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7 minutes

Not criminals or passive victims

Amanda Porter Eddie Cubillo
Last edited: April 18, 2024

Cultural warning: This article contains names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This month marks 30 years since the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The report consists of five volumes, several regional reports and 339 recommendations. It included 99 individual death reports of Aboriginal deaths in custody that occurred between 1 January, 1980 and 31 May, 1989.

Numbers 205-208 of these recommendations address ethical ways the media should report on Aboriginal affairs. The way Aboriginal deaths in custody are reported can cause distress for affected families and communities, and fuel racial biases and prejudices among non-Indigenous Australians.

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the media’s tendency to frame Indigenous stories through a deficit lens. However, misrepresentation of Indigenous people in the media also has potential to influence acts of harm. As the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia was told three decades ago,

the media may generate a climate which provides legitimacy for racist violence.

Earlier this month, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by commentator Anthony Dillon. It illustrated how prevalent misinformation and inaccuracies still are in the way the media discuss Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Myth: Aboriginal deaths in custody rates are not high

Some in the media tend to downplay the rate at which Indigenous people are dying in custody. Examples of this include Dillon taking issue with Senator Pat Dodson’s characterisation of Aboriginal deaths in custody as a “festering crisis.” Another is Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt stating Aboriginal deaths in custody claims are “wildly exaggerated”.

The reality is the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody remains a source of national shame, with 474 deaths since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report in 1991.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also among the most incarcerated people in the world.

This is especially true for Aboriginal people in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people make up over 85% of the NT’s prison population and 90% of police detention.

Read more: Indigenous deaths in custody: inquests can be sites of justice or administrative violence

Myth: Aboriginal people die in custody ‘due to natural causes’

In his piece, Dillon argues the majority of Aboriginal deaths in custody are “due to natural causes”.

The term “natural causes” is deeply political. It is a term used to mitigate the responsibility of police and corrections staff for deaths in custody.

Some prominent examples of this:

Read more: Four Aboriginal deaths in custody in three weeks: is defunding police the answer?

Myth: Aboriginal people are less likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people

The royal commission found Aboriginal people do not die at a greater overall rate than non-Indigenous people in custody.

However, it makes an important distinction, saying Aboriginal people die in custody at a significant rate comparable to their proportion of the whole population.

The report goes on to say this occurs not because Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die, but because they are incarcerated more frequently.

Myth: there is no evidence of mistreatment or racism towards Aboriginal people by police or corrections staff

There is plenty of video evidence to demonstrate a pattern of excessive violence and unnecessary force when police arrest Aboriginal people. For example:

There have been numerous investigations into mistreatment and racism towards Indigenous people, such as national inquest on racist violence and a coronial inquest into unconscious racism playing a role in the death of Aunty Tanya Day.

And many other reports and studies such as:

These myths and further misinformation cause harm

Misinformation about deaths in custody has the potential to retraumatise the families and communities of people who have died in custody. Bereaved families often have to live through the pain of losing loved ones knowing they were innocent, did nothing wrong and in some cases should never have been arrested.

This grief is compounded by the knowledge that many of these deaths were preventable, and there is little chance anyone will be held accountable for them.

Read more: Kumanjayi Walker murder trial will be a first in NT for an Indigenous death in custody. Why has it taken so long?

Families and communities are also expected to carry the grief of losing someone in horrific circumstances. Examples include a baby dying after her mother was arrested and the baby separated from her, and an Elder dying of heat stroke after travelling in a prison van for four hours in 56 degree heat.

Recommendation 208 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody says because Aboriginal people have been disappointed by the portrayal of Indigenous people in the media, media outlets should form relationships with Aboriginal organisations. The recommendation states,

The purpose of such contact should be the creation of a better understanding, on all sides, of issues relating to media treatment of Aboriginal affairs.

Honest and ethical reporting on Aboriginal people is not being undertaken with claims such as this one by Dillon:

simply diverting Aboriginal people from prison will only likely change where they die, given their poorer health status.

And this statement, by Sky News’ Alan Jones:

Aboriginal Australians were far more likely to die at the hands of other Aboriginal Australians than at the hands of white people.

These statement are plainly false and deeply unethical. There are countless examples of Indigenous women and children who have been the victim of violent crimes at the hands of non-Indigenous people.

33-year old Aboriginal woman Lynette Daley was brutally murdered by non-Indigenous men Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris. A non-Indigenous man was under investigation for the death and molestation of Mona-Lisa and Cindy Smith.

Misinformed and insensitive reporting can cause additional pain for families and communities. It also spreads misinformation about Aboriginal people, fuelling racial prejudices, stereotypes and hatred towards Black people.

Rather than allowing victim and criminal narratives to dominate media representation of Aboriginal people, mainstream media outlets need to centre the work of families and communities who are doing the work to end Black deaths in custody.

The royal commission recommendations 205-208 were written for Australian media outlets. They require action and leadership from editors, journalists and managers. Journalists and editors would do well to read the recommendations and to act on them.

Amanda Porter
Activist Scholar

Dr Amanda Porter is an activist scholar of Aboriginal (Brinja Yuin) and settler (Greek, English) descent. She is Senior Fellow (Indigenous Programs) at Melbourne Law School where she teaches and researches deaths in custody, unrecorded deaths, premature deaths and near misses.

Eddie Cubillo
Director - Indigenous Law and Justice Hub, University of Melbourne

Mr Eddie Cubillo is an Aboriginal man with strong family links in both the urban and rural areas throughout the Northern Territory. He is of Larrakia/Wadjigan and Central Arrente descent. Eddie is a lawyer, admitted to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and is recognised nationally and internationally for his experience and expertise in Indigenous governance and justice service delivery to First Nations Peoples. In 2010 he was appointed the Anti – Discrimination Commissioner of the Northern Territory; Mr Cubillo then took on the role of Executive Officer with National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).

In 2022 he completed his PhD thesis titled What Does ‘Self-determination’ mean in the context of legal service provision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, which involved interviews with key stakeholders in the ATSILS movement and won the UTS Chancellors award for outstanding thesis on the grounds of the significance of the work and the quality of the thesis.

Dr Cubillo has been a former Chair of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee. He then took on the role of Executive Officer with National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) where he championed the rights of Indigenous Australians in a legal context. In 2015 he was named the National Indigenous Legal Professional of the year and in 2016 attended Geneva on a UN Indigenous fellowship. In 2017 he took up an opportunity to work on the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory as the Director of Community Engagement.