Raising Hell: Issue 36: Nightmares Before Christmas

"You are innocent until proven poor." - Michael K. Williams, Actor, Interview with Time magazine, 2017

The funny thing about being around to witness to something special is that you don’t often recognise the significance of what you saw in the moment. It happens a lot in this line of work, but I had this moment of clarity recently when events forced me to think back on that time I spent covering the Coronial Inquest into the Death of Wayne Fella Morrison.

For those out of the loop, Wayne Morrison was a 29-year-old Indigenous man in South Australia who died in 23 September 2016 after 12 prison guards wrestled him to the floor outside his prison cell in Yatala Labour Prison. As of 26 September, it will be five years since Morrison died with the inquest into his death yet to wrap. You can catch up on all the details here.

A part of this story that has not received much coverage to date was the work done by a core group of academics, activists and supporters of the family who volunteered their time to sit in a courtroom day-after-day and type transcript in order to get the word out and sustain national attention on a major civil rights matter.

The value of this work cannot be underscored as it is no secret the legal world is often inaccessible. Even if Coroner Jayne Basheer runs a relatively open courtroom — unlike some of her colleagues interstate — the human effort that falls broadly under the banner “legal stuff” can be notoriously inaccessible. To date, for instance, the Morrison inquest has generated 7791 pages of transcript. In South Australia, it costs $8.70 per page to have a court transcript emailed to you. If I wanted to get hold of this official material, it would set me back $67,781.70 just to find out all that has happened during the case. The reality of this is that a reporter coming in cold has zero chance of catching up on what they missed, and their coverage will inevitably be thin and superficial. Indigenous communities who may want to know what going on with a critical civil rights issue are also left flying blind.

Latoya Rule, Morrison’s sibling, sought to address this after the run of initial hearings by organising teams of volunteers to produce their own transcript. How it worked — based on what I observed — was pretty clever. Some people flew in from interstate for a week at a time, others turned up to volunteer on their day off. Using their own laptops, two people would work simultaneously off the same Google doc to type transcript. How they approached this task depended on the people involved. In some cases someone might tap out and allow the second to take over if they became overwhelmed. Alternatively, the first person might bash out everything they could, while the second went back over the preceding text to clean it up. A third person would then pull lines or details from this real-time transcript and publish their coverage of events to social media. Because the South Australian courts have a ban on live recordings of proceedings — ostensibly to stop lawyers from playing to the cameras — a fifteen minute gap had to be allowed between each Tweet, lest they get hauled before a judge for contempt of court.

At times, the pressure was significant. There were questions about what could be published and what couldn’t and the worry was always that a wayward Tweet might derail the process. As stressful as this might have been — and though the transcript was not always perfect — the service proved invaluable. Suddenly, a convoluted legal process was rendered accessible and people outside of the courtroom who couldn’t be present for reasons of money, distance or responsibility could still follow what was going on. The cumulative Tweets would then be kitted together into a summary for publication on IndigenousX at the end of the day, or used to cross-check and verify events as they unfolded. The combination of fact and observation meant the picture presented outside the courtroom could be rendered in higher resolution than the just-the-facts reports that appeared in newspapers or online.

As a reporter in charge of providing this coverage and who was sitting in the courtroom as this all unfolded, I also came to rely on this resource. Mostly, it functioned as an informational backbone that helped structure coverage of events. It offered the ability to clarify quotes, fill in detail I had missed and generally stopped me from walking into catastrophe where, for whatever reason, I had to miss a few days. If I ever needed to check anything, I could then go over the road to the District Court on my lunch break, pull up the official transcript and check it for detail.

This kind of work is easy to overlook, but when knowledge is power those who organised to create this material deserve to be recognised — a subject I will be exploring in more detail when I will appear at the Context writers festival in October to talk about the future of local journalism. The event is free and the event will be a long-table that allows for audience contribution, so come along to hear Anisha Pillarisetty, Gemma Beale and myself talk more about this. Details below:

Title: The Future of Local Journalism
Time: 12:30am - 1:30pm
Date: Sunday 10 October 2021
Venue: Adelaide City Library, 3 Rundle Place, 77-91 Rundle Mall, Adelaide
Arrival time: 11:30am

For the Fortnight: September 1 to September 14

Reporting In

Where I recap what I’ve been doing this last fortnight so you know I’m not just using your money to stimulate the local economy …

Cracking COVIDSafe

Over the course of November, Raising Hell ran its first serialised investigation, CrackingCOVIDSafe, in association with Electronic Frontiers Australia. The series looked at the creation of the government’s automated contact tracing app COVIDSafe and stepped out how I used Freedom of Information to learn more so that others may learn to do their own. Along the way, we tracked how a constellation of government agencies and a clutch of for-profit companies made a hash of a new public service. So far we have managed to reveal how the government prioritised reputational risk over service quality and how security issues were not addressed by government for weeks after release, even though they put the app in breach of the government’s own privacy policy.

Read Part One

Laramba’s Water

The story of Laramba so far is straight forward. High concentrations of uranium were first found in Laramba’s water back in 2008. The situation in the remote Indigenous community of about 263 people hit the headlines in 2018 when NT Power and Water Corporation (PWC) published a report showing uranium concentrations there nearly three times higher than the national guidelines. That story made news again early this year when the community lost a legal fight to force the NT Government to do something to fix it.

Thanks to the support of my generous subscribers I’ve been able to pick up the issue to find out more. Here’s a running list of published stories that will be updated as I do more over time.

