Interview with ABC investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna

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‘Australia’s Shame’ was one of the most socially impactful media stories to break in 2016. The ABC Four Corners program put the Northern Territory’s youth justice system in the spotlight highlighting the appalling treatment of minors at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre. A Royal Commission[1] was called the morning after the program aired in July 2016. Presented by Meldrum-Hanna and written by her and fellow investigative journalist Elise Worthington, the program’s reach has been far wider than anyone anticipated.

Meldrum-Hanna does not shy away from the hard stories and has an extensive history of impactful reporting, including exposure of live baiting in greyhound racing and the sports supplements saga involving many NRL and AFL clubs, as well as this year’s three-part investigative documentary ‘Exposed: The case of Keli Lane’. She has been recognised through many awards, including a Gold Walkley for Investigative Journalism, and in 2015 she was named NSW Journalist of the Year by the Kennedy Awards Foundation. She speaks here with XANTHÉ MALLETT, JOEL MCGREGOR, ERINA FINAU AND JOSHUA MARKULIN from the University of Newcastle about her work on ‘Australia’s Shame’ and what drives her to bring these challenging but important stories to light.

Q: ‘Australia’s Shame’ was really a challenging piece of investigative journalism. Can you tell us how the report came about?

A: We started not even looking at the juvenile justice system at all, and the Northern Territory wasn’t even our focus. How it began was with my producer at Four Corners, Mary Fallon, who was really keen to produce a report looking at the overcrowding of our prisons – adult prisons actually.

I found a moment where I looked – burrowed – into the research she had put together. Boom-boom, red lights going off, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The statistics were staggering in the Northern Territory. The rate of incarceration for Indigenous people was the highest. Then when it got to the juvenile justice system, it was just totally off the planet. At any given time, it could be that one hundred percent of the children incarcerated were Indigenous, and the rate of crime there for Indigenous children was just so high. It really stood out. It stood out so much that it was one of those moments where my heart begins to race, because immediately I could see that there’s the story. What is going on there? Why is it so high? That automatically meant that all the systems around these children – child protection, education – were all failing.

We then requested access to both the adult prison and the juvenile correctional centre. We could also see there was a really big investment, and the Northern Territory government did actually deserve some recognition for this, a concerted effort to improve conditions in the adult prisons. When we burrowed down into the figures and the funding, however, that (investment) wasn’t matched with the centres for juveniles.

We requested access to both of the centres. We were given access to the adult prison, but we were declined at Don Dale. Obviously, my antenna is up: why allow us access to one and not to the other? We pushed and pushed, and they gave us access to both, then revoked it. By this time we’d booked our flights, and we were saying, “we have invested all of this money coming to the Territory, it’s not cheap, and you’ve just revoked the access”. We flew over anyway, and over several weeks it just went on – access was given, then it would be revoked, given, revoked, given, revoked. So that was the pattern there when we were on the ground.

What started as potentially a story about overcrowding in our nations’ prisons, ended up being refined down into the spotlight being shone on the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory … It was like it was a hot, boiling pot of the biggest problems.

Q: Could you touch on the ethics of your reporting?

A: Giving your voice to the voiceless is a big thing.

I would like to say from the outset that my personal feelings don’t have any bearing on what I choose to report and choose to not report. And I reckon the majority of journalists – the great journalists – they all say the same thing. It’s not about how we feel about something, because how we feel about something is not representative of what the population feels about something.

I’ve trained myself to push those personal feelings aside. What I want to happen isn’t really relevant. What’s relevant is that you are searching out and seeking the truth, not making a story to scaffold around what I personally believe is the situation, rather than truth. You’re not making the story to prove a point that you yourself believe in; it’s just to follow the truth, really objectively.

Q: ‘Australia’s Shame’ gave Dylan Voller a personal voice within the media, and he’s continued to be in the spotlight since the report. Can you comment on this further?

