Cover-up: Australia’s or Pilger’s?

Above: Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest Island in 1893. State Library of Western Australia.

Pilger uses the photo in his film. It also features in the Australian History Curriculum for Year 10 students produced by Fremantle Prison.

 

UPDATED February 12, 6.55pm. See postscript. 

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

Tomorrow is a day of remembering. It is the anniversary date of the 2008 apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations. Marking the occasion in Alice Springs is another screening of John Pilger’s Utopia (on the Town Council Lawns at 7pm). The organisers no doubt believe that the film is a model document of remembering, but brief examination of a section that is specifically about remembering history shows just how misleading Pilger’s approach to this important process can be.

 

This is the section where he visits Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, once a prison for Aborigines, now a tourist destination. It obviously has a big emotional impact for many viewers. There were gasps and murmurs during the screening at Araluen. Prominent local Aboriginal man Harold Furber was reported by the ABC as having been most struck by this “mind blowing” sequence. The NT Greens’ Marlene Hodder, who organized the screening at Araluen on January 25, commented in Eureka on February 6 that, “Even I (who have worked with Aboriginal people since 1969) was outraged to … learn about Rottnest Island. Aboriginal people are welcoming the film and think it should be seen widely by as many people as possible. They are pleased that at last some of the true stories of this land are being told.”

 

But what is the story Pilger tells of Rottnest and how “true” is it?

 

We actually do not get many facts. We get none that are detached from Pilger’s polemical treatment and at times he blatantly distorts and misrepresents the situation.

 

He leads into his visit to the island with 1960s footage promoting Perth as “a suburban utopia” and contends that Perth’s development depended on “air-brushing out an entire human community”.  Rottnest will be his example, standing in for the whole of Western Australia, which remains “a state of imprisonment for black Australians”, as he concludes at the end of the sequence.

 

He arrives on Rottnest in the company of two members of the “Indigenous Nyoongar nation”, Marian McKay and Noel Nannup. Pilger’s voiceover tells us that the island was from 1838 “a brutal prison” and says it  “ought to be as notorious as Robben Island in South Africa”.

 

And why isn’t it? Pilger would have us – and the world – believe that this is because the island’s history is being covered up.

 

His Nyoongar companions “know the truth about this island”. On the beach before they head into the settlement with him, Noel Nannup performs a ceremony “meant to protect us all” from the awaiting sense of “horror and injustice” that will be found at “one of the British Empire’s most isolated concentration camps, part of a genocidal history that’s barely recognised in white Australia”.

 

By way of proof Pilger produces a brochure (scene from the film, above) that he picked up on the ferry on the way over. He contends, leading Noel Nannup to agree, that it makes no mention of the island’s past, not even “a sanitised version of the concentration camp that was here”. “There isn’t anything,” he says, and reading from the brochure, goes on: “Historic Rottnest, here it is, ‘Play and stay’.”

 

I have not seen the brochure but I have been onto the island’s official website, rottnestisland.com, the one where visitors would go to book their accommodation, to find out what they could do and see. Quite true that the island as a whole is presented as a place of pleasure, but nonetheless right there, on the home page, is the heading ‘History and Culture’. Click on it and it takes you to a historical overview presented under nine headings. These include ‘Aboriginal History’ and ‘Penal settlement’. The entries are not encyclopaedic but they contain a whole lot more information than Pilger gives us, which directly contradicts his claims of a cover-up.

 

Under the Aboriginal history heading, among other things, we learn that there are “17 sites on Rottnest Island listed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972-1980” and that  “this Act makes it an offence to alter an Aboriginal site in any way without written permission from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”.

 

Australia erasing its history, right?  “Air-brushing out an entire human community”?

 

Under the penal settlement heading, the numbers of prisoners is given as “some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys”. Pilger prefers loose numbers, saying simply “thousands”. In another online source (a curriculum document I refer to below) I find an estimate of between 3700 and 6000.

 

The tourism site states that 369 prisoners are reported to have died on the island between 1838 and 1931: “While most deaths were caused by disease, it is reported that five prisoners were hanged.” Pilger has “many of them tortured and killed”, but he doesn’t substantiate this  claim.

