Some things are better left unread

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, January 2007.

NATIONAL: The Aboriginal affairs debate deserves more than a wild spray every five years, argues CHRIS GRAHAM.*


As the old saying goes, ‘Sometimes it’s better to remain silent and have people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and confirm it.’

The phrase sprang to mind as I read the January 8 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, and a piece by columnist Paul Sheehan.

Despite having worked in the media for 17 years, Sheehan is not really someone who has ever really appeared on my radar. The only time I’ve ever read his column prior to January 8 was a few weeks earlier, when I went in search of Alan Ramsey’s Saturday piece.

Ramsey was on holidays, so Sheehan was filling in.

Sheehan doubtless hasn’t appeared on my radar in the past for two reasons: he doesn’t write about Aboriginal Affairs, and he writes for the Herald. Although I started my career at the SMH as a young copy boy, and still have a begrudging affection for it, that was almost 20 years ago and the Herald of today bears little resemblance to the Herald I sorted mail for.

Paul Sheehan’s piece, headlined A whitewash of criminal realities, leaves me in no doubt on that front. The central theme of Sheehan’s article is that violence committed by Aboriginal people is out of control because we’ve refused to ‘call a spade a spade’.

Sheehan believes that decades of going soft on blackfellas has resulted in the disintegration of Aboriginal culture and an explosion of violence against whites. Sheehan chose the murder of a young man in Griffith, NSW to make his point.

And what a point it was.

“The most disturbing element in the murder of 17-year-old Andrew Farrugia in Griffith during the early hours of 2007 was the inevitability that someone like Farrugia was going to be killed by members of the feral underclass that exists in many rural towns with large Aboriginal populations. Andrew Farrugia died for one reason only. He was white. This is the defining reality of his murder. It is the most important single fact in this tragedy.”

Actually, I think the single most important fact in the tragedy is that a young man’s life was cut short. But then, I’m known to be susceptible to the sort of romantic notions that so offend people like Sheehan.

He continues: “Right from the start, the police and media reports of this crime smelled of censorship. It took just two phone calls to Griffith to discover what was being left out: the perpetrators were young Aborigines who had been cruising for a brawl, and it was a common occurrence.

“This was nowhere to be found in news reports for days. Finally, after two accused appeared in court charged with killing Farrugia, a paragraph was inserted into the bottom of one news story, not in this newspaper, that the two 15-year-olds arrested “had strong ties to the local Aboriginal community”. Thus, their lawyers argued, they should be allowed bail.”

We’ll stop you right there, Paul.

What the lawyers for the accused asked is that bail be allowed because the youths had links to a community and thus, would be supervised. That’s precisely the same appeal ALL lawyers make at every bail hearing on behalf of the clients, regardless of the alleged crime.

The lawyers were not arguing that bail be allowed because the youths were Aboriginal. It just so happened the community that would monitor them was. But let’s not let facts get in the way of Paul Sheehan’s story, which goes from the rant to the ridiculous.

Like so many rabid right Australian commentators, Sheehan is unfortunately prone to the ridiculous conspiracy theory (Herald-Sun bovver boy Andrew Bolt once devoted an entire column – 1,200 words – to arguing that the movie Madagascar was a conspiracy by Hollywood executives to convince people of the merits of becoming a vegetarian).

Writes Sheehan: “Go to the news section of the NSW Police website and you will find an informational G-string: it provides the bare minimum. For example, another murder took place over the weekend when Sione Matevesi, 22, who had a job and a stable life, was stabbed and murdered early on Saturday by a group of drunks. Who are the police looking for? This is the information provided by the NSW Police website: ‘Police are looking for a group of men described as wearing dark clothing.’ Oh, that is extremely useful.”

Maybe, Paul, that’s all the information the police had? I decided to do what Paul Sheehan didn’t. I rang the NSW Police Media Unit (note to Paul: In Australia, we call that j-o-u-r-n-a-l-i-s-m).

And guess what Paul? That was all the information police had. Even so, it’s an interesting theory Sheehan is advancing; that NSW Police are deliberately releasing scant information so that Aboriginal offenders can run free. Imagine what the NSW police could achieve if they actually tried to catch blackfellas – we could take the NSW prison population from 20 percent Aboriginal to over 50 percent!

But not satisfied with mere blinding ignorance, Sheehan decided to titillate his readers with an impressive display of rank hypocrisy, replete with inflammatory language.