A: It’s an interesting one. You can never predict what the outcome or the fallout of a program is going to be. Most of all you can’t predict what is going to happen or become of the subjects in a story. The remarkable thing about this was that there were other boys that spoke in the program, such as Jake Roper. He spoke in the program; I thought he might get a platform and speak further about these things, but that didn’t happen. It was that one individual in the report, the person who didn’t speak in the program [referring to Dylan Voller], that ended up being the one who spoke most afterwards – because he could, and he had a position to.

I do think it’s wrong to see it in a way that a program or a story gives a platform to someone. You cannot predict whether that person is going to want to speak about something again. Dylan Voller decided to; he chose to. I did not support or encourage him in that. I did not say no to him doing that. I actually never spoke to him because he was incarcerated. Everything was through his lawyers.

People were interested in him. I think it says more, too, about what the media’s, the community’s and society’s levels of interest are in someone. I think the media appetite to hear from Dylan Voller was massive. It would be arrogant for a journalist to think that they are giving a platform to someone.

Q: What did you think of the response when the story aired?

A: Yeah, well, it was really interesting that the response evolved, I found. I think that when you … when a program or a report or a piece of journalism goes out there, and it challenges people’s perceptions because it confronts them with something new, and shocks them with something that challenges how they felt about that particular group of people, or about that business, or about that corporation, or about that government, sometimes some people are willing to say, “wow, gee, what I thought was wrong, and I’m really angry now that I believed what I was being told”. Others will respond by digging their heels in even deeper. And, in this case, it was, “well, I don’t care if that kid was tied down to a chair, he deserved it. I don’t care that that boy had tear gas sprayed, you know, in close proximity to him. I don’t care that those kids were in solitary confinement for that long. They must’ve deserved it. They’re the worst of the worst. They’ve harmed people themselves, you know, tough luck, kid, this is what happens when you behave badly, you deserve it”. So, those two responses came out, and they were obviously in such stark contrast to one another. That’s what people genuinely felt and really believed, and you can’t change people’s opinions.

The thing for me, though, is there is a difference between the truth and the proof. Every single one of us has our own version of the truth, our truth. We could all be sitting at the same event and there is an assault that occurs in front of us. One of us could be the police officer; another one could be the victim. One of us could be a spectator with our group of friends; another could be a mother who’s watching a boy being assaulted and feels terrible about it. We’re all at the same event, but we are guaranteed to all have our own recollections and our own version of the truth about what happened. Everybody’s memory is going to be different dependent on what role you’re playing in that scenario – who you are, what you’ve been exposed to, what your life experience is, what your job is. The police will have a very different view about it to the offender, but it’s all the same act.

And I remind myself of that all the time. That (different points of view) is what is occurring. What I strive to do is present every single one of those views in a piece of journalism because they’re all really relevant, so that’s a fair way to go about it. And, when I said before there’s the truth and the proof, that’s the whole debate about the truth there; let everyone have their go about speaking about what they were involved in, but then the next bit and the golden key – the nugget – is the proof. So, of course, the boys and the young people who’re in this institution are going to say, “we’ve been harmed, we’ve been wronged”. The guards are going to say, “well, they deserved it, this kid was spitting at me, he was violent, he assaulted me, he threw an apple at my head, he bit me”, anything. But then, what do you do with those two versions of the truth? Because again, they’re starkly different from each other. Then it’s the proof; we get the images, and that’s the stuff that doesn’t lie – the pictures and video – they never lie. And that was the power of that Four Corners program, because it wasn’t people’s recollections and their own personal experience; it was the proof. It was recorded there on tape. I think that’s why there was that outrage, because people could see it.

Q: Social media is an amazing tool for journalists to gauge public interest. What was the reaction on social media to this story?

A: What I’ve learned now from being on these social media platforms is that it can become such an ugly and abusive place. People from zero exposure to issues and knowledge of them can shout just as loudly as a magistrate, or a professor, or an expert in something. It’s amazing how there’s equal footing, but it also can become pretty vitriolic.

Twitter was probably the most heated place, and it evolved. It evolved from people saying “thank you for showing me this”, “wow, I didn’t believe that this was happening”, to “this was a stitch-up”, “you were duplicitous”, “you tricked the minister into speaking with you”. There was a pushback by certain areas of the media who have certain affiliations and were highly critical of the program.