 

He relies rather on the sense of revulsion viewers will get when hearing this stark statement in contrast with his footage of “a hotel with a luxury spa”, and then goes to his interview with Noel Nannup.  This he sets up with the comment: “Australia must be the only country that makes a tourist hotel out of a place of carnage”, getting Nannup to agree with him.

 

The hotel where he films the interview has been converted from the Rottnest prison “known as The Quod”. Nannup describes something of the conditions of the prison, the airless cells – only “one vent above the door” – and the overcrowding, which he puts this way:  “Seventeen people died in each cell” and “In this [room] fifty-one people have died”.

 

The impression these comments make, after Pilger has established the right atmosphere for their reception, is that incarceration at Rottnest was a one-way journey to certain death. This is what many viewers take from the film, even those who should know better. One of them is Marcus Waters, a lecturer from Griffith University, who wrote a review of  Utopia for The Conversation, a comment site that bills itself as having “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. Waters writes with regard to the Rottnest sequence: “Filming occurs in a former prison cell where 51 people were held before their execution.”

 

Another reviewer making the same assumption is The Guardian’s John Crace (following the British release of the film just before Christmas last year). He writes in almost identical terms: “ I hope the guests sleep well in the $200-a-night room in which 51 Indigenous Australians were held before their execution.”

 

I won’t rely on the tourism site to counteract this information. You would never know it from Pilger’s Utopia, but serious research into our colonial history is produced in Australia, including into the penal experience on Rottnest Island. The prison and its prisoners are the focus, for example, of a comprehensive historical review in Far from home, Aboriginal prisoners of Rottnest Island 1838-1931 by Neville Green and Susan Moon. This is found in the Dictionary of Western Australians, Volume X published as “a bicentennial project co-sponsored by Challenge Bank Ltd (formerly the Perth Building Society) and the Australian Bicentennial Authority”.

 

I have not been able to access that publication for this article but I have been able to sight the relevant pages of Brian Purdue’s Legal Executions in Western Australia (Victoria Park, W.A: Foundation Press, 1993). This widely cited research puts hangings on Rottnest at five. It is no doubt the source for the same figure given in the Australian History Curriculum, produced by Fremantle Prison for Year 10 students.

 

It summarises: “Of the 154 people legally executed in Western Australia, 61 were Aboriginal, 23 were Asians and 70 were of European descent. 5 Aboriginal men were executed on Rottnest Island. No Aboriginal prisoners were executed at Fremantle Prison.

 

“In 1888 the Gallows were constructed at Fremantle Prison and from this time the majority of state executions were carried out on this site. However, between 1886 and 1900, 12 Aboriginal men were executed, all in the regions, including one at Rottnest Island. During this same period, 11 non‐Aboriginal prisoners were hanged at Fremantle Prison.”

 

The subtitle of the curriculum is “The Modern World and Australia – Rights and Freedoms”. It warns that its subject matter “includes deeply emotive subjects such as crime, punishment, death, as well as racial discrimination against Aboriginal people. The document includes information about Aboriginal people in prison and discussion of deaths in custody. This information, while on the public record, may be distressing to the families of those people involved. Please use this information sensitively and with respect for the Aboriginal families and others involved.”

 

The curriculum suggests “depth studies” including student investigations of “the experiences of Aboriginal prisoners at Fremantle Prison against the backdrop of race relations in the wider community”. It asks students to consider these questions: “Should British laws have been applicable to Aboriginal people? Were Rottnest Island and Fremantle Prison, with their associated methods of incarceration, punishment and reform, appropriate places to send Aboriginal prisoners?”

 

Australia covering up its history?

 

No doubt our conversation about the past – including its brutalities, injustices, racist actions and policies – could be improved and there is particular opportunity for this with the national debate leading up to the referendum on constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people. Thoughtful, serious research has and is being undertaken in the area, and as we can see with the Fremantle Prison curriculum document, it is not restricted to academia. This work forms a much better basis for conversations about our history than the distortions of John Pilger’s film.

 

Postscript: On film, a much better place to start a conversation about our past is the beautifully produced, well researched, often confronting yet also nuanced First Australians, produced by Rachel Perkins for Blackfella Fims, SBS and Screen Ausralia. It seems to be permanently available to watch online.

