‘I took democracy for granted until the NT Independent started publishing news’: Prominent Territorians offer their support for independent news

by | Jun 20, 2021 | Business, News | 0 comments

Territorians are recognising the value of independent journalism in their lives during these turbulent times, when the truth has become much more difficult to find amid the political spin and multi-million dollar government ad campaigns aimed at hiding what is really happening in your community.

In its short existence, the NT Independent has bridged the political divide with Territorians by providing first-rate investigative and community driven journalism that exposes the truth and lays bare all of the major issues facing us as Territorians.

The NT Police executive’s public suppression of information about sex assaults – including against children, Labor’s “cocaine sex scandal”, the hidden story behind the Darwin Turf Club grandstand scandal, the Chief Minister’s secret China deal, the Gunner Government misleading the public about its financial position, the TIO Stadium fiasco, and the NT Police College’s standards putting Territorians at risk, are just some of the important issues that would not have come to light in the last year without the NT Independent.

The Independent launched about 14 months ago, owned by locals the Pike family, and led by one of Australia’s best investigative journalists, Chris Walsh as editor.

Since then the fledgling start-up online paper has broken most of the biggest stories in the Territory – all while banned by the Gunner Labor Government, who at every turn have attempted to keep the public in the dark.

Walsh, dubbed by some as the real NT Opposition, has a reputation for reporting excellence established in the book, Crocs in the Cabinet – Northern Territory politics: An instruction manual on how not to run a government, on the scandal-plagued Giles CLP Government.

Numerous sources on the fifth floor have confirmed Chief Minister Michel Gunner banned this media outlet from press conferences soon after launching out of fear he and his ministers would be questioned by Walsh.

Former Territory and Commonwealth public servant, and former chairman of the NT Grants Commission and coordinator general of Remote Services, Bob Beadman, said the existence of the NT Independent had lifted the whole Territory media, and provided a more open and transparent democracy.

“A new bar height has been set, and other media outlets have noticeably lifted their game in order not to be further overshadowed and exposed,” he said.

“The public is the clear winner. But the advertising revenue is still elusive. I do hope the business world in the Northern Territory will see the value in open and transparent government and support this work.”

The NT Independent produced an investigative series on the Darwin Turf Club grandstand scandal that has brought to light never before seen information from internal documents, that show chairman Brett Dixon had been dealing with the Territory Government for over a year to secure taxpayer funding, for the project before the board even knew of the proposal.

And how he was involved in board meeting discussions about the project while the tender was open – a tender that was later awarded to his own company – despite him previously publicly stating he was not.

The series, which is ongoing, also revealed that the board agreed to award his company the construction contract despite one member saying the deal would be investigated by ICAC. But they nevertheless gave the contract to Jaytex anyway.

This is just one of the many stories the NT Independent has revealed that exposed the way the Northern Territory has been operating.

Ward Keller partner Leon Loganathan has previously spoken publicly in opposition to the government’s ban on the NT Independent, telling ABC Radio Darwin all members of the Gunner Government appeared to be breaching the MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act by not speaking to the paper.

He also wrote to Attorney General Natasha Fyles saying the government’s ban was disrespectful to the Rule of Law.

“It’s terrific to see an independent newspaper in the Territory. It’s even better to see frank and fearless reporting. I took democracy for granted until the NT Independent started publishing news. I don’t anymore,” Mr Loganathan said.

“Democracy dies in darkness.”

Former Labor Party leaders, business leaders and respected members of other media outlets have also all come out in support of what the NT Independent is providing to the community.

A focus on government finances and spending

The NT Independent was the only outlet that reported Auditor General Julie Crisp’s findings on the Gunner Government’s pre-election “COVID-19 Financial Report” released on July 29 – one day before entering caretaker mode – that was billed as providing Territorians with a look at the NT’s true financial position.

Ms Crisp found the figures were misleading, incorrect and were likely to be “misinterpreted” by those who read it.

The online paper has also done more analytical reporting on the state of the Territory’s finances than any other media outlet, from Mr Gunner’s first budget as Treasurer being the end of the fiscal restraint measures he had committed to implementing in 2019, to Mr Gunner seeming to claim he fixed the previous CLP government’s debt trajectory during a fiery budget estimates in 2021.

There has also been a focus on ministerial travel spending, including how the government paid two men $318 a hour to recommend Labor scrap requirements for politicians to report their travel to the public, and how the chief minister took taxpayer-funded trips that appeared to breach caretaker conventions.