You Hate To See It

A dyspeptic, snark-ridden and highly ironic round-up of the news from our shared hellscape…

  • Visions Of Tomorrow

    Even if you are keenly aware of dispiriting hellscape that that is the world we inhabit at this point in history, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of this monstrous nightmare — but don’t worry, Amazon has a solution for that. It’s no secret that Amazon, a company whose employees are forced to piss in bottles (despite the company’s claims to the contrary) and whose criminally underpaid labour force have subsidised their billionaire boss’es recent jaunt to space, has perfected the art of harnessing human misery. How much show can be measured in those very viral photos showing a clean, sanitised Amazon warehouse in Tijuana, Mexico looming out of slum. Yet even these shots don’t tell you the full story. Charmaine Chua, posting to Twitter, helpfully unpacked how tax code loopholes, global trade policy and a small battalion of corporate lawyers made it possible. Thank you, lawyers!

    The warehouse in question (credit: Omar Martinez)

  • How The Other Half Lived

    To Afghanistan now where Taliban fighters are slowly learning how the other half lived. In a video published by The New York Times, 150 fighters have moved into a mansion formerly owned by Abdul Rashid Dostum in Kabul and the hardline religious zealots were only to happy to show reporters around in what we can only presume is the local Afghani spin-off of popular reality TV-series Selling Sunset.

  • Priorities

    Ever wonder what will happen when the Queen dies? Well, Politico obtained the entire plan for how the British establishment will stage manage — down to the minute — news of Queen Liz’s passing and the handover of power to her son, Charles. Among other tidbits that reveal the comedy that is concentrating power in the ice-cold grip of a defined class of aristocrats, much human effort and thought has been invested into ensuring that flags on government buildings across the nation are lowered to half mast within ten minutes of the Queen’s death being announced, lest the masses grow angry. Would have been nice if they put the same level of thought and planning into a pandemic response.

  • Just Like Ol’ Yella

    South Australia under the bold leadership of the Marshall government has continued to embrace the tech-world with its vast array of gimmicks, trinkets and solutions in search of problems. This time around, utility company SA Power Networks has announced it has bought its own Boston Dynamics robotic dog to help patrol the streets in search of downed power lines. In a somewhat awkward Youtube video, complete with uplifting corporate musak, the company assured the public that Spot is not a threat to the continuing existence of humanity — which is exactly what they would say. For those distrusting of the authorities at this point, it may be worth brushing up on how to kill the thing in mortal combat just in case it ever comes down to it (pro-tip: watch the pinch-points).

  • “Nightmare Before Christmas”

    Beyond the developing techno-nightmare emerging in South Australia, the state was also treated to a political scandal of a wholly different kind. Using the cover of parliamentary privilege, South Australian MLC Tammy Franks accused former liberal MP and arch-conservative Sam Duluk of indiscretions that might make even Western Australia’s Troy Buswell blush. If Buswell made national headlines for (among other things) sniffing the chair of a female colleague, Franks explained how, among other shenanigans, there was one career-defining moment during a 2019 Christmas party when ‘the Member for Waite at the time urinated in a corner of an MP’s office before turning around with his penis still exposed, waving his appendage into the breeze with his arms in the air, calling out: “Touch it, touch it.”’ Duluk, for the record, was acquitted of sexual harassment against another female politician in the Magistrates court in August and denies Franks’ allegations.

  • Stuck In Lockdown?

    But then it’s not all bad. For those subscribers stuck at home on the east coast, some enterprising individuals have begun hawking plans for a do-it-yourself, homebrew hovercraft.

Failing Upward

Where we recognise and celebrate the true stupidity of the rich, powerful and influential…

  • God bless Tony Abbott. You just can’t keep the man down. Not only has the former Prime Minister — Australia’s worst by all accounts — managed to get himself a plumb gig advising the UK government on trade, but the man’s opinions still manage to find oxygen. We here at Raising Hell were tickled this last fortnight to hear that at the same time scientists were reporting how animal life were morphing to adapt to a hotter climate, Abbott was pontificating on the subject of climate change. Among the various bits of nonsense, was the continuing belief that humanity can “hack” climate change using technology. But then our favourite of late was news the former PM has been fined $500 for not wearing a mask while taking a stroll on Manley Beach in Sydney last Wednesday — and then complained that it was un-Australian to snitch. As the collective memory of the internet immediately pointed out, Abbott introduced a “dob-in-a-dealer” line for ice dealers in 2015 and was quite happy for people to rat out those on social security who they suspected of “cheating”.

    FYI in May 2019, Abbott’s prime ministerial pension was bumped up by $90,000 to $296,000 and under changes pushed through the parliament, Abbott was given the right to free international travel upon consent of the current Prime Minister. This right to blunder about the global stage making the world marginally worse at every opportunity also extends to Abbott’s marital partner and one staff member.

Good Reads, Good Times

To share the love, here are some of the best or more interesting reads from the last fortnight…

Before You Go (Go)…

  • Are you a public sector bureaucrat whose tyrannical boss is behaving badly? Have you recently come into possession of documents showing some rich guy is trying to move their ill-gotten-gains to Curacao? Did you take a low-paying job with an evil corporation registered in Delaware that is burying toxic waste under playgrounds? If your conscience is keeping you up at night, or you’d just plain like to see some wrong-doers cast into the sea, we here at Raising Hell can suggest a course of action: leak! You can securely make contact through Signal or through encrypted message Wickr Me on my account: rorok1990. Alternatively you can send us your hard copies to: PO Box 134, Welland SA 5007

  • And if you’ve come this far, consider supporting me further by picking up one of my books, leaving a review or by just telling a friend about Raising Hell!

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