Australian politics, society & culture

Share

“Name Ten”: The journalism of Andrew Bolt

'Boy at the Bungalow', 1920s. National Archives of Australia.
'Boy at the Bungalow', 1920s. National Archives of Australia.

On 28 September 2011, Andrew Bolt was found to have committed an offence under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He had written two articles in the Herald Sun which had the capacity to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate members of the group about which he had written – a group Justice Bromberg called “light skinned Aborigines”. Bolt had not breached the Act because he had written critically about the question of racial identification. He had breached the Act because his articles were filled with “errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”. The full judgment is a brilliant forensic analysis of the Bolt technique. Of this technique I can boast some personal experience.

In 2000 and early 2001 I was working on a Quarterly Essay called “In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right”. The essay documented the campaign conducted by the editor of Quadrant, PP McGuinness, and a dozen or so sympathetic journalists debunking the supposed myth of the “stolen generations”, the name given to mixed descent Aboriginal children removed by government from their mothers, families and communities. Shortly before the essay was concluded, Andrew Bolt, one of the journalists involved in the campaign, wrote a story that appeared on the front page of the Herald Sun. The article claimed that Lowitja O’Donoghue, an indigenous woman involved in the fight for the recognition of the injustice done to these children, had “confessed” that she had not been “stolen” at all but had simply been “removed” by her white father to a South Australian Christian mission. According to Bolt, here was vital evidence that the left-wing stolen generations myth was indeed a fraud.

Bolt’s story had influence. Even the Prime Minister, John Howard, thought it “highly interesting”. Lowitja O’Donoghue was distraught by the manner in which her story had been twisted. She hadn’t realised the kind of a journalist Bolt was. Eventually Lowitja’s true story was revealed by Stuart Rintoul in the Australian magazine. At the time of her birth the policy of the South Australian government had been to separate “half caste” children from their Aboriginal surroundings. Lowitja and her brothers and sisters had been removed by their Irish-Australian father who then abandoned both the children and their Aboriginal mother. Thirty years later, by accident, Lowitja discovered her mother’s identity and whereabouts. Lowitja’s mother who, in turn, learned that her daughter would visit her as soon as she could, waited patiently by the roadside each day for several weeks. When they were reunited, Lowitja found that her mother had spent her life in grief over the loss of her children. For her part, Lowitja had never overcome the pain of separation. What kind of journalist would manipulate a story as tragic as this, entirely consistent with the interwar policy and practice of “half caste” child removal, for a cheap and false polemical point?

I was angered by Bolt’s attack on Lowitja O’Donoghue and agreed to debate Bolt on the subject of the stolen generations. Bolt at first agreed, and then at the last minute pulled out. Later, Russ Radcliffe, events manager of Readers’ Feast at the time, the person who had set up the debate, explained to me what had happened: “I telephoned Andrew Bolt – he was affable, amused by the prospect, and keen to participate. I subsequently called on Bolt on several occasions leaving messages to confirm the date. He did not reply. When I eventually reached him his tone had changed drastically … He became irate, saying he had no intention of helping Manne ‘flog’ his book … ” On 2 April 2001 in the Herald Sun this was also the reason Bolt gave for his change of mind.

