How Four Corners exposed the Northern Territory’s treatment of juvenile offenders and triggered a royal commission

By Natasha Johnson, for Back Story

Dylan Voller in a spit hood and strapped to a chair. Picture: Four Corners

Four Corners journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna explains why ‘Australia’s Shame’ is the most difficult story she’s ever worked on, the role of old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ journalism, and why the pictures are so powerful.

What was involved in producing your story about the NT juvenile justice system and how difficult was it to get the program to air?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It was the hardest story I have ever done. I started out as an investigation into overcrowding in Australia’s prisons with a focus on the high rates of indigenous incarceration. The NT was the first state to grant Four Corners access to one of its prisons. The program was going to be directed by what access we got where. With that access obtained in Darwin the team of myself, producer Mary Fallon and researcher Elise Worthington then began to analyze the Territory’s system of incarceration.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna inside the Don Dale Detention Centre. Picture: Four Corners

Our initial nation-wide story pitch then became largely redundant: we discovered that while the NT government had definitely improved the adult correctional facility and reduced overcrowding, the improvements were not matched in the facilities and circumstances for children. We communicated the change in story focus to the government and the Corrections department, and asked for access to Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in addition to the access already given to the adult prison. The government responded, much to our surprise, by revoking the agreed access to its adult prison (where many juveniles go on to) and told us absolutely that no access would be given to Don Dale.

For juvenile incarceration, the data was disturbing: we found the rate of indigenous incarceration in the juvenile prisons was a shocking 96% and often on any given week all the children in prison in the NT were Aboriginal. The main children’s prison, Berrimah, was actually the old dilapidated prison for adults which had been previously deemed by the former Corrections Commissioner as fit for one thing only: a bulldozer. All adults had been moved to the new facility at Holtze. Berrimah had been deemed unfit for adults — how could it now be fit for children? What renovations had been done?

Through our research we came across reports detailing how children had been teargassed in the old Don Dale. The NT Children’s Commissioner had investigated, producing a damning 2014 report. The government had pledged to improve the system, but what action existed to evidence those words? There were also 2016 legislative changes authorizing the use of mechanical restraints for children. We wanted to know what that actually entailed and why the legislation was necessary.

We began speaking to individuals at the coal face. The NT is a tight-knit place. No imagery of the teargassing or children in restraint devices in prison had ever been obtained and broadcast by any journalist. As ‘outsiders’ coming in, the challenge was very big indeed. When we arrived in Darwin we had an enormous amount to do and were still, largely, in the dark. We needed to build relationships quickly and we knew that we had to take this program to the highest possible level.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna interviewing Jake Roper, who was involved in the teargassing incident at Don Dale. Picture: Four Corners

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The making of this program was based on solid, good old fashioned shoe leather reporting. It hinged on our ability to pound the pavement to find names, children, their families and then locate and obtain the images that existed somewhere of those same children being abused in prison. The children were incredibly difficult to find — often no phones, minimal access to the Internet, remote communities. We were told by many people we’d never find children within our three-week timeframe on the ground. Well, we did!

We filmed in courtrooms for days on end, went out on night patrols, immersed ourselves in the judicial system. This ruffled feathers, with one government department