Thursday, March 20, 2008

Toohey returns Walkley in protest at permit system changes

Today’s Media section of The Australian led with the story of journalist Paul Toohey returning his Walkley award in protest at the proposed code of conduct for journalists entering and reporting on Aboriginal communities. Toohey, the newspaper’s Northern Territory reporter, said he sent back his award to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) which represents journalists. Toohey said the MEAA was “actively working against media freedom in favour of what it mistakenly believes are the interests of Aborigines”.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin had asked the MEAA to provide input to legal changes proposed by the new Labor government. The union response was a draft code of conduct which would require journalists to report to Aboriginal Councils and police when they enter Indigenous communities. The MEAA has called Toohey’s protest a beat up and said the new code was not “an onerous requirement”.

The story began after Howard’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough’s NT intervention last year when he scrapped the permit system to visit Aboriginal lands. He was supported at the time by NT journalists who believed that the system encouraged secrecy and lack of accountability. However the MEAA advocated retention of the system. The Rudd Government has now wound back some of Brough’s initiatives and brought back an amended permit system. Critically, governments and journalists would be excluded from the rule.

However the government did want to see a code introduced to govern journalist conduct. The MEAA outlined their idea of a code of conduct in a letter to the government released on 7 March, which said the proposed changes would allow journalists access to Aboriginal community subject to “certain conditions”. It proposed journalists carry proof of their occupation, report to the police and the council on arrival in the community, respect sacred sites, respect privacy, and attend a seminar on cultural sensitivities.

Toohey objected to two of these conditions. He said reporting intentions to the police and council could be counter-productive if the journalist was there to investigate the authorities. Toohey asked “would the MEAA suggest to correspondents in China that they should first consult authorities before seeking out Tibetan dissidents?” He was also scathing of the requirement to attend a cultural seminar which he called “meaningless bleeding-heart bullshit that won't teach anyone how to talk with a fellow human”. Toohey believes it should be sufficient for journalists to follow the 12 point MEAA Code of Ethics when visiting Aboriginal communities.

Writing for Crikey, Margaret Simons believes Toohey is overreacting. She says the code has not yet been approved and in any case would be voluntary. She also says the majority of the code is not objectionable. The only point in the code Simons didn’t like was also picked up by Toohey. This is the need to report to police and council and informing them what they are doing in the community. Defending the move, Fairfax NT reporter Lindsay Murdoch (who drafted the recommendations) says the reference to the police is negotiable but argued that informing the council of a journalist’s presence is current practice.

Meanwhile Simons called Toohey’s protest “premature and melodramatic”. Toohey won his award for magazine feature writing in 2002 for an article called “Highly Inflammable” in the Weekend Australian Magazine about the scourge of petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities. In his article, Toohey explored the links between petrol sniffing and consequences such as aggression, violence (including murder), theft and property damage. These in turn bring most sniffers in front of the justice system.

In 2001, Toohey told ABC’s Media Report that working in Darwin has given him a different sense of news. He said that a lot of that news came from the 35 per cent of the Territory’s population which was Aboriginal. He said he was conscious of being a white reporter working in black communities. “In a lot of these communities, people would never have seen The Australian for instance,” he said. “Sometimes you feel a little guilty about using the information they've provided you, guilty in the sense that they don't know what they're up for here, but you try and explain that”.

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