After this time, in the Herald Sun, Bolt launched scores of attacks on me over the question of the stolen generations. One of the lines of attack was defamatory, namely that I was what he called the chief stolen generations “propagandist”, a claim that he has repeated, according to a Factiva search I made in preparing this piece, on no fewer than thirty-two occasions. Some claims were stunningly dishonest. In “In Denial” I had outlined four biographies of mixed descent children who had been removed from mother, family and community as a way of demonstrating the policy and practice in different states and territories and in different historical periods. Time and again Bolt told the readers of the Herald Sun that in all my research I had only been able to find four cases of “stolen” children. Bolt also entangled himself in contradiction. On the one hand, he very frequently accused me of being a propagandist. On the other, he repeated hardly less frequently the criticisms I had made of Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity report into Aboriginal child removal. “Even Manne acknowledges…”  If I was indeed a propagandist why would I have been critical of the major report into Aboriginal child removal?  Moreover while outlining my criticisms of Bringing Them Home often Bolt suggested to his readers that I rejected all the conclusions of the report. This was another lie. In general, I praised the report. Finally, on several occasions Bolt suggested to his readers that I was profiting from the research I was undertaking into mixed descent Aboriginal child removal. I had profited, he claimed, by winning a Queensland Premier’s Prize for “In Denial”. I had profited by being paid the standard fee for writing a Quarterly Essay. It was even suggested that I had profited personally from a comparatively modest grant I had received from the Australian Research Council to work in the Commonwealth and state government archives. Bolt called the grant a “top up” of my salary. This was yet another lie, designed to deceive. Grants are carefully audited and must be spent on nothing but research. They are not income.

Between March 2001 and May 2006 Bolt had written in the Herald Sun attacking me, mainly although not exclusively as the stolen generations chief propagandist, on no fewer than forty-seven occasions. More importantly, by May 2006 he had written no fewer than seventy entirely ill-informed articles on the supposed myth of the stolen generations. Apart from ad hominem attacks on scholars working in the field, Bolt’s articles had three main interconnected characteristics. Firstly, as a “terrible simplifier”, Bolt distorted beyond recognition the individual histories of mixed descent children who had been removed from mothers, families and communities in order to demonstrate they had not been “stolen”. Secondly, Bolt treated the general name indigenous Australians by now attached to the phenomenon of child removal – the "stolen generations" – not as a metaphor but as a literal description. The result was to exonerate cruel and inhumane but lawful policy on the ground that it did not involve the crime of kidnapping. Most weirdly of all, in his discussion of the question of the stolen generations, Bolt ignored entirely the problem that was central to any sane historical discussion of mixed descent Aboriginal child removal, namely the policies and practices of the states and territories in the decades between 1900 and 1970.  He simply assumed, without any evidence provided, that indigenous child removal was motivated by concerns about neglect. How far in all this Bolt was driven by ideological zeal and absence of empathy and how far by limited historical understanding or intelligence, it was difficult to decide.

In June 2006 Bolt wrote a column arguing that the Left was frightened of engaging in argument with the Right. In response, I sent a letter to the Herald Sun pointing out the hypocrisy. Five years ago, I argued, Bolt had fled from a debate on the stolen generations. In a private email, Bolt now argued that the reason he would not debate me was that he had not been sent a copy of the Quarterly Essay. He apparently forgot that this contradicted the public reason he had offered in 2001 for pulling out of the debate at the last moment.

The day after my letter was published, I was invited onto 3AW in Melbourne. Bolt challenged me to name ten stolen children. This was, I must admit, a cunning move. Unless one is prepared for a challenge of this kind, lists of names of the victims of a policy do not trip off the tongue. I doubt I would have done better if I had been asked to name ten victims of the Stalin terror or the Armenian genocide, matters I have read a very great deal about. Bolt’s “name ten” myth was born. 

Soon after this radio encounter – the transcript of which was published in the Herald Sun – I asked the Director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival if she was interested in inviting Andrew Bolt for a debate with me on the stolen generations. What then followed was truly bizarre. Bolt made it a condition of his participation that I send him a list beforehand not merely of ten “stolen children” but of “a hundred” or even “hundreds”. I emailed Bolt to let him know that I found his request peculiar. The issue dividing us was whether or not there were ten or a hundred or indeed thousands of “stolen children”. What Bolt seemed to require, as a condition of agreeing to a debate, was that I first provide him with the evidence proving that he was wrong. Although we had by now entered an “Alice in Wonderland” world, I told him I was happy to meet his condition so long as he provided me with a definition of what counted for him as a “stolen child”. Bolt refused to answer this question. Nonetheless I decided to send him a reasonably detailed list of mixed descent children removed in the different states and territories between 1900 and 1970.