The NT Independent has also reported on public service spending, including the inflated level of public servants on executive contracts compared to other jurisdictions, and the ballooning of private consultancy contracts awarded while public service numbers continued to grow significantly, despite a promised freeze on staff increases.

The paper also brought in outside economic analysis, an example being an essay by Dr Don Fuller, The Gunner Government: A collision between Budget misuse and democratic responsibilities, looking at the characteristics of good government including the principles of transparency and accountability, and how the five core attributes of good government make for the foundation of strong economic and community development.

Professor Rolf Gerritsen from Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute, whose analysis of government finances and policy is featured regularly in the NT Independent, is one of the most respected independent public commentators in the Territory, and has praised the work of the NT Independent.

“The mere creation of the Independent has sharpened the focus of the pre-existing media,” he said.

“In Territory politics, it punches above its weight. Chris ‘Crocs in the Cabinet’ Walsh gives us, not just regurgitated press releases, but the real stories behind the NT Government’s finances.”

Freeing the Territory through Freedom of Information and investigation

Articles based on documents and communications sourced from Freedom of Information requests have also been the basis for some of the most insightful investigative reporting undertaken in the Northern Territory in recent years.

Mr Beadman said the investigative journalism of the NT Independent has made a difference in the Northern Territory, across a wide range of issues.

“The Indy restored investigative journalism to the Northern Territory. And what a ride it has been,” he said.

“Dan Murphy, FOI, managing Territory debt, the Turf Club’s $12 million, restoring integrity to government – talk about ‘hoisting your own petard’ – banned from press conferences, Media Watch.

“The City of Darwin’s – or was it the lord mayor’s – flirtation with the RSL in Bi-Centennial Park. There is no need to go on.”

These exposes have included the chief minister’s secretive trip to Sydney and meeting with a high-priced tailor, the Territory’s second most powerful public servant having a trip to Disney World paid for by a private company seeking government funds, the NT Government’s continued failure to rectify fire safety issues at TIO stadium, and documents that proved the NT’s building controller Mark Meldrum’s claim was wrong when he claimed he found  “no evidence of any breaches or offences” of the building code at Darwin Turf Club’s Silks lounge.

Darwin restaurant and bar owner Jason Hannah, who has promoted his businesses on the NT Independent website, said he had swapped from reading the US-based Rupert Murdoch-owned NT News for the NT Independent.

“The NT Independent is my go to for local issues. I don’t have a subscription to the NT News,” he said.

“The NT Independent is free. I don’t think it is about the money, I give the equivalent of an NT News subscription to the NT Independent.

“I think freedom of information is important. Whether you like it or not, I get a lot of value from it.”

Making NT Police more accountable in reporting sexual assaults

The NT Independent ran a series of articles about the NT Police executive’s suppression of information to the public about alleged sexual assaults including the abuse of toddlers, which has seemingly prompted a change in police reporting practices.

These pieces were some of the most read articles ever produced by the NT Independent. The series started with a report of police not publicly releasing information about a three-year-old boy who was allegedly sexually assaulted while playing in his front yard, in what was described as “every parent’s worst nightmare”.

Police provided the public with information after the NT Independent first reported it, and the alleged sexual assault was picked up by national media, and prompted calls for reforms to how police provide information to the public.

Other articles in the series included the alleged daylight rape in a residential street not identified as a sexual assault by police, the alleged anal rape of a a woman sleeping in her own bed which was only identified as a break-in and robbery by police, and the horrifying sex offender caught outside a Darwin child’s bedroom with disturbing videos, and a ‘rape kit’, which was not made public by police.

These were all horrific incidents the police had either not reported or played down.

More cops speak

The NT Independent is the Territory’s number one outlet for whistleblowers and has brought important issues to the public because of access to documents the NT News, ABC and Channel Nine do not have, and the information from the paper’s sources puts great pressure on the agencies in question to change what they do.

A recent example has been the gross failings of the NT Police college, with a scathing audit obtained by the NT Independent that revealed the college failed to meet national standards in nearly every measure and had “serious non-compliances around staff qualifications”.

It followed with a story based on internal documents showing the college continued to employ unqualified instructors and failed to address the “significant risks” of putting cops on the beat before their competency was assessed, two years after the damning audit exposed serious non-compliance issues.

This led to Civil Liberties Australia coming out to express their concerns that the NT Government could be forced to pay millions in damages and every criminal court case over the past few years could be called into question after the NT Independent’s revelations about the college.

This reporting led to more whistleblower police officers coming to the NT Independent with further examples of failures within the force.

