Social Affairs Correspondent Norman Hermant recently travelled to a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community to investigate a story, uncovered by National Reporting Team Producer Alison McClymont, about an Indigenous initiation ceremony that went wrong. With nothing ‘locked in’ before he landed, the 7.30 story Norman produced and filmed was the result of some old fashioned ‘shoe-leather journalism’.
For a journalist, it’s never a comfortable feeling flying off to a story with nothing guaranteed to go “in the can”. The can, is a very reassuring concept for broadcast journalists. It’s the term used for the interviews and video footage that’s already been shot – or is at least locked-in to be shot. “How’s the shoot coming?” your Executive Producer might ask. “Great,” you say confidently. “We’ve already got so-and-so and these shots in the can.”
In mid-January, when producer Alison McClymont called with a lead on a good story in the Northern Territory, there was nothing set for the can. What we had was this: one indigenous man, William Miller, in a remote town who seemed eager to talk to us about an initiation ceremony that had gone wrong. When he talked to Alison he’d agreed to go on the record and we thought maybe if he did others would too. On that basis, the call was made. I would grab our video journalist kit and spend a day making my way from Melbourne to Borroloola, 700 kilometres east of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Sometimes, you just have to go.
I arrived in town on a Wednesday night, with just one mobile number in hand and a list of other “less likely” numbers. The ceremony we were investigating involved circumcision. Three boys had been badly injured, and were airlifted out for medical treatment. It was clear in Borroloola, a small Northern Territory town with a large Indigenous population, this was a sensitive subject. I knew our story really rested on getting that one, all important interview. I dialled our contact first. “William Miller?” I asked. “Can’t talk now. Call in a few hours.” And that was it. I ran through the rest of the numbers on the list. Most barked off blunt “No comments”. A few spoke briefly. They were nervous. The local clinic was refusing to comment also.
I went to the town hotel for dinner. Anyone who’s been in these Territory towns would recognise the scene. A bar, a pool table, fluorescent lights. I ordered my dinner and as nonchalantly as possible wandered over to a table of aboriginal men and introduced myself. “Does anyone know anything about the ceremony before Christmas that went wrong?” I asked. “Nah mate”, came the reply. This clearly wasn’t going to work either.
This is when, as a journalist, dark thoughts can start to creep in. I’m back in my motel room, in a town I don’t know, with full knowledge the ABC is expecting a strong story from me and I am staring at a whole lot of nothing. I called Alison McClymont to give her an update, and waited to call William Miller again. We knew he was an aboriginal man who drove Borroloola’s ambulance. On the night of the botched circumcision, he’d been called to pick up his own grandson. He’d been angered by the whole experience and had told Alison that on the phone. Without him, there’d be no story. I called his mobile again. Someone else answered. “William can’t talk now. Call tomorrow.” My prospects were getting worse.
Early the next morning I met with someone who knew William. I was told William had worked late the night before, and wouldn’t be up for hours. He’d still be at work, so I couldn’t call during the day. Time was already running out. I was leaving in 36 hours. Things were looking grim. And then, the phones went out. A work crew digging near Mataranka, about halfway to Darwin, had ripped up a bunch of fibre optic cables. Mobile phones were knocked out across much of the Northern Territory. They’d be out for the day.
Now I had no choice but to search out this yarn on foot. I got a tip on where one of the boys who’d been injured might be staying. He was there. His family didn’t want to talk, but they did tell me how to reach one of the traditional elders who might be willing to do an interview. I was feeling slightly better. At least that was something. I swung by the local store to pick up some breakfast and made eye contact with a man filling up a ute. I took a guess. “William Miller?” It was him. He couldn’t talk then, but we arranged to meet later. Things were looking up.
I’d been told to talk to a local businessman. He didn’t know anything. But he in turn suggested I talk to another local guy who’d been in Borroloola for thirty years. He knew most of the local elders well. Jackpot! After a long talk, he agreed to take me in his four wheel drive to meet the local elders. And lucky he did. My rent-a-car would never have made it through the flooded mud tracks. The elders would never have spoken to me without his introduction. In the end, they agreed to be interviewed and explained, from their point of view, what happened. But that still left the key interview, William Miller.
I went back to the motel. There were still no phones and half an hour after our meet time, there was still no William. I wandered down the end of the motel driveway in the hope that I might see something, anything. I remembered a local person telling me William’s son drove an old green Pajero, with a plastic sheet flapping out the back in place of the glass. Now what do you think I saw heading towards me? I raised my hand. And despite the fact William’s son Terry had never seen me before and had no idea what I wanted, he stopped. I ran over and told him I was waiting for William. ”He’s in town. I’ll go get him.” With that, he drove off. 10 minutes passed. Then 20, then 30. No William. I hopped in my rent-a-car and just as I did, I saw the Pajero drive by again. I gave chase and caught up down the street. “William didn’t come?” Terry asked. I explained he hadn’t showed up. “I’ll take you to him”, he offered.
We met up with William and Terry drove us back to the motel. I was able to shoot William driving around in my rent-a-car, and he was finally able to have his say in a powerful interview. His family agreed that his grandson, who was one of those injured in the initiation ceremony, could talk to me as well the next day.
The next day the phones were back online. I could fill Alison in on what was finally “in the can”. I had enough time to drive around town, shoot the footage we needed for a TV news and longer current affairs story, and knock off the always time consuming task of filming yourself in a piece to camera.
I left Borroloola with more or less everything we needed, all after arriving with just one mobile number. Television news can be very expensive, and that makes stories like this one difficult. It really is impossible to know just what you’ll have before you shoot a story. Credit here to the executive producers and the news bosses who were willing to spend the money and take the chance. Sometimes, you just have to go.
Click here to watch the original 7.30 story.