I divided the list sent to him into four categories. The first involved cases outlined in detail in books. Here there were twelve names. The second category was of “half caste” children seized in Queensland at the beginning of the twentieth century. As I explained to Bolt: “The origin of the policy of “half caste” child removal began in Queensland at the turn of the century. All these children were “half castes” who came to the attention of the Protector Walter Roth. He authorised for them to be formally arrested. None of them received a welfare assessment of any kind. All of them were found guilty of being neglected after a perfunctory hearing of a magistrate’s court.” According to the relevant law, the Industrial Schools and Reformatory Act of 1865, being Aboriginal was in itself evidence of neglect. In this category I provided Bolt with some 65 names. The third category was of children sent to “half caste” institutions in the Northern Territory in the interwar period. As I explained to Bolt: “In the Northern Territory from the early 1920s ‘half-caste’ children were picked up by authorities of the Commonwealth government (which administered the Territory) and sent to one of two extraordinarily overcrowded “half-caste” homes, in Darwin and Alice Springs. None of the children received any welfare assessment. None was taken before a court … The aspiration of the policy was to pick up all these children …” There were some 120 names in this group. Finally in the fourth category I sent Bolt a list of 60 names of those who had been removed and had subsequently provided testimony to a Howard government-funded stolen generations Oral History Project. Simply to convince Bolt to debate me I had provided him with some 260 names of mixed descent children who had been removed by government from their mothers, families and communities and sent to institutions. At last Bolt agreed to a debate.

I had a special reason for wanting to drag Bolt along to a debate. Prior to the occasion, I decided I would prepare a documentary collection which I intended to hand over to him on the night. Simultaneously I would make the collection available electronically on the website of the Monthly. Nothing Bolt had written in the Herald Sun on the un-Australian “myth” of the “stolen generations” – amounting by now to scores of thousands of words – had displayed even the remotest understanding of the history of mixed descent child removal. I calculated that if he was presented in full public view with the kind of evidence historians work with, and if he felt compelled to read it, he would either understand his ignorance and quietly vacate the field, or be exposed to the public as a fraud. Somewhat alarmingly, on the night of the debate Bolt referred to the documents collected as “bits of paper”. This is not an attitude to historical evidence that even David Irving takes. It was an inauspicious start.

The documentary collection (still available at the Monthly) contained several different kinds of evidence. The first kind was statistical. In 1994 the Australian Bureau of Statistics carried out a detailed survey of indigenous Australians. One question asked concerned separation from natural family. What the survey revealed was that for those born after 1980, 1.6% of indigenous children had been taken away from their natural families; that for those born between 1970 and 1979, 4.6% had been removed; and that for all indigenous children born before 1970 over 10% had been separated from their natural families. The almost inescapable conclusion was that prior to 1970 separation of a considerable proportion of indigenous children was government policy and practice across Australian states and the Northern Territory. It also largely falsified Bolt’s strident claim that indigenous children in danger had ceased to be afforded protection because of the “myth” of the “stolen generations” that had been popularised by Bringing Them Home. The survey, which revealed that indigenous child removal had declined radically after 1980, was conducted three years before the publication of Bringing Them Home.

The second kind of evidence I provided Bolt in the documentary collection was of explicit statements of government policy. There was, for example, the following statement from the 1911 report of the NSW Board for Protection of Aborigines: “Of these children, a number who are half-castes, quadroons, and octoroons are increasing with alarming rapidity … Present experience has shown that the children cannot be properly trained under the present environments, and it is essential that they should be removed at as early an age as possible.” And there was the following statement from the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, Dr Cecil Cook in 1931: “Briefly, the halfcaste policy in this Territory embraces the collection of all illegitimate halfcastes, male and female under the age of 16 years, for housing in institutions for educational purposes…”  This policy statement made it clear that at this time children were not removed in the Northern Territory because of suspected, let alone proven, neglect. The word “all” is not difficult to grasp.