 

 

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17 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Ray
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Sarah@5. It seems you are really trying to discredit a review on this movie.
    Another such movie that is in a similar vein to this one is rabbit proof fence, where much of the content was said to be simply untrue by the person who was the central character.
    You ask Kieran to provide evidence of things that did not occur? How anybody can do that is beyond me.
    You are horrified by a statistic that 10 percent died, but let’s put that in perspective, we were talking about the turn of the century, way, way before medicine was developed enough to diagnose and treat many common diseases.
    I think they were lucky that the figure was that low. As Kieran said, there is information available to the tourists who wish to find out the history of the place. What you are trying to do in impose today’s standards on a society as it existed 100 years ago.
    Yes, we did have a pretty rough past, but what colonial power didn’t? I am glad that Kieran did this review, and although it does not support your wish that we should all hang our heads in shame, it is comforting to know that there are journalists who are prepared to dig a little deeper, and provide an alternative source of information.
    This is the reason I enjoy reading the Alice Springs News Online, and hope they continue to provide a source of information that challenges the standard media crap we are so often fed.

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  2. Hal Duell
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Found in the article referenced by Sarah Thorne on the vine: It’s a tough message to hear, and there’s plenty of scope to argue with it when Pilger so obviously stacks the deck in his favour.
    Would that include comparing a $30,000 a week rental property on the coast with a tin shed in the desert?
    And, Australia is a racist apartheid nation where the rich … actively work to keep Aboriginals poor and marginalised.
    I imagine Mr Pilger earned a pretty penny out of his film on those poor and marginalised Aborigines. Would I be correct in assuming that on his way back to London he donated the profits from the film Utopia to the housing authority on Utopia?

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  3. Russell Guy
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    @ Sarah Thorne. February, 19th.

    As a regular contributor with ‘Alcohol Watch’ – not sure if you’d class me as a columnist – I’d like to respond to your statement re the “pro Intervention and anti self-determination stance of this website and its columnists”, but generalised statements about such a large and long-staying initiiave as the Intervention, makes it impossible to know where to begin. However, Jane Clark has responded to this elsewhere.
    Self-determination as a government policy or as a right to maintain a culture different to that of the hegemonic is, in my opinion, problematic for many reasons, most pertinent in this instance, economic self-determination.
    There are a few catch-cries getting around, e.g., Desert Shire’s ‘Two Ways – One Outcome’, but the pragmatic out-working of people living their lives in a multicultural society where racism is a factor, is one of a complex relationship and degrees of interdependence.
    Peter Sutton’s revised edition of ‘The Politics of Suffering’ contains a chapter entitled ‘The Trouble with Culture’ which may be of interest.
    I didn’t see Pilger’s film, but I’ve written for the past two years of the realpolitik of cross-cultural alcohol reform in a society which is undergoing and about to be, subject to considerable economic change.
    I would welcome your thoughts on alcohol reform, particularly the use of ID as an interventionary measure for mediating alcohol-abuse in the region.

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  4. Sarah Thorne
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Kieran,
    I think the following article on the vine http://www.thevine.com.au/entertainment/movies/utopia-does-exist-but-its-far-from-idyllic-in-australia-20140217-273977/ gets to the heart of the matter and explains why the media and journalists such as you are so desperate to discredit Pilger and pick holes in the film.
    As the article says: “Nobody likes having their dirty laundry aired”. I do not believe that you have managed to show any serious holes in Pilger’s film, not from lack of trying.
    I think maybe you need to do more research yourself, particularly into Rottnest Island. I also believe that Pilger does not go into every detail and interrogate every claim his interviewees make because the material has been tested and reported elsewhere.
    He does not go into the detail of every claim or every policy, initiative or community program. He is making a bigger statement and painting the picture. And it is this picture that you do not like.
    You are trying to downplay the disadvantage and racism Aboriginal people suffer at the hands of successive governments. This is clear enough from your own bias in the Aboriginal people you listen to and the very pro Intervention and anti self-determination stance of this website and its columnists.
    I know it is hard to hear it and see the world through the world’s lens but you have no choice.

