Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A note of apology to Noel Nannup and the Nyoongar people

As a journalist who generally tries to cover matters of relevance to the disenfranchised and dispossessed of the world, I generally don’t delve into the genre of travel writing. To me, stories of wealthy airheads sunning themselves in day spas as the world goes up in flames around them are somewhat less compelling than such topics as, say, the use of natural resources to fuel conflict, or the struggles of fragile civil societies to create more democratic, responsive and humane nations, often against great odds.

However, when I was approached by Ink Publishing to pen an article for Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, on the vast expanse of Western Australia, with the promise that the article would be an opportunity to do something different rather than traditional travel writing, I thought of it as an opportunity not to be missed. As I have observed before, during my four months in Australia, I was extremely disturbed by what I found to be a hard kernel of racism and xenophobia that I found there, not only in relatively remote regions such as the Northern Territory and Western Australia, but also in urban centres such as Sydney. Not to tar an entire nation based on my personal experiences, but, having traveled to New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, I found both the pervasiveness and the intensity of such sentiments among the local population frankly shocking. I also found the level of poverty, disenfranchisement and exploitation among Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, commonly referred to as Aborigines, as bad as nearly anything I had seen while reporting form Africa, a continent where I covered civil wars.

I had several indigenous Australians who were extremely helpful to me in my understanding of the complex reality of modern Australia: Northern Land Council chief executive Kim Hill, representative for Arnhem in the Northern Territory government Malarndirri McCarthy, Alan Pigram of the renowned Pigram Brothers band, and Nyoongar elder Noel Nannup, to name a few. The last two individuals featured prominently in the article that I penned for Ink Publishing, as both are, in their own ways, symbolic of the unique nature of Western Australia, Alan Pigram through his musical accomplishments in the remote northwestern town of Broome, and Noel Nannup as a riveting tour guide on Rottnest Island, a former prison for indigenous Australians that should, thankfully, pass back into the hands of its traditional (Aboriginal) owners in the near future.

Given the great respect I have for indigenous Australian history and culture, I was therefore startled and dismayed to discover that, during the editorial process of my article at Ink Publishing, someone at the magazine had apparently created out of whole cloth quotes from Mr. Nannup that were never said by him, and which never appeared in either of the two drafts of the article that I sent to the magazine.

In the story as it was published, Mr. Nannup is quoted as follows:

“You might call its past checkered,” he says slowly. “Long before it was this magical place, it was the worst kind of prison.”

Mr. Nannup never said those words to me nor, I am now reasonably certain, to anyone at the magazine connected with the article.

In the second troubling instance, the article quotes Mr. Nannup as saying the following:

“Of the 3,700 of my people who were brought out to the island, at least 364 are known to have died in prison,” Nannup says. “Sadly, the total is believed to have been many more.”

Nannup never said those words to me. In the article as I sent it to Ink Publishing, I wrote the following:

Behind the hospital, there is a large, unmarked burial ground of windblown sand and a handful of lonely trees, a place that is heavily melancholy in feeling beneath an early autumn sun. Exploration by traditional owners with a Global Positioning System located close to 400 separate cavities in the ground of the cemetery before the project ran out of funding. Of the 3,700 indigenous brought out to the island, at least 364 are known to have died in prison, though the total is believed to have been many more.

Asked if Noel Nannup said these words in some sort of later telephone interview with editors at Ink Publishing after the article was submitted, the response I received from my editor thee, was as follows:

The second point is an editing error. The first point, I’m looking into.

Up to this point, and despite ample evidence that the publication attributed words to an interview subject that appeared nowhere in the actual reporting of the piece itself, the publishing house has been unwilling to correct these erroneous quotations. This has never happened to me before in my decade as a journalist.

Acutely aware of how indigenous people are often brazenly misquoted by journalists, I did my best in the writing of the piece to adhere to my practice of close sound-recording of my interviews and meticulous note-taking, so as to accurately represent the situation of the Nyoongar and other indigenous people in Western Australia. The perplexing behavior of the editors at Ink Publishing once the article left my hands was not, I confess, a potential complication that had occurred to me while doing so.

Though the editors at Ink Publishing may feel themselves above such concerns as bearing a certain amount of responsibility to the subjects whose stories appear in their pages, as a journalist with a finely honed sense of justice and injustice, I believe that the magazine owed the indigenous people of Australia, who have been so maligned and mistreated throughout the history of white settlement of the country, a more conscientious dedication to the facts than they have shown. Therefore, for my part and for the public record, I apologize to Noel Nannup and the Nyoongar people for being prevented, through shoddy editing, from telling their story with the accuracy and transparency that I bring to my non-travel reporting. Quite simply, they deserve better, and it is a shame that Ink Publishing could not give it to them.

Stay strong in Western Australia. Where the rain falls, the water flows. So does the spirit.


RLit said...

Hi Michael, I'm crying. I grew up here in Nyoongar country and my heart aches at the aggressive insistence on cultural privilege which actively excludes indigenous culture and people. Through Noel Nannups stories, such as 'When the sea level rose', I have finally begun to learn the stories of this place, to understand the true names and significance of the animals, rocks, plants and places which are so much a part of my life. In this way the impact of Mr Nannup on my life is immeasurable - I hope to meet him one day and thank him. Thank you for your apology,I am sorry you and Mr Nannup encountered this treatment from the people and organisation of Ink Publishing. As you observed during your time in this country the level of exploitation and exclusion of the indigenous people here is shocking. Your post exposes and undermines these ridiculous and harmful structures beautifully.
I wish you all the best in the future,
Rachel Daubney.

Michael Deibert said...

Thanks for your note, Rachel. Getting to know a bit of Australia's indigenous culture was the highlight of my trip here. I am glad that people like you are working to preserve it. You have my best wishes in the new year.

Merri Bee said...

Thank you Michael for shining a light onto all this. I've been privileged to hear the inspiring Noel Nannup tell some beautiful stories in 2007 and it was a memorable night. So sorry to hear that some want to continue the wrongs and are obviously covering up what should be exposed and healed.