It all went sort of topsy-turvy. It was amazing to watch, and it’s actually really insightful to see how the political process plays out as well when it is hurting a party.

Twitter was one platform where it was a little bit intense. Facebook was different. Facebook was “show me more … I want to share this with people”, and it travelled broadly and widely. I’ve found that there’s much more room for purposeful debate on Facebook rather than Twitter with its limited number of characters.

One thing I learned … and someone very experienced, a very experienced reporter said to me, “Caro, just switch off”. At one point she said, “just switch off. You can’t, you won’t be able to reason with them, you can’t change people’s minds. These people are nameless and faceless. Just don’t worry about it, you’ve done your job, your job is to report this story, your job is not to engage on social media”. Yeah, I found it a bit grueling.

Q: Were you aware of the particular response from young people?

A: There are not a lot of younger people on Twitter. We were hearing more from people in their, maybe, late twenties upwards. On Facebook, we were hearing more from younger Australians. They were like: “this is shocking”, “far out man this is crazy”, “shivers, I know what it feels like to be thirteen”, and “look at those six guys that ran into that cell, I would’ve been terrified”. You know, “shit mate, look at this”, share, share, share, share. I could see more younger people connecting to it on Facebook, but by and large it was older Australians.

Q: It definitely allowed people to draw their own conclusions from what was presented to them, and almost immediately Malcolm Turnbull called a Royal Commission. What are some of the practical changes that we can see from that report?

A: Well, we’ve seen that the use of restraint chairs is no longer legal, is not a reasonable use of force; we’ve seen that extended periods of isolation are now no longer appropriate; we’ve had it confirmed through the Royal Commission that the system that was described as “the juvenile justice system” was not a juvenile justice system. It wasn’t a system that was providing rehabilitation and justice to these young offenders who, sure, may have broken the law, but many of the others were there on remand, hadn’t even been convicted. We saw that it was a system that, rather than providing justice and rehabilitation, was re-traumatising and re-abusing these children, and that was confirmed in the Royal Commission.

Another really interesting thing – and I think such an important point, too – is that what many people forget is that these kids, I think roughly sixty per cent of the boys and eighty per cent of the girls, had experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to even entering the justice system. And a hundred per cent had experienced neglect or abuse of other forms in the world that they grew up in. They were the most vulnerable, traumatised group of young people, and they were entering a system that was re-traumatising them, I guess. And I think what people realised – and I hope they did through this program and what came through the Royal Commission – was that these kids, once they crossed that line, entered that door into that system, they were then the children of the state. They were the children of the government, the government was their guardian, the government was their parent.

Q: This raises questions about broader issues, such as sentencing, punishment and the values of the community that might be influencing the way these systems operate.

A: This was obviously a wider problem, and we saw that through the Royal Commission. There were lots of kids falling through the cracks and really getting down to the point where an Indigenous child would be in court. We sat in court for a couple of days and watched proceedings to get a feel for what the problem was. It was actually very, very, very upsetting. The kids had no one in their lives who cared about them. The only person there with them was their social worker, if they could attend. No one was there to take them back to any safe place, so they would go to Don Dale. The magistrate would be sitting there going, “I actually can’t send you out of this courtroom to somewhere safe, so safer is for you to go to Don Dale, even though you haven’t been convicted or you’re on remand”.

I can’t talk about sentencing, but I can talk about something being proportionate or disproportionate. That’s what it’s all about. Once these kids were in Don Dale, were the guards, and was that system, using a proportionate level of force and response to what a child had either threatened or done while they were inside, incarcerated? Was it proportionate to put Dylan Voller in the chair and hood him when he had threatened self-harm? The Royal Commission found that a better way to respond to that, if a child is threatening self-harm, would be to bring in a mental health practitioner to sit down with them, rather than shackling them to a mechanical restraint device and putting a hood on them.

