Telling the stories that matter

Published by Philanthropy Australia
17 November 2020

Philanthropy and journalism are rare collaborators in Australia. It’s also true that mainstream Australian journalism has shown little interest in deep engagement and investigative reporting of Indigenous affairs. Both of those things changed when The Balnaves Foundation funded an Indigenous Affairs reporter for three years at Guardian Australia.

The outcome, by the media industry’s best measure – Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism – was stellar. Indigenous reporting at Guardian Australia won two Walkley Awards and this year is a finalist for a third Walkley But more importantly, the coverage raised public awareness around issues of social justice, reached new levels of detail in revealing the true extent of black genocide, as well as deaths in custody. The revelations drove political debate and inspired advocacy and campaigns.

For The Balnaves Foundation, the initiative was a logical extension of its long-held commitment to Indigenous issues in Australia.The Foundation has wanted to see a shift in the systemic treatment and the public discussion about Indigenous Australians. Guardian Australia’s collaboration was a way of helping to address that.
It also underlined The Balnaves Foundation’s faith in the power of independent public interest journalism and as Foundation General Manager Hamish Balnaves put it, a determination to fight for Fourth Estate.

“Philanthropists want to engage society and I think most people realise that the media plays an essential role in that process. The fact that news can be received from so many sources these days has led to problems of quality and trust,’’ Hamish said at the time.

For Guardian Australia, the philanthropic support enabled the publisher to provide deep and unique news coverage. At a time when mainstream media is facing the twin challenges of a broken commercial model and profound questions about its credibility, The Balnaves Foundation’s partnership with Guardian Australia helped reshape expectations about options to support responsible journalism. It also sent a signal to the broader journalism industry – where as many as 3,000 jobs have disappeared in the five years – that there may be another route to sustaining jobs and doing meaningful, incisive and impactful reporting.
The Balnaves Foundation gave $300,000 to Guardian Australia Civic Journalism Trust in March 2018 to support Guardian Australia Civic Journalism Initiative, a three-year-long Indigenous reporting and educational project.

At the time of the announcement, Hamish Balnaves, said the grant would increase the diversity of media voices in Australia. “We are proud to be supporting public interest journalism that will shed a light on untold stories and increase public discourse on Indigenous issues.’’ It enabled the publisher to hire an Indigenous Affairs Editor, Lorena Allam, an experienced journalist and Gamilarai-Yawalaraay woman, from north-west NSW.

Guardian Australia’s Managing Director, Dan Stinton, says: “The Guardian is about seven years old in Australia and has been growing strongly, but we’re still a relatively small operation compared to our peers, which means we don’t have the resources to cover all of the important issues that our editor wants to cover. As such philanthropy plays a vital role in helping us fund new and important journalism that we can’t quite afford to do on our own.”

Lorena collaborated with the University of Newcastle, and other Guardian journalists to create the Walkley-award winning The Killing Times, an interactive map that for the first time revealed the extent of the massacres of Indigenous Australians. The mapping identified 270 frontier massacres in every state and territory across 140 years.

The Walkley Award citation outlined the project’s importance: “[It] is a confronting, compelling and evolving digital series about a highly important chapter in our history…using primary source material, strict methodology and painstaking research, as well as original reporting on places and people that have not been made public before. The stories of descendants from all sides were fundamental to the project, as was the development of a map, searchable by postcode, to show how close to home these incidents have occurred over time.

“The collaboration is driven by the view that this information is essential to any process of truth-telling this country decides to undertake in whatever form that may take — on local, regional and national levels.’’

While the Killing Times report was a benchmark, there was significant additional reporting about Indigenous issues that told stories about what had remained hidden or obscured.

The Deaths Inside project analysed Indigenous deaths in custody that occurred around the country from 2008 to 2020. The project went back through coronial reports and identified significant issues where Indigenous people had been exposed to systemic failures of the criminal justice system. And despite the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody to maintain accurate data about the deaths, the investigation revealed accurate data was hard to come by. Deaths Inside helped rectify that problem with a searchable database. The project also won a Walkley Award, hailed by the judges as “…as a resource to be used by other reporters, lawyers and academics, but it also serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives and as a way for families to mourn their loved ones.’’

The interactive project was confronting evidence that the problem was not with recent history – it was still happening. During the Black Lives Matter protests in Australian cities earlier this year, signs pointed out the 432 Indigenous lives that had been lost since the Royal Commission. Several days later, Guardian Australia was able to reveal through its Death Inside research that the number had risen to 434. In 2019, the publisher also released a podcast series, Breathless, on the death in custody of David Dungay Jr.

Other stories followed: the closure of the Uluru climb, how climate change impacts on Indigenous communities, and how the HTLV-1 virus, as well as COVID-19, have affected Indigenous Australians. This year, Guardian Australia’s reporting of miner Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site at Juukan Gorge in West Australia’s Hammersley Ranges has also been nominated for a Walkley Award.

The impact of the stories, in national discussions, and overseas exposure, has amplified the need for such coverage.
It has also proved to be a reliable template for further collaboration between philanthropy and journalism: The Balnaves Foundation has given Guardian Australia $420,000 for an in-depth arts reporting project over three and a half years.