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  5. Kieran Finnane
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Sarah, The point I make about Noel Nannup’s figure of 51 is that it is loosely stated in the context of talking about over-crowding in the cells and Pilger does not seek to clarify what Nannup actually means, as any journalist worth his salt would do, nor does he corroborate from any other source. Instead he uses precious time to make another of his moralising statements (about people paying $240 a night to stay in the room) before Nannup says “they don’t have any idea what happened here, no one tells them, no one lets them know”. Pilger does not examine that either, in line with his general thesis of the island covering up its history, which clearly cannot be substantiated.
    Nannup then talks about the hanging of a Gascoigne man and of the prisoners having to build his gallows and watch his death. For me, that is “gruesome enough”. This is the only execution that Nannup is specific about. The records for the prison however show that there were four more. For me, that even more so is “gruesome enough”. I don’t need an unsubstantiated (and indeed I think unintended by Nannup) figure of 51 to recognise that human suffering occurred on Rottnest Island.
    Aboriginal history should be told but the truth will do. It is mostly bad enough.

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  6. Sarah
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    What evidence do you have Kieren, that the claims Noel Nannup makes are untrue? What evidence do you have that 51 people did not die in those rooms? Is dying of disease not gruesome enough? 10% of the Rottnest inmates died of diseases and this is not shocking to you? You don’t think that the hotel should be upfront in telling tourists the history of where they are staying? Noel Nannup says that he feels degraded, that “we feel so traumatised about this”. In your witch-hunt of Pilger you have neglected all the Aboriginal people who have legitimate grievances and debase the pain that they have shared.

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  7. Posted February 16, 2014 at 11:08 am

    @ Hal
    Another issue, Hal, over which we will have to agree to disagree.

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  8. Hal Duell
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:47 am

    @Domenico Pecorari
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm
    I strenuously disagree. The commentaries I have read concerning this film have not “in the main, smacked of a self-righteous, ethnocentric indignation that have, at their core, a blaming of the victim.”
    Rather I think that the commentaries have, in the main, attempted to point out in disappointed frustration that that the film itself smacks of a self-righteous indignation that has, at its core, a desire to grandstand, to shine forth as the principal very-righteous-one.
    Their point seems to be that a quite meaningful national debate is in danger of being high-jacked for reasons of personal aggrandizement.
    Any commentary that blames the victim deserves to be ignored, as does any tendency to gorge on a victim, any victim, for personal glory.
    I do agree that “Harmonious solutions will only come from a better understanding of the situation and through our being more honest with ourselves.”
    Honesty being the key word here. From all I have read by Pilger over the years concerning the Intervention, true honesty, a fearless honesty that allows for both sides on an argument to make its case, has been an ingredient in short supply.

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  9. Domenico Pecorari
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    I was amazed at the initial screening of Pilger’s “Utopia” at the Araluen, but much more amazed by the reactions it has stirred up in the local media, commentaries which, in the main, have smacked of a self-righteous, ethnocentric indignation that have, at their core, a blaming of the victim.
    Far from being difficult and complex, the situation is actually quite simple: Indigenous Australians are having to deal with a process of dis-possession and dis-empowerment that the average non-indigenous Australian finds difficult to understand, if he bothers to think about it at all.
    That, in essence, is Pilger’s message.
    Perhaps we would not find it so difficult to understand had the War In the Pacific not gone the way it did.
    Imagine Australia had been taken over by a foreign force, a power much mightier than anything we could muster in response.
    Imagine these foreigners had taken over all the lands, cities, our houses, for the use and benefit of their own kind (who continued to come in ever-increasing numbers) and had set up social, educational and economic systems that favoured themselves and left the former Australian population on the fringe, initially to fend for themselves but later included in a system of payments that depended upon your giving up any sense of independence.
    Imagine a system where your worth, your “value”, depended upon how closely you adopted the ways of the foreigners, your success measured by how much you assimilated into their ways of life, learned their language and practiced their social mores.
    Imagine not having the choice of “going back to your home country”, as the land had been the only home to 40,000 years of your ancestry.
    True, Pilger does tend to make a point with a sledgehammer, but let’s not use what are really minor criticisms to mask and ignore the message he is delivering.
    Harmonious solutions will only come from a better understanding of the situation and through our being more honest with ourselves.

