My experiences with media

Since my involvement with local government one of the most interesting experiences is media engagement.  This is because instead of being an observor or reader I’m embroiled in it.  A lesson I’ve learnt of late (mid Aug 2010) is that I can advocate a certain position concerning policy development, and in the process use precious time and know that I’m using (and drawing down) trust and authority from others, and have that position completely undermined by media.  It is very frustrating because it makes me question the efforts of good people around me.  The challenge in Alice Springs is that newsworthy stories are often split on racial lines.  Journalists are tempted to drive these splits because it serves their purpose.  Ethics often becomes irrelevant.  Having observed closely the misconceptions fuelled directly from media stories too often I see this as a big issue for the direction of the town (but an issue that is very hard to address mainly because elected members at any level should never hold media to account).   

The following is a list of experiences that I update only after a long length of time passes…

In a letter to the editor I submitted the words ‘As an urban Indigenous person’ and then proceeded to criticise the playing of the race card by a prominent Alice Springs person.  The newspaper changed the ‘as’ to ‘to’, completely changing the meaning and context of the letter.  My intention was to start where I’m coming and whilst I have no problem referring to my circumstances as ‘urban’ I certainly would not refer to others the same way because everyone has a different angle.  One word can change the whole context.  This experience made me lose all faith in the idea of writing letters to the editor.    

When I was first elected a local journalist asked me about what it meant to have two Aboriginal Alderman.  I repeated the lines (because he kept on seeking a different response) that ‘I was proud to be associated with a Council with Alderman from a diverse range of identities and industries’.  I didn’t want to be drawn into a race-based analysis.  The next day my words were printed along the lines of being ‘proud to be’ on a Council with two Aboriginal Alderman and how this would make a big difference (it may have, but I didn’t want to be drawn on it).  This was my first direct experience.  It made an immediate impression.

Following my election as Deputy Mayor I held a lengthy interview where I said a core focus would be to argue for recognition of Local Government in the constitution that evokes Statehood (the document that formalises a new State for the NT).  I said that the new constitution can protect the interests of regions, and Local Government, because of its geographic spread, was one way to do this.  I said that the efforts of Local Government for recognition in the ‘national’ constitution was not worth the time or effort.  The media report said my ambition was for recognition of Local Government in the ‘national’ constitution.  Subsequent media reports made similar claims.  These articles were directly against the message I gave, they were the direct opposite.

In another media piece an interviewer asked me about my family heritage.  I told him the links.  He wasn’t familiar with those names so I explained more familiar family names that branched from a common ancestor.  I said that those more familiar names are not my direct family and I would prefer the original names I said, my reasoning was to avoid any potential sensitivities and to give him familiar names so he could see how all the families linked up.  When he referred to my family links he said the names I asked him not to. 

On a completely different topic the following is a Stateline interview, my first foray into tv journalism: 

MELINDA JAMES: They’ve been described as racist, unconstitutional and even wacky. Alice Springs Town Council has proposed eighty four new by-laws that have stirred up angry public debate. The by-laws cover a range of issues including a prohibition on people sleeping in the dry Todd River bed, drinking alcohol in public and demonstrating without a permit.

Alice Springs Deputy Mayor John Rawnsley says the aim of the by-laws is to improve the town. I spoke with him earlier today.

MELINDA JAMES: John Rawnsley, welcome to Stateline.

JOHN RAWNSLEY – Deputy Mayor, Alice Springs: Hi Melinda, how are you?

MELINDA JAMES: It’s fair to say that these proposed by-laws have caused quite a stir in Alice Springs, isn’t it?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Oh look, it’s been twenty years since the by-laws have been revised. Recent changes to the local government act give local councils and shires more powers in relation to creating their own by-laws. This is a big project that were working on, previously we worked on by-laws in relation to trolleys and of course council’s got a lot of great initiatives such as the cash-for-cans scheme amongst one. But, you know, we encourage public discussion in relation to a wide range of issues and so we’ve taken the course of putting these draft by-laws out for public comment.

