The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has apologised for its “incomplete” coverage of an Alice Springs town meeting, in which locals worried about escalating crime rates in the community were accused of being “racist.”
The partial apology came after the shadow minister for communications revealed she had lodged a formal complaint about the “shockingly biased reporting” to the media watchdog to ask for an investigation.
On Jan. 30, more than 3,000 residents—including business owners, concerned families, and Indigenous leaders—gathered for a town hall meeting in Alice Spring, a remote community in Australia’s Northern Territory, to address ways to manage the ongoing alcohol-fuelled crime wave and increasing youth violence.
The gathering, which was organised by local business owner Garth Thompson, reportedly lasted for around 20 minutes.
Much of the blame has been put on the Northern Territory state government’s decision to lift an alcohol ban in the community in 2022, with residents preparing to sue for $1.5 billion (US$1.1 billion) in compensation.
However on Jan. 31, the country’s taxpayer-funded national broadcaster aired a report focusing on what it characterised as a divided community and comments regarding race. A description of the meeting as a “white supremacist fest” to the ABC’s flagship Radio National AM program, as well as following TV segments, was aired to Australians nationwide without providing the “full context” of the situation, the broadcaster later acknowledged.
ABC’s Program Criticises Meeting
The radio program featured ABC Indigenous Affairs reporter Carly Williams’ interviews with people outside the meeting, with one woman who had left claiming it was a “really a disgusting show of white supremacy.”
“It was really, really disappointing. It was scary to be in that room,” she said.
Another woman outside the hall said: “I am far more concerned about the dangers posed by those people in there—those white people have a choice to live here—than those vulnerable Aboriginal children whose connection to this country cannot be broken.
“If they don’t like living here, if they have a problem with it, then leave.”
In a related TV segment, the ABC decided to air a man’s violent language as he spoke about Indigenous people, but no evidence of racism inside the meeting was shown, resulting in the accusations of biased reporting.
The national broadcaster also published an interview with Nareen Young, a professor of Indigenous Policy at the University of Technology Sydney, who claimed that fed-up locals attending the meeting were “living off the bounty” of the Aboriginal land.
Young likened the Alice Spring town hall to a scene in Mississippi Burning, a 1988 thriller about the disappearance of civil rights workers in the American South in the 1960s.
“If you saw that room in Mississippi Burning for example, Australians would say, ‘How terrible, that’s terrible that happens there,’” Young said on Wednesday night.
“The racism and infantilisation of First Nations people in that town and the racism that they deal with day in day out is not being talked about and we need to talk about that,” she said.
ABC opened its apology on Friday evening by defending the views of those it chose to showcase in its program, saying their views were “accurately reported” and “clearly newsworthy.”
It then went on to say, “we acknowledge that one report on AM was incomplete and did not adequately cover the full context of the meeting or the range of perspectives expressed at it.”
“ABC News apologises to audiences for providing an incomplete picture of the event in this instance. ABC news management takes responsibility.”
The article hasn’t been retracted, rather, it remains online with an editor’s note and links to additional coverage later posted about other points of view in the community and further context.
“Over the course of the day, the coverage included information and perspectives that provided a balanced understanding of the event, including additional comments from the meeting and further context regarding allegations of racism.”
The public broadcaster noted that it “stands by its journalists covering this story.”
“The ABC has comprehensively covered the issues of substance abuse and public violence in Alice Springs and will continue to do so.”
“Following this report, ABC News published additional coverage of the issue which included a broader range of perspectives and context.”
ABC Bias In the Spotlight
The apology came just hours after Liberal Senator and shadow minister for communications Sarah Henderson, a former ABC journalist, said she would asked the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to investigate the ABC over its Alice Springs meeting coverage.
“Rather than tell the full story, the ABC offensively and inaccurately depicted the meeting as ‘clearly all around white supremacy,'” she wrote in a Twitter post on Feb. 3.
“Not only has it refused to retract the story, apology and investigate how it got to air, the ABC has arrogantly defended it,” she said at the time.
“A very big ABC fail.”
She also told Sky News that the broadcaster has “completely and utterly lost the plot.”
“They clearly do not understand what it takes to be an impartial journalist,” Henderson added, calling for a “training of journalists.”
After the national broadcaster issued its apology, Henderson said her complaint to the media watchdog would be proceeding.
“The ABC’s belated apology for its shockingly biased reporting of Monday’s Alice Springs town meeting, after arrogantly defending its coverage, reflects very poorly on editor in chief, MD David Anderson,” she tweeted on Feb. 4.
Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson, who led calls for stricter punishments on crime in his town, called the ABC’s coverage of the community meeting a “kick in the teeth to residents who have put up with this for far too long.”
“It’s adding unnecessary anxiety when we are all trying to come together to address the issue and here you’ve got the ABC lighting the fuse to have a race war,” he told reporters.
Paterson had also called on the ABC to retract its story.
Meanwhile, Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Price has criticised the NT and federal governments on their decision to lift alcohol restrictions and said that both governments had been warned about what would happen by Indigenous community groups.
Alcohol bans in central Australia were first implemented in 2007 during the federal government’s Northern Territory’s Emergency Response, also known as the NT Intervention, under then-Prime Minister John Howard. It aimed to deal with lawlessness and crime in Indigenous townships and communities. Restrictions were continued in 2012 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Stronger Future legislation (pdf), which expired in July 2022.
In a shared letter, nine local indigenous advocacy groups argued the alcohol restrictions were neither racist or discriminatory and that if the restrictions were lifted, it would lead to a spike in alcohol-related injuries and offending.
Victoria Kelly Clark contributed to this report.