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The Australian has been criticised by award-winning Journalist Brian Johnstone in a column for Tracker magazine, for what he called the “media frenzy” surrounding their reporting of alleged starvation of children on South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. As Johnstone states, a significant amount of facts and voices have yet to be reported on in the mainstream media’s version of events.

On the 2nd of September of this year, The Australian published an article entitled Aborigines ‘starving’, which reported on the Red Cross delivering food aid to “impoverished people living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia’s far north”. This was an “exclusive” report quoting “two of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal leaders,” Noel Pearson and Mick Gooda, demanding a “dramatic federal government intervention to quarantine welfare payments and allow families to buy food in troubled remote communities in South Australia.”

On the 10th of September The Australian ran a larger story named Children Should Not Go Hungry which claimed the “revelations of social dislocation and children going hungry,” in the APY Lands are “disturbing and require urgent attention”. It noted that some commentators were “calling for Intervention-style measures to ensure families’ incomes are managed so that enough money is kept aside to feed the children. A stand-off between federal and state governments is not good enough. Action is needed now”.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

Since then, 67 related articles have been published in The Australian (in print and online), that have many similar themes with those stories published prior to, and during, the Northern Territory Intervention. That is, a preoccupation with the welfare of children, a disproportionately large amount of sources in favour of Government intervention, a lack of engagement with Indigenous people living in the communities in question, and a willingness to support the notion of an ‘emergency situation’ in which the Government must intervene, prior to consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Because of its status as the nation’s legitimised national newspaper, The Australian’s continual reporting on the APY Lands story serves as a valuable case study in a wider investigation of news frames that, when viewed as a whole, seem to value the characteristics of a ‘moral panic’ involving children, and thus support the notion of a ‘obligation’ to intervene, practically and symbolically, into the lives of (almost entirely un-quoted) Aboriginal Australians.

By gathering all news stories on the APY Lands produced in the last few months by The Australian, one can immediately see a number of reoccurring themes. The concept of a ‘moral emergency’; a concern for the welfare of children; a willingness to ‘intervene’, whether it be in terms of what local Indigenous people should eat, where they should shop and how their welfare money should be quarantined (rather than if it should be quarantined); the failure of the S.A Labour Government to stop this hunger, and by extension the call for Government staff to resign; the recited opinion of a few Indigenous public figures who are usually supporters of Government intervention and income management; and lastly, the opinion of state and federal opposition members like Tony Abbott, who are calling for the immediate compulsory quarantining of all welfare payments, as well as supporting the Government’s proposal of docking the welfare payments for all parents whose children don’t turn up to school.

The lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples actually from this area, or ‘on the ground’, is significantly minimal.

South Australia Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi

As Johnstone’s analysis reveals, while this “disaster” was being heavily reported on, the Nganampa Health Council, a health organisation owned and operated by the local Anangu people of the APY region, issued a press release headed Facts wrong on APY food problems. It said “The statements from various NGOs, some Aboriginal spokespersons and national media organisations claiming widespread severe malnutrition amongst children on the APY Lands are simply wrong,” said Mr John Singer, Director of Nganampa Health Council. “Certainly poverty is a major problem on the APY Lands but it is complex and uneven in its effects. This does mean that some parents have problems in consistently providing healthy food for their families, but our health service data shows that despite this poverty there has been marked improvement in the growth and nutrition of children on the Lands.”

“An emergency response to poverty is not what is needed. What is needed are sustainable ways to reduce poverty” he added. Two days later, the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia issued their own media statement, supporting the facts and views expressed by the Nganampa Health Council.

Both statements have to date, been completely ignored by The Australian, when reporting on the APY Lands story. In fact, the Nganampa Health Council were so desperate to get their side of the story out, that they ended up taking out a paid advertisement, at their own expense, in The Australian and the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser, to run their press release in full.

As the Nganampa Health Council media release states, Indigenous disadvantage on the APY Lands has been an issue for decades, as it has been all over Australia. As Johnstone’s piece highlights however, there is something disconcerting about our national newspaper publishing 67 articles in the last 61 days, on an issue that they’ve largely ignored up until now, and all while barely consulting anyone living on the region in question.

As Brian Johnstone stated “The media furor over starvation in the APY Lands neglected the Aboriginal people who have been dealing with the problem for decades’.

For Eva Cox’s recent “The Media Release Jenny Macklin Should’ve Written on the N.T Intervention“, which coincides with the release of the Government’s “Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory” report, click: here.

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