I remember when I was visiting Don Dale and I was with Minister John Elferink, I was very keen to see and hear his explanation as to how apparently the juvenile justice system had improved. All these improvements that were promised, the programs that were promised for children when they were moved from Don Dale to Berrima, the old adult prison, they were (to be) there. Apparently there were going to be all these programs for the kids; there’d be a library; the rates of attendance for school while inside would be higher; there would be an on-site sort of mental health … counsellor, a psychologist. None of that was there … When they’d moved over to Berrima, there was still no on-site psychologist or counsellor there, even when, as I said before, sixty per cent of the boys and eighty per cent of the girls had suffered sexual abuse and were a hundred per cent from neglectful, abusive backgrounds. I mean it was just staggering. So, yes, they are going to be acting inappropriately, possibly violently and possibly quite often. But if there’s no one there to guide them out of that behaviour or see them into regular schooling, how can there be an expectation that they are all of a sudden going to behave appropriately? It’s just not going to happen.

Back to that proportionate thing, was that a proportionate response? Well, no, the Royal Commission said it wasn’t. It’s not proportionate to lock kids up in solitary confinement either. It doesn’t do anything beneficial for them.

Q: As a Walkley Award winning journalist, how do you decide which issues to highlight in your reporting?

A: It’s a bar that I’ve set for myself, and I always approach an issue or a story this way: Number one, will reporting this … is it in the public interest? The second thing is, will it be for the public benefit? That’s my test, and it has to reach that bar. It has to be something beneficial for the community, and it has to be in the interests of the community to hear it.

I remember many years ago, one of the first stories I did for Four Corners, it was called ‘The Boy with the Henna Tattoo’ … about a little boy, about five or six at the time, maybe he was even eight by the time he was removed by authorities. He’d been adopted by a gay couple. They told the world that he was the result of a surrogate pregnancy. They wanted to become fathers, but they’d bought him in Russia. They were paedophiles themselves, but they presented a wonderful life of a happy, loving homosexual couple, gay parents, raising this boy in a wonderful community with lots of friends. In fact, this boy was being fed straight into a paedophile network. He was being abused from the day he was two weeks old.

I remember a lot of people saying to me at the time, “Why are you telling this? This boy’s been removed; he’s safe now, and it’s just disgusting and weird”. I said because it took a network to catch a network, and how hard it was to break into this paedophile ring, how amazing these police were, what resources the police in Queensland needed for this, what funding they continue to need, and also the calibre of people involved in this ring. There were partners from, I think, from a law firm or an accountancy firm over in New York; I mean, we were talking about high end people in this network and people at the lower scale. So it was also to raise education and awareness of this terrible area of offending and who’s involved in it. And it was a huge story, one of the highest rating programs of the year, but it was something that, contrary to what so many people said – “people aren’t going to watch that” and “that’s disgusting” – people did watch it because they cared.

And I guess you can choose what you want to report, but if journalists find themselves saying no to reporting things based on what they feel or think, or what other people in the industry feel or think, or what people in the community feel and think, you are no longer a journalist. You are in public relations.

Q: What do you think are the ongoing implications of the Royal Commission?

A: There has been criticism of the Royal Commission, that it didn’t go far enough, wide enough or deep enough. There’s criticism that there were no criminal prosecutions of guards or people who were working at these facilities. But look, the success of a Royal Commission doesn’t rest on whether there is someone that is charged or there is a prosecution.

Others would see the Royal Commission as really successful in that legislation has been changed … things have been rewritten. There has been the lifting of the age of criminal responsibility and a push for that to become nationwide. And you can’t use a restraint chair there anymore … So much has come from it. A big, big, spotlight has been shone on this part of Australia, and there is, of course, a huge round of funding for the child protection system.

Also, Don Dale has been closed and more kids are being diverted into programs that are non-custodial; so things are changing in the courtroom. These are all really great steps in the right direction. And also there’s training, much better training for guards and juvenile justice officers in the Territory, which is great. Also, in the wake of the report, we had inquiries in Queensland, Victoria and in WA. So the spotlight then was shone and picked up by other journalists, great journalists, who dug into it in other states. It became a national conversation.

[1]  The findings of the subsequent Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory can be found at: