians, public servants, lobbyists and even climate scientists. But it won’t be looking at the biggest perpetrator of fake and false news: the media itself.

“There is a big process in deciding what can be checked and what can’t be, we don’t check for opinion, we don’t check the shock jocks or other media,” Russell explains.

“We’ve got Media Watch for that.”

But the media will not go unscathed – Russell says the aim is to create a media environment where facts are valued.

And he’s already seen how fact checking units are shaping the landscape for the better.

“During the French election there were some really promising signs that they were reaching people and educating people. Le Monde (the French newspaper) were sending people into schools to teach kids about it,” he says.

“[The fact checkers] were going into some of the more contested areas and talking to people on the streets.”

On top of this an online global movement of newsrooms and experts, First Draft, partnered with Google to combat the circulation of fake news sites.

“I’d like to always be positive and think, ‘yeah, good things are happening,’” Russell says.

Perhaps it’s the belief that things can be ‘good’ and truth will prevail which is keeping journalists and fact checkers like Russell going – despite the online factories churning out fake news, and ‘post-truth’ being dubbed Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year.

Having an impact on Australia’s media landscape is a mammoth task, but Russell thinks it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for RMIT ABC Fact Check.

“How big that [impact] will be? Who knows. But it’s better than just having this 24/7 news cycle where stuff gets cranked out, press releases get reported verbatim, there’s nobody putting a slant over what’s been said.”

This potential is something that a former student, like me, observes with awe and a touch of envy.

As a journalist for the country’s only national broadcaster dedicated solely to Indigenous issues, holding politicians and leaders in the community to account is a daily ritual.

Had journalists been able to discern fake and misleading news stories quicker ten years ago, and had a fact check unit scrutinised every politician’s claim of pedophile rings and petrol-sniffing, perhaps the course of history for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory might have played out differently.

For me, it’s the knowledge that a new wave of journalists will be armed with the skills to combat and tame this constantly changing beast which instils enough hope in me to believe that what happened to Mutitjulu won’t happen again.

Rachael Hocking graduated with a Bachelor in Communication (Journalism) from RMIT in 2014. She completed a cadetship with SBS in 2015 and since then has been a reporter and video-journalist for NITV’s news and current affairs team.

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