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  10. Hal Duell
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    @Natalie
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:47 am
    It seems Pilger has been deploying his same bag of tricks with an article on Korea. You can read it at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-03-130214.html.
    Of special interest, if you do read it, are the comments at the bottom of the page.
    I have to conclude that the man cannot be trusted to write an unbiased, not severely slanted article. His treatment of the Intervention is shameless. I know this from living here. About Korea, I am guided by his blotted copybook here, as well as by the comments I have mentioned.

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  11. Kieran Finnane
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Natalie,

    I have seen the film and reviewed its account of material in the present and its approach to the practice of journalism. You can read it here.

    Of relevance also is a letter in response by Sarah Thorne for the Alice Springs Greens working group to which I have replied, with further examples relevant to the very recent past. You can read both here.

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  12. Natalie
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Some rather amusing comments on here which really don’t address anything in the subject.

    ‘does one, really, need to see (the film)’.
    I would suspect that the author does – the film is not only about the past, it has a great lot to do with the present and the inevitable future should the present not take any initiative and change.

    And as for Pilger’s shoddy journalism, if you are referring to his penchant for uncomfortable topics, then, I guess you are correct. But I’m not so sure the survivors of Pol Pot’s regime and the Khmer people would agree with you.

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  13. Ian Sharp
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Keep up the good work Kieran. Pilger’s shoddy journalism discredits not only himself but the good causes he seeks to promote.

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  14. Hal Duell
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

    How can anyone say Australia is trying to airbrush its past?
    Have Pilger and his apologists not seen Rachel Perkins’ First Australians, as mentioned in the above article. Or watched Coniston, the most recent film on the Coniston Massacre by David Batty and Francis Jupurrula Kelly?
    And how about some good news? How about Girls at the Centre, recently the subject of a story in the Murdoch press? Or the recent drive from all governments to raise the level of school attendance on remote communities? Why nothing on the work of the Clontarf Foundation, and the work it is doing in schools across Australia?
    And the art, often referred to as the last great art movement of the 20th century. Not worth a mention?
    Pilger seems to be motivated by his story, not the story of indigenous Australians, whether past or present.
    By all means if you know something new, or think you do, such as what might have happened on Rottnest Island, get it out. But get it right. The country is full of fact-checkers these days.

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  15. Terry
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 2:22 am

    I have not seen this film, but really, does one need to? We all know that in these ancient times, wherever the explorers went, there came fear and horror for the indigenous people. Look at Africa, America, India, the Pacific islands and the fate of the Aztecs.
    Nothing is more horrible than America’s vale of tears for instance, whole nations wiped out.
    Having said this one must remember the timing of these happenings, and the general attitudes of the “conquerors” at that time. Life was far more savage back then.
    What happened in Australia is terrible, but as nothing compared to the rest of the world.

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  16. Jez
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    “was that incarceration at Rottnest was a one-way journey to certain death.”

    I think if you are going to complain about polemicising of an issue, one should refrain from it themself.

    Your point regarding the official record of executions is also rather unquestioning. Knowing the brutality of settlers, I would consider the official claims are as speculative as any other.

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  17. Russell Guy
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    I’m amazed at the numbers raging against the analysis of John Pilger in regard to the “treatment” of Australia’s First Peoples, while only a small number have expressed any interest in reforming the alcohol laws in the NT.
    After two years of constant researching, reporting and posting to the Alice Springs News Online, attending forums and writing to government ministers prior to the 2012 election asking without success for information on alcohol industry campaign donations, it appears that the Australian Hotels Association contributed $300,000 to both political parties at that time.
    If some of the outrage over the past could be brought to bear on the NTG in terms of its lack of a floor price, its seven days a week takeaway regime and earlier closing times, we might stand a chance of avoiding another generation of excessive alcohol consumption, spend the multi-million dollar savings on productivity-enhancing programs that are not constantly undermined by alcoholism and Close the Gap.
    This realpolitik seems to escape the Greens’ polemic.

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