Monday, March 17, 2014

DARWIN: ABC's coverage of circumcision botch "insensitive"

The Drum
March 6, 2014

ABC circumcision reports were culturally insensitive

by Murray McLaughlin
In January, the ABC reported on an Aboriginal initiation ceremony involving circumcision in which three boys were injured. Below, Northern Land Council media officer Murray McLaughlin writes that the reporting smacked of value judgement and cultural superiority. The ABC's head of current affairs Bruce Belsham writes in defence of the investigation here.

Over more than 35 years I have sat in many long meetings in Aboriginal communities in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. But the meeting on February 19 this year at Borroloola had a real poignancy. About 40 Aboriginal men were gathered at the Northern Land Council's regional office and they were hurting.

I was there in my job as media officer for the Northern Land Council, with NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi and two other members of his executive, to hear the anguished reactions of men, young and old, to a story that the ABC ran on January 22 about a traditional initiation ceremony before Christmas that had gone "horribly wrong".

The ABC had learned that three young men had to be flown from Borroloola to hospital in Darwin after they had been circumcised. Norman Hermant, the ABC's social affairs correspondent, travelled all the way from Melbourne to Borroloola, a small, very remote and deprived town in the Northern Territory's Gulf country, with "just one mobile number in hand and a list of other 'less likely' numbers". He has written here about his assignment.

The one number belonged to the health centre's ambulance driver, William Miller, whose grandson was one of the three who were flown to Darwin. He was most upset when he saw his grandson bleeding from his circumcision cut and was the main interviewee in Hermant's story, versions of which were shown on 7.30 and other ABC programs, including online.

Miller appeared nervous at the meeting I attended and his sense of upset was, at first, still apparent. But, catching the mood of those before him, he apologised a couple of times for having caused offence by speaking to the ABC about his grandson's injury - thereby offending precepts of Aboriginal law, as the men attest in their statement below.

The greatest sense of offence felt by the men was reserved for the ABC story itself. When the NLC party arrived from Darwin, the chairman was presented with a typed statement, which encapsulated the sentiments forcefully articulated later at the meeting of men. It is reproduced here in full with the permission of the men attending the meeting:
We, the Garrawa, Yanyula, Mara and Gurdanji people of Borroloola are deeply hurt and disappointed at the recent story told by the ABC about our Young Men's Initiation Ceremony. This ceremony has existed in our cultures for thousands of years and is very sacred! The sacredness of our ritual strictly forbids viewing and comment by the public. Open discussion in front of women and those who are uninitiated is a very serious infringement. In the past such an infringement would have met with dire consequences. Moreover, we feel that we have been ridiculed in the story and demand that the record be set straight. We have been conducting this sacred ritual in Borroloola area for generations in a safe and sensible manner. It should be understood that there were more than 100 boys initiated in the recent ceremony period without incident. In later years, we have carried out the practice with the support of the Borroloola Medical Clinic but in our own environment not at the Clinic. In the past we had the support of Aboriginal Male Health Workers and especially the support of Dr Peter Fitzpatrick while he was a permanent local based doctor. Changes in Health Department policy means that the community now lacks a permanent doctor. An integrated Community Model would certainly benefit the community and prevent such occurrences. We strongly believe that in this insistence our sacred practices should not have been put in the spotlight. We do have a right to privacy which should have been respected. The community is in shock and our old people in particular are deeply hurt. We demand an apology. The way this story portrayed one of our most sacred rituals has deeply offended us and we feel that it has impacted on our Cultural Integrity!
The statement, with its request for an apology, has been sent to the ABC. NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi has asked for it to be handled quickly because feelings are running high out Borroloola way.
Hermant's report has damaged the previously satisfactory relationship between the Aboriginal people of Borroloola and the ABC. It has also caused ostracism of Miller, in spite of his apology, by the overwhelmingly Aboriginal town. Worse, there's a widened rift between the Aboriginal townspeople and the medical clinic.


Hermant reported that the NT Child Abuse Taskforce had received two notifications about the incident, but an investigation had not identified any wrongdoing.

The Northern Territory Attorney General, John Elferink (a lawyer and former policeman with experience in the bush and exposure to Aboriginal cultural practices), accepted that finding.

"No abuse was found to have occurred," Elferink told Hermant, "and in the absence of that, and in the absence of criminality ... it's a parental decision on how to bring up the kids," he said.

Earlier story

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