“The NSW Police Media Unit is a paradigm of drip-feed information, a policy that comes down from the top. It is part of a much broader and more serious problem, the whitewashing of the official depiction of the realities of criminal life in Australia. This begins with the piccaninny complex that dominates the welfare bureaucracy, education system, court system, university system and the ABC.” (Ah, those old chestnuts – the university system and the ABC!)

Sheehan continues: “The piccaninny complex is one of the reasons we’ve thrown a generation of young Aborigines into the gutter, including a generation of zombies – the living dead in rural and remote Australia of petrol-sniffing children, disproportionately under the primary care of drunks.”

That’s the part where Sheehan pretends to care. And here’s the part where he drops that pretence altogether.

“We’ve known for years there is endemic child abuse within many remote and rural Aboriginal communities, yet had the absurdity of the “shock revelation” last year that child abuse is rampant in many Aboriginal communities. This was fully seven years after publication of the Robertson report into domestic violence in Indigenous communities in Queensland, chaired by Boni Robertson, an Aboriginal academic. The report found: Violence is now overt; murders, bashings and rapes, including sexual violence against children, have reached epidemic proportions.”

Indeed we have known for years that violence and child abuse occurs at shocking levels among some Aboriginal communities. But the million dollar question, for Sheehan at least, is this: ‘What, precisely, have you, as a senior writer for one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers, done about it?’

For example, did Sheehan even cover the release of the Robertson report in 1999?

A search of the Sydney Morning Herald database stretching back more than a decade suggests that Sheehan did not. It also reveals that at the time, the Herald wrote just one story about the report, which ran on page 12.

The search also reveals that Sheehan last weighed into Aboriginal affairs in June 2001, amid the height of a media frenzy over allegations of rape against former ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark.

Back then, Sheehan’s rant was also not about ending black violence, but about promoting it to white Australia. And again, he refers to the Robertson report, seemingly the only tidbit of information Sheehan has been able to glean from a lifetime of ignoring Aboriginal affairs.

Sheehan claimed the focus on Aboriginal violence saw the “Boni Robertson report… belatedly canvassed, detailing horrendous levels of abuse against women and children among Aboriginal families.”

If it’s so horrendous Paul, then why didn’t you write about it when the report was released? And why do you only refer to it in passing once every five years, and only then when Aboriginal people are accused of violence against whites? Has Sheehan ever written an analysis piece looking at any government – Labor or Liberal – and its repeated failures in Indigenous affairs? Not that I could find.

And has Sheehan ever written about the historical causes of Aboriginal violence, other than some ridiculous theory about police treading on eggshells around blackfellas, a theory, I might add, which I doubt would win any favour with the family of Mulrunji Doomadgee (which is yet another issue Sheehan has never touched).

Sheehan neither understands Aboriginal issues, nor seeks to do so. He doesn’t analyse government policy; he doesn’t cover native title; he hasn’t written on the stolen wages issue.

He just does violence. And the Stolen Generations issue. Here’s a bit of what he wrote back in 2001: “Meanwhile, the first test case stemming from the “stolen generations” accusation, Williams v NSW, fails an appeal to the High Court, thus maintaining a 100 percent failure rate for the “stolen generation” test cases so far.”

I didn’t know it was a competition?

The Australian Financial Review would no more allow Pauline Hanson to write an opinion piece on the affects of interest rate rises on Gross Domestic Product than the Herald should allow Sheehan to stumble into Indigenous affairs every half decade. But then, the Herald doesn’t exactly have great form when it comes to covering black issues either.

In December last year, when news broke of the Queensland Director of Public Prosecution’s decision not to pursue charges against a police officer for the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee, the venerable Herald managed a three paragraph news brief on page 7.

The Australian, by contrast, splashed the issue on its front, and has campaigned on the matter ever since. The Herald tried to play catch-up the following day, then soon lost interest.

There are, of course, some excellent scribes for the Herald who do write with rights (and responsibilities) firmly in the front of their minds. Alan Ramsey and David Marr spring to mind, to name just two.

But by and large, the nation’s ‘most respected newspaper’ has become a wasteland when it comes to holding governments to account for repeated failures in Aboriginal affairs.

The same paper – and Sheehan in particular – have no trouble holding Aboriginal people to account.

The Bulletin magazine maintained the slogan “Australia for the White Man” on its masthead until 1961. The Herald seems to have maintained a similar editorial philosophy well into the 21st century.

And Paul Sheehan is their Grand-Master.

* Chris Graham is the editor of the National Indigenous Times.


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