Their ABC’s Six-Week Reign of Error


Peter O’Brien

You’ve got to admire Tony Thomas.  His indefatigability in taking on the ABC must be unmatched anywhere in the known world.  I don’t know how many complaints he has registered over the years but I’m guessing its more than my age. In this respect he casts a giant shadow.  I know he’s had few wins but his strike rate is not encouraging. Nonetheless, he has inspired me to have another crack at the protection racket Their ABC has erected in support of fauxboriginal fauxhistorian Professor Bruce Pascoe.

The problem is that the ABC has what amounts to a statute of limitations which is virtually impossible to overcome. To put it simply, if no one complains within six weeks of publication, the error, misrepresentation or whatever becomes etched in stone, forever to remain and immune to all complaints. I submitted the following complaint on 20 October this year:

Subject: Misinformation in Bruce Pascoe Video Clip

Comments: This episode, titled ‘Charles Sturt’s Encounter in 1846’ (it was, in fact in 1849) describes an incident when explorer Charles Sturt and his party encountered an Aboriginal encampment in central Australia in 1849.  Pascoe says Sturt and his men had been traversing a wide expanse of sand dunes for weeks.  He says they all had scurvy and were dying.  Their horses were so weak they couldn’t be ridden anymore.    They climbed to the top of one last dune and beheld rescue in the form of 400 odd natives.  He says Sturt and his party staggered down the slope and quotes Sturt as saying that Sturt they could not have stopped themselves because the momentum was so great.

He then describes how the natives fed and watered them and their horses, even giving them roasted duck and cake and offering them a new hut to sleep in.  This part of the story is true and Pascoe quotes Sturt correctly in being amazed at the equanimity of the natives towards the horses.

But the first part of this story is a fabrication.  Sturt climbed that final sand dune on 25 October and spent over an hour there deciding whether or not to continue his quest to find the inland sea.  In the end wiser counsels prevailed and he decided to withdraw.  This incident, which occurred at 25 deg 54 min south and 139 deg 25 minutes east, is described on pages 49-50 of his journal Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia Vol 2. 

Although they were far from well, they were not dying and they were still able to ride their horses.  During that southern retreat he passed through a number of watered and vegetated areas.  On the 30 October, Sturt observed two natives diving for mussels in a water hole—‘they seemed to be very expert (and) were not long in procuring a breakfast’. 

On 1 November, Sturt observed that he ‘was exceedingly surprised that we had not seen more natives, and momentarily expected to come on some large tribe, but did not.’  By this stage, Sturt was quite confident of surviving.

The incident at the encampment took place, near Cooper’s Creek, on 3 November, 140 miles south of the point at which Sturt abandoned his quest.  Sturt and his party did not stumble down the hill unable to stop.  In Sturt’s words: ‘I checked my horse for a short time on the top of the sandhill and gazed on the agitated assemblage of agitated figures below me, covering so small a space that I could have enclosed the whole under a casting net, and then quietly rode down into the flat, followed by Mr Stuart and my men to one of whom I gave my horse when I dismounted and then walked to the natives’.  See Pages 75-76 of the journal.  So they did not stumble uncontrollably down a sand dune.

Pascoe talks about the duck, the cake and the new house, but fails to mention that Sturt declined the offer of sleeping accommodation to set up his own camp nearby. This is just a cheap shot, designed to highlight that the Aborigines were at home in the Australian landscape in ways that the white man was not. But no-one ever doubted this.

The way Pascoe tells it, Sturt and his party were saved by the natives, whereas in reality it was a civilised encounter between two parties, hitherto unknown to each other. 

This sort of distortion is not history. It should be either withdrawn or rewritten to correctly describe the incident.

On December 15, an answer came with a message not unexpected, and I think the same was written with a bureaucratic quill pen dipped in BS. Tony Thomas could recite it off by heart:

Thank you for your emails about the ABC TV Education video ‘Aboriginal Ingenuity’. I sincerely apologise for the delay in my response.

Your email has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards. These standards are explained in our Editorial Policies available here: 

Audience and Consumer Affairs will generally not accept for investigation complaints lodged more than six weeks after an item was broadcast or published. As you have not indicated that any special circumstances apply in this instance, we decline to investigate your complaint. Your comments have nonetheless been noted and made available to ABC Education.

ABC Education note that ‘We are aware that some people don’t agree with Bruce Pascoe’s interpretations of historical sources and encourage people to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of all historical sources’. ABC Education has also updated the video title to refer to 1849 rather than 1846.

So, my complaint was read by someone who made the minor correction relating to the date of the incident but declined to investigate further because the video clip has been online for a period greater than six weeks.  It apparently doesn’t matter that it is still up on the website.  There may be a case for a six-week limit on a minor mistake in a news item or documentary, but Chris Kenny has found the same limitation applies to the egregiously fake Story of the Centurythe three-part Russian collusion documentary

My example pales into insignificance in comparison with Kenny’s experience, but nonetheless it beggars belief that an organisation claiming it is Australia’s ‘most trusted source of news’ is content to let incorrect material fester on its website, simply on the basis that it survived its first six weeks of exposure without being exposed.

Here is my response:

Thank you for your response to my complaint.  I can understand that the ABC would have a 6 week statute of limitations on errors that might appear in a news item or documentary, in that by then, the effect of such error, in most cases, will have been diminished to the point of irrelevance.  However, the item I complained about is still published on your website.  It contains specific disinformation which I have detailed.  Does the ABC, which promotes itself as ‘Australia’s most trusted news source’, accept that it is OK for incorrect information to continue to be promulgated merely because no-one brought it to your attention within the first 6 weeks of its publication? 

I note that the 6 week rule did not apply to the fact that Mr Pascoe got the year wrong.  So why does it apply to the main point of my complaint.  Let me be clear, I am not claiming that Mr Pascoe’s interpretation of his source is wrong.  I am claiming that his presentation of the facts within that source is false.   I am claiming that he is fabricating, not misinterpreting.  Was anyone tasked with looking at the references I provided?  If so, may I have their detailed rebuttal of my points? Was Mr Pascoe invited to rebut my claims?

I look forward to your substantive response,

I’ll let you know the response, but don’t hold your breath. I certainly won’t be holding mine.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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