The NT Independent was the first media outlet to highlight allegations Mr Chalker and senior executive members intentionally withheld evidence from the defence team and the Director of Public Prosecutions in the Constable Zachary Rolfe murder case, which led to Mr Chalker attempting to seek a court order to suppress the reporting of further details of these allegations.

It was also the only outlet that provided the public with the details behind the Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne ‘abuse of office’ charge which exposed troubling integrity issues in the NT’s public institutions and raised some uncomfortable questions for the Gunner Government.

The paper was also the only outlet to report on the real reason that Alice Springs’ Parrtjima Festival events were cancelled and relocated from the centre of town last year, which was due to concerns around crime and public safety which was covered up by Major Events.

Mr Gunner later admitted on ABC radio it was because three cars had driven through the highly populated mall at “high speed” following the screening of a movie.

Taking the high, non-belt and road, road

The NT Independent is the only media outlet that has reported on a secret deal Mr Gunner signed while on a trip to China. A leak to the paper began an eight-month long saga where the Chief Minister either refused to answer questions or gave contradictory answers when he did, or blocked FOI requests into what exactly the document was.

In January 2021, sixteen months after he signed the document in October 2019, after relentless investigation and questioning, the answer was finally provided in a Budget Estimates document, showing the government had contractually obligated the Northern Territory to “promote closer relations” with China.

A few days later, the Independent reported on the Chief Minister’s foreign policy insight, when he said that the NT had “always been a target” for international aggressors but that signing up to trade deals will ensure the NT is not “invaded” by China.

And in May this year, the NT Independent revealed the secret deal was not approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as Mr Gunner had claimed. 

Forcing greater transparency on an opaque government

Mr Gunner swept to power in a landslide 2016 election victory promising to end the chaos of the last CLP government and to increase openness, transparency and accountability, even tabling a document in the Legislative Assembly – Restoring Integrity to Government: Trust and Integrity Reform Discussion Paper –  a document that has largely proved to be a farce.

The NT Independent is the major force for accountability in the Territory, even more so than the Opposition in some instances, forcing greater transparency and getting vital information kept secret, to the public.

The paper reported that one of the Gunner Government’s first orders of business after being sworn in for its second term was to scrap the scrutiny body that provided oversight of its proposed laws, which critics say will reduce government transparency.

The NT Independent has highlighted many of the failings of openness of this government, a trait that really began to be highlighted from December 2018, when Mr Gunner dumped his minister and mate Ken Vowles from caucus, as well as backbenchers Jeff Collins and Scott McConnell for speaking out about Labor’s handling of the Territory’s economic crisis.

The paper has reported on further reductions in transparency and accountability, including cutting Budget Estimates from six days, and reducing the amount of time for scrutiny from the Opposition and independents.

Former independent MLA for Nightcliff Dawn Lawrie, who also started her own newspaper and was the Administrator of the Cocos and Keelings Islands and the first NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, said the NT Independent had become vital to the Territory’s democracy.

“As a former politician, and former journalist and proud member of the [Australian] Journalists Association I believe a strong, free and independent press is vital to our democracy,” she said.

“The NT Independent fills a very special niche in that area. I read it as it is published online and they are often first with the news I have noticed, which I appreciate.

“And I feel we Territorians are well served having this independent publication available. Its loss would be devastating in my view.”

Further reductions in scrutiny came with the Gunner Government’s decision to change Question Time in this term of government, giving the Labor Government more time to ask itself questions, thereby reducing opposition questions. Independents now can only ask one question per sitting week, down from roughly four or five. That is just 11 questions per year on the parliamentary record.

And added to this is the ridiculous rate of rejection of freedom of information applications, despite a 2016 promise to reform the information act.

And don’t forget the ‘jobs for the boys’, jobs for family members on the fifth floor as well as the level of spin and obfuscation that has become the NT’s political reality.

Long term Northern Territory media figure, former NT News editor and deputy Sunday Herald Sun editor, and now Sky News Darwin bureau chief Matt Cunningham crossed the media outlet divide to recognise the NT Independent’s reporting.

“I welcome any increase in media diversity. I think the Independent has produced some excellent journalism in its first year of operation,” he said.

The only real source of information on Labor’s ‘cocaine sex scandal’

It is an archetypal Territory politics story, the Mark Turner and Kent Rowe scandal had echoes of the 2016 Country Liberal scandal when party minister and devout Christian Nathan Barrett was forced to resign after it was reported he sent a video of himself masturbating in his parliamentary bathroom to a woman who was not his wife, a story which was broken by NT Independent editor Walsh.