Bolt claimed that indigenous “half-caste” child removal was not racist. The documents also made it clear that the Commonwealth at this time supported Cook’s policy of “breeding out the colour”. Was a policy of “breeding out the colour” not racist then in his opinion? Or again. If the policy concerned neglect and not race why were no “full-bloods” removed in the Northern Territory or indeed elsewhere? And if no racism was involved in the policy and practice of “half-caste” child removal, why had the New South Wales Board of Protection referred to the high birth rate of the zoological categories – “half-castes”, “quadroons” and “octoroons” – as representing a positive “menace” to the future of their state? And, for that matter, why had the Under-Secretary of the Home Department in Queensland, WJ Gall, written that the only solution to the problem of the “half-caste” was a state-sponsored policy of sterilisation?

The third kind of evidence was of the occasional expressions of moral repugnance felt by those who observed or carried out the child removal policy. The document collection quoted a magistrate in Cardwell, Queensland, in 1903 who was approached by an Aboriginal mother whose fourteen year old son, Walter, had been seized and who then wrote on her behalf to the Protector Roth: “All the sophistry you can bring to bear upon it, cannot alter it from what it is viz. a barefaced case of kidnapping, dare you assert that under English law you have a better right to this boy than the mother who reared and fed him…” It also quoted the 1919 exchange of letters between the Police Inspector at Broome, Drewry, and the Western Australian Protector, A.O.Neville. Drewry wrote to Neville: “I desire to submit that this seizing and removing of these children is obnoxious to the Police and I trust that some official of the Aborigines Dept. will be appointed to do it … in these cases no cause has been shown, yet he can seize all aboriginal or half-caste children under 16 years of age. No neglect has been shown by the mothers in these cases … The children have the natural love for the mother …” To Drewry’s letter, Neville replied: “If the duty of bringing in half-caste children is obnoxious to the Police, it is strange that this Department has not previously been advised of this, in view of the hundreds of cases that have had attention … ” I wondered what Bolt would make of this exchange? If the policy was one of removing children in danger why did a tough police inspector from Broome believe it to be “obnoxious”? Why did he argue that in these cases of child removal there had been no shown cause of neglect? And, above all, how would Bolt be able to continue to claim that in Australian policy and practice there have not been even ten cases of “stolen children” between 1900 and 1970 when he discovered the Chief Protector in Western Australia referring to “hundreds” of removals, of a kind Inspector Drewry regarded as obnoxious, effected just in his state and just by 1919?

The final kind of evidence in the documentary collection came from letters and memoirs showing policy and practice in the different states and territories at different times. The case of ‘Walter’ was revealed in a detailed correspondence. It illuminated the cruelty of Queensland policy in the early days under Roth, where “half-caste” children were routinely seized. The memoir of Margaret Tucker, If Everyone Cared, was quoted to show the tragic human impact of the post-1911 New South Wales removals policy. The conservative Christian memoir, Mt Margaret: A Drop in the Bucket, written by Margaret Morgan, the daughter of missionaries in Western Australia, documented the crippling fears of the police felt by mothers of the children of mixed descent. The memoirs of Bob Randall, Songman, and John Moriarty, Saltwalter Fella, showed vividly how the policy operated in the Northern Territory during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Randall was sent to the Bungalow at Alice Springs to the outrage and distress of his Aboriginal family. Moriarty was one day taken by authority from school at Roper River. His mother simply did not know what had befallen him. Doris Kartinyeri tells us in her memoir, Kick the Tin, how in South Australia in 1945, she was removed to a mission after her mother died in childbirth. Her entire indigenous family was distraught. In the collection there is a letter Lang Dean wrote to the Age recalling how his father, a policeman who worked on the Murray River during the 1930s, would weep openly in the evenings after his work that day had involved seizing the “half-caste” children living on the station at Cumeragunga. What would Bolt make of this evidence? Would he have the temerity to claim all these people were lying? And if he would not, why precisely did cases such as these not meet his demanding but also secret “stolen children” qualification test?