MELINDA JAMES: Well there’s certainly been lots of discussion, the main criticism seem to be how broad these by-laws are and the amount of discretionary power that will be afforded to council rangers under the new laws. Do you think they’re fair criticisms?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: We do have the draft by-laws out there, obviously there will be some policies that go into to give some clarity and detail in relation to how the by-laws are implemented and I think that they’re very crucial because when we did put out the draft by-laws they were very broad and they’ve attracted criticism for the wrong reasons and people have misinterpreted what a lot of the by-laws have meant and that’s created concerns in relation to our dialogue around trying to come up with a constructive and final product.

MELINDA JAMES: But is can be dangerous, can’t it, to have a law that’s so broad that it means council rangers have the discretion whether to actually prosecute people or issue fines to people?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Not if you have strong policies that go into support that. But obviously, you know, our modern Australian society has a range of different mechanisms to protect people’s interest.

MELINDA JAMES: Well, some of the by-laws do give rangers a lot of discretionary power and other powers for example to move people on if they even suspect someone of being about to break a by-law – the Police Association says rangers simply aren’t trained to handle the powers they’d be given under the law?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Look, the rangers were involved closely in drafting these by-laws and they’re trained in relation to what they did. In relation to exercising discretion they’ll exercise judgement in their own discretion for everybody’s safety in relation to implementing the by-laws and if we’re confident as aldermen that there’s measures to ensure individuals’ protection who are subject to the by-laws, then I think that’s a good thing.

MELINDA JAMES: Well, Alderman Jane Clark says a lot of the by-laws are outside normal council’s responsibilities, outside the normal purview of council, and isn’t she right in one sense – that rangers in some cases will be doing the job of police. For example isn’t it the job of police to tip out alcohol that’s seen being drunk in a restricted area?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Look, the rangers will exercise their discretion in relation to that but these by-laws aren’t dissimilar to many by-laws that are across the country and across the world and they’ve received criticism even though they are identical to many of those by-laws. We had a public meeting about the by-laws and it was put quite strongly that the rangers, even though they might have broad powers, their main job is there to assist people and they’re not going to implement by-laws in a way that’s going to be harsh or detrimental to individual circumstances.

MELINDA JAMES: Do you really think a $130 fine for begging will be an effective deterrent?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Look, we’ll come together as a council and consider those kinds of arguments. Just on that one, the cultural protocols are strong in relation to stopping people begging and so I think that came about in relation to formalising that particular by-law. Where I work I’ve had countless people come to me with their bank card and with their pin number, people who I haven’t met in my life, but they’ve come to me and asked if I can go get money out of their account because they’re concerned about people harassing them. So I think that if we actually have the word begging or some other word I think the spirit of the by-laws in relation to dealing with some of those circumstances, the spirit is there for aldermen to support and we want to try to come up with something that is effective.

MELINDA JAMES: The town-wide ban on camping – we’ve just heard on the program about the dire lack of public housing and emergency accommodation in Darwin and the situation in Alice Springs is, I understand it, even worse with a five year waiting list for public housing – some people have no choice but to camp in Alice Springs don’t they?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Yeah, we understand that. That by-law has been in place for 20 years, it’s not changed, the only change is in relation to the times to make it more efficient in terms of implementation, and because that by-law hasn’t been changed in its substance, rangers will continue their practice and we understand the dire accommodation needs and so they won’t be implemented to the full force that the capacity is there to do. But council has been a strong advocate of the need for short-term accommodation in Alice Springs and we’ll continue to advocate that and we’ll continue to support approach where rangers take a compassionate approach to implementing and encouraging an outcome.

MELINDA JAMES: And, just finally John Rawnsley, one of the by-laws that has probably received the most opposition from the public and been called draconian and a restriction of free speech is the by-law that prevents people from putting up banners or posters, even on private property if that can be viewed from public space. Why the need for that?

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Yeah again, you know these by-laws have to be considered with the policies that go in to support them and the policies will give clarity in relation to what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. But obviously we’re mindful of the different kinds of criticisms and we’ll come together as a council to come up with a final outcome and a final product but there’s certainly not going to be implemented in a way that is against commonsense and what we all believe to be common values.

MELINDA JAMES: John Rawnsley, thank you very much for your time.

JOHN RAWNSLEY: Thank you Melinda.


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