At the centre of the current scandal are the relationships a Darwin bondage mistress shared with the Labor MLA for Blain, married man and professed Christian Mr Turner, and fellow married man, then senior advisor to Mr Gunner, Mr Rowe, who had run the Labor party in the NT for the last decade.

The NT Independent was the only media outlet that had the messages between then three, the only media outlet reporting on the scandal with the evidence behind the saga.

In February, Mr Turner was referred to the Privileges Committee for lying to Parliament about his involvement in an extra-marital affair with the same woman in which Mr Rowe was also carrying out an affair.

The online paper was the only outlet to report  – based on verified text messages seen – that Mr Turner had sent a statement to the woman in question, telling her to recant her story about the consensual affair hours before his late night parliamentary confession.

The messages also appeared to show Mr Turner was working with Labor Party operatives to persuade the woman to issue the false statement.

The messages appeared to contradict Mr Gunner’s official public statement denying any member of his team advised Mr Turner to cover-up information.

The NT Independent was also the only outlet to report a portion of one of those interviews on ABC Radio that detailed politically damaging sexual comments, did not air because Mr Turner ordered that it be cut.

The NT Independent’s coverage also included sending Mr Gunner’s then communications director Maria Billias an email outlining allegations and describing explicit the messages. Mr Gunner later claimed a “server fault” affected the delivery of the email, which he used to justify why he continued to deny the existence of any evidence that Mr Turner and Mr Rowe acted inappropriately during parliamentary sittings, even after the email was sent to his office.

The Chief Minister’s Office later refused a Freedom of Information application that sought to find out how the email sent was handled internally, when it was received, who it was forwarded to, and all internal communications around the email, citing the ICAC’s ongoing investigation.

Despite all the government knows about the scandal, in May, Leader of Government Business Natasha Fyles passed a surprise motion in Parliament to extend the Privileges Committee’s deadline for reporting on the matter to the first sittings of 2022 without explanation.

The ban on the NT Independent ‘ridiculous’ and ‘quite dangerous’

Of course the lack of transparency was central to Mr Gunner’s ban on the NT Independent which has been widely criticised both locally, nationally, and internationally by pro-journalism bodies. Nevertheless, the ban has extended to the NT Police, the supposedly apolitical public service (minus the court system) and the NT Administrator.

Mr Gunner’s ban first made news outside of the NT Independent when ABC Darwin reported on the chief minister running from the paper at a press conference at Stokes Hill Wharf, relocating to Parliament House and not allowing the paper’s reporters in.

That drew the attention of the ABC’s national media watchdog program Media Watch, which refereed to the chief minister as “retreating to the bunker” and calling his behaviour “crazy”.

George Williams, the Dean of Law at UNSW and a leading constitutional law expert, has told the ABC the Government’s blacklisting of the NT Independent could raise constitutional issues.

The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom’s Peter Greste – who was sentenced to seven years in prison in Egypt in 2013 while working as a journalist – told the ABC he was troubled by the Government’s decision to blacklist the outlet and called it “ridiculous”.

“And so to ban the NT Independent seems to be frankly a ridiculous step and something that I think is quite dangerous when it comes to press freedom,” he said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, who normally have to contend with press freedom issues in non first world countries, also came out against the ban.

Australia’s Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has also repeatedly denounced the ban and called for it to be overturned. And then in December in the Senate, a motion calling on the NT government to reverse its ban passed unanimously.

Even Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said: “Australian governments should not be in the business of suppressing press freedoms.”

In February, a move to refer Mr Gunner for investigation by the Privileges Committee for “unfair and unethical” conduct  and Legislative Assembly Members Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act by banning the NT Independent and breaching the was shut down by the Gunner Government before debate could begin.

Mr Gunner’s most recent embarrassment on the issue came with his Estimates appearance in June, where he refused to let head public servant Jodie Ryan be questioned by Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro as to why the apolitical public service does not answer questions from the NT Independent.

The NT Administrator Vicki O’Halloran threatened to call security to eject the NT Independent from the swearing in of ministers after the 2020 election, possibly partly in retaliation for the paper reporting on her overseas travel expenses.

Her actions led Mr Williams, one of the country’s leading constitutional law experts, to comment that restricting reporters was an unusual move that raises constitutional concerns.

The online paper has also reported on Mr Gunner demanding an ABC journalist stop asking him questions at a press conference, an extraordinary event the ABC itself did not report.

For more reading on the best of the NT Independent’s reporting click on one of the links below.

CLICK to read: NT Independent Best Articles of 2020 – Part I

CLICK to read: NT Independent Best Articles of 2020 – Part II

CLICK to read: NT Independent Best Articles of 2020 – Part III

 

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