Sustained media coverage needed on Aboriginal deaths in custody



JERAA calls on the news media to keep the pressure on governments to show leadership by implementing both the letter and the spirit of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

JERAA makes this call on the 30th anniversary of the release of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This ‘blueprint’ was to reduce the then high numbers of Aboriginal people coming into contact with the criminal justice system, end unnecessary and avoidable deaths in custody, address the underlying issues besetting Aboriginal communities, and transform relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Then Prime Minister Paul Keating promised such progress and transformation in his December 1992 Redfern Address, delivered on the eve of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous people and a little more than 18 months since the Royal Commission’s final report and six months after a High Court’s Mabo decision.

During his speech, Keating said the Royal Commission’s report showed “with devastating clarity that the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice”. He also said: “We cannot imagine that we will fail.”

The central finding of the Royal Commission that people die in custody in high numbers because they are in custody in high numbers, led to the central recommendation that imprisonment had to be the penalty of last resort, especially for minor offences such as public drunkenness, non-payment of fines and swearing at a police officer. There have been many recent deaths resulting from Indigenous people being locked up for such minor offences.

In the mid-1990s, the late deaths in custody and justice campaigner Ray Jackson spoke of the “ham, cheese and tomato”, otherwise known as the “trifecta” scooping up young Indigenous people into the criminal justice system: offensive language, resist arrest, assault a police officer.

How much has changed in 30 years?

Since the Royal Commission reported, both imprisonment rates and deaths in custody have increased. At this moment, when the media is paying attention, it has been widely reported that Indigenous imprisonment in Australia has increased from 14 per cent to 28 per cent.

Studies (here and here) show that media attention was important to the Royal Commission’s establishment. Important and influential reporting included that by WA freelance journalist Jan Mayman reporting on Roebourne teenager John Pat’s death for The Age, and a 1985 Four Corners program presented by David Marr. Royal Commissioner Elliot Johson wrote that the media is a powerful institution:

one of the principal institutions in Australian society but one that stands in a special relation to the institutions of government … Historically in this country the best of the media has played the role of monitor and often critic of government institutions and agents. It stands in relation to government practice, therefore, as a form of collective conscience, challenging and putting other institutions under pressure and acting as a catalyst for change.

Those studies also show that, while the stories of some individual deaths break through, media coverage has been too often scant and episodic. Sustained and persistent media coverage is required, into the conditions that result in the deaths – including the underlying issues, systemic racism and the inadequate prison health services; the reasons for the high Indigenous youth and adult apprehension and incarceration rates; the lack of implementation of the recommendations that emerge from coronial inquest after coronial inquest – year after year, decade after decade; and the lack of investment in justice reinvestment and Aboriginal community youth programs that actually work.

It has been noted by Indigenous leaders that meaningful and effective implementation of the Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations requires national leadership and a national body. Leadership like that shown by Keating, but also sustained and persistent – a national cabinet-like body that has been shown to be effective in containing the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. Two examples of such calls, spanning 27 years, include Professor Mick Dodson, in his 1994 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice report and Senator Patrick Dodson, in an ABC interview this week. Both Aboriginal leaders and many others have made such calls over the past 30 years.

The Guardian’s sustained deaths in custody reporting and it’s “Deaths Inside” data base have been making a difference to deaths in custody coverage, but across the mainstream, corporate and commercial media that coverage has not held governments to account.

Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire, who consistently reports deaths in custody stories as an independent journalist, refers to an Australian apathy in response to police and prison brutality, and to deaths in custody. She says we don’t repeat the name of the person who has died until their name is burned into the national consciousness (as in the USA); that: “When Aboriginal people die in custody there is a national silence”.

Instead of lapsing back into national silence about government inaction and the lack of national leadership on deaths in custody, the media must keep the pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory governments to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission, and to implement them in such a way that imprisonment rates and deaths are actually decreased.

This statement follows a longer JERAA statement last year on Black Lives Matter and Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia.

The JERAA Executive would like to acknowledge Bonita Mason’s work in preparing this statement.

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