Bolt received this documentary collection in front of an audience of 700 people. Shortly after, I wrote in The Age: “Before the debate I prepared a 46,000 word documentary collection on ‘half-caste’ child removal. No one could read this collection without understanding how widespread, cruel and racist the policy and practice was … I handed Bolt a copy on Sunday. If Bolt, without taking this evidence into account, continues to claim that the stolen generations is a myth, the nature of his journalism will be plain.”

Not only did Bolt ignore the evidence presented in the documentary collection. After the debate, almost everything Bolt wrote about the stolen generations was not merely a lie but provably so on the basis of the evidence he had in his possession.

Bolt claimed on a dozen occasions or more that I had been challenged but had failed to name even ten “stolen” children. Usually he failed to mention that I had sent him some 260 names. He never mentioned that I had asked him to supply a definition of what counted for him as a stolen child and that he had refused. On one rare occasion when he did acknowledge that I had sent him more than 200 names, Bolt claimed that the names I had sent him all came from Queensland. They did not. He claimed that in these cases neglect had been proven at court. In fact, as I had already made clear to him, having Aboriginal blood was itself sufficient proof of neglect under Queensland’s 1865 Industrial Schools and Reformatory Act. Bolt also claimed that the children in the “half-caste” homes in interwar Darwin and Alice Springs were sent there because of neglect. As the documentary collection shows beyond ambiguity, they were not. The policy set out in 1934 was explicit: “It is the policy of the Administration to collect all half-castes from the native camps at an early age and transfer them to the Government Institutions at Darwin and Alice Springs.”

Bolt continued to claim that no racism was involved in the policy of mixed descent child removal. As already argued, the documentary collection revealed that the Commonwealth government in 1933 supported the policy of “breeding out the colour” of the “half-castes” whose removal it had organised. The collection published the 1909 view of the Western Australian Protector James Isdell. “I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic their momentary grief. They soon forget their offspring.” Indeed anyone reading the documentary collection would discover that a vicious racism concerning the “half-castes” was pervasive during the period before the Second World War. Bolt continued to claim that because now indigenous children in danger were not being removed “my” stolen generations myth was responsible for killing children. As already argued, the Bureau of Statistics had shown that the practice of removing children had greatly diminished by 1994, three years before the publication of Bringing Them Home.

As Bolt had ignored evidence in his possession, it was indeed perfectly plain by now what kind of journalist he was. Given his obvious disregard for truth, it is no surprise that he has been found guilty of a serious case of defamation (Popovich) and of a serious breach of the Racial Discrimination Act (Eatock et al). 

My story has a curious ending. When the erstwhile anti-Murdoch campaigner, Bruce Guthrie, was still editor-in-chief of the Herald Sun I emailed him asking for a thousand words to refute Andrew Bolt’s “name ten” big lie. Guthrie replied that he could not give me an answer while Andrew Bolt was on holiday. This was a curious answer. I thought the editor-in-chief might actually run the paper. On several occasions I repeated my request. Guthrie did not respond. Recently Michael Kroger delivered an address to the Institute of Public Affairs in honour of Andrew Bolt. “It was Andrew Bolt who challenged Robert Manne to name just 10 members of the Stolen Generation, something Manne has yet to achieve.”  Nothing I will ever write will make the slightest difference to people like Kroger. My supposed failure to name ten members of the stolen generations is now a settled part of contemporary right wing mythology. Following the devastating Bromberg judgment that found Bolt in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act one thousand well-heeled members of the Australian Right donated money for a full page advertisement in his defence. That a journalist of his type is now a hero of what passes for Australian conservatism is a telling indication of what has happened to the political culture of this country over the past twenty years. 

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble