ABC defamed respected Aboriginal elder

By Amy McQuire, November 14, 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: The ABC defamed “highly respected” elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks when it broadcast comments from a young Territorian of the Year claiming Ms Kunoth-Monks had labeled her home community “racist” during the tent embassy protests, the NT Supreme Court has ruled.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and her granddaughter Amelia from the Utopia homeland community in the Northern Territory.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and her granddaughter Amelia from the Utopia homeland community in the Northern Territory.

Justice Dean Mildren awarded Ms Kunoth-Monks a total of $134,000 in damages to be paid by the national broadcaster and Rebecca Healy, who was also a member of the Country Liberal Party (CLP).

The case relates to a story broadcast on ABC’s AM radio program following the protests in Canberra to mark the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. In the broadcast, Ms Healy said Ms Kunoth-Monks had labeled her Central Australian community as “racist” whilst at the protest.

Ms Kunoth-Monks said the story was a deciding factor in her not seeking re-election for her position as President of the Barkley Shire.

The Tent Embassy protests took place outside a restaurant where Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbott were presenting awards on Survival Day. Both leaders were shuffled by security guards past the protestors, and in the process Ms Gillard tripped and lost a shoe. The footage of the incident was beamed across the world.

The court heard that prior to the protest, Ms Kunoth-Monks had been on the speaker’s stage at the tent embassy, listening to Yuendemu elder Harry Nelson. She had previously given a speech to the crowd and Ms Healy was in attendance to hear it.

Another prominent anti-intervention activist Barbara Shaw was approached by unionist Kim Sattler, who told her Mr Abbott had made comments that the embassy should be closed down.

Ms Shaw told the crowd and then later asked Mr Nelson to inform the crowd they should protest against Mr Abbott, who was at the restaurant. At one point, Ms Kunoth-Monks interjected and said “and Gillard”, which was repeated by Mr Nelson, but the judge ruled she had distanced herself from those comments and she had probably been “caught up in the moment”.

The court heard Ms Healy was at the rally, and following that telephoned some colleagues in the CLP. She did not believe the television reports “(were) a fair assessment of the behaviour of the police and decided to make public what she had seen” to provide a more balanced description of the event.

She was subsequently interviewed by ABC journalist Michael Coggan later that night, as was Ms Shaw.

In Mr Coggan’s report, filed that night and broadcast the next morning across the country, Ms Healy said:

“Where I went over and watched my Barley Shire President where I come from in Central Australia speak to a crowd in Canberra about her racist community where she comes from which I was extremely embarrassed about.”

Mr Coggan continued:

“Rebecca Healy says Barkly Shire Council’s President Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ comments stirred up the rally. And she says there was anger when Barbara Shaw from Mount Nancy Town Camp in Alice Springs told the crowd… Abbott wanted to put an end to the Tent Embassy.”

Justice Mildren ruled these comments were defamatory to Ms Kunoth-Monks because “I consider that right-thinking people would have their estimation of the plaintiff lowered in circumstances where the demonstration was angry and impromptu”.

Justice Mildren was critical of journalist Michael Croggan for his “inadequate” attempts to contact Ms Kunoth-Monks before the story was aired and his reliance on Ms Healy as a witness.

“His efforts in trying to contact the plaintiff left a lot to be desired,” Justice Mildren said.

In relation to Ms Healy, Justice Mildren found she was “plainly a person of limited education and outlook. She may well be described as excitable, foolish, filled with unreasoning prejudices, prone to exaggeration to make a point, and prone to draw inferences which are unreasonable.”

In an email to Barkly branch members of the CLP Ms Healy wrote that the the protests had given a “fantastic opportunity”.

She wrote in the email “people from all over Australia, NT and Tennat Creek have been calling for Rosalie to step down in the media”.

Justice Mildren said Ms Healy “gave evidence that the ‘fantastic opportunity to which she referred in the e-mail was a chance to do something about reverse racism, a term which she said is used to ‘describe Aboriginal people targeting non-Aboriginal people.’

Justice Mildren described Ms Kunoth-Monks as a “very good witness whose sincerity and truthfulness I do not doubt.”

He also outlined the impact the story had on her life.

“She felt despair that the good work of the shire towards reconciliation would be undermined,” Justice Mildren said.

“She fell into a deep depression for three months, and there were many days when she would lie in her room, not eat, and retreat into herself. She experienced feelings of intense rage.

“During cross-examination she said that even sitting in the witness box, she felt the pain and/or loss of her dignity.

“She noticed a cooling off from some of her former acquaintances. The defendant Ms Healy conceded that her reputation had suffered in the Tennant Creek community and many thought she should stand down as President of the Shire.

“She had previously considered whether she should run again for the position of President of the Shire. She had lost her husband not long before, and still had not decided whether to run again. The publication was the deciding factor not to seek re-election.”

The damages were awarded to reflect in part the ABC’s and Ms Healey’s failure to apologise for the story, and their insistence they were justified in defending the case.

In a media statement released today Ms Kunoth-Monks said:

“I feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief. I have always been about bringing people together and not pulling them apart. Having a national story that stated otherwise hurt me deeply. This victory has given me the strength to continue to advocate for treaties so that black and white can live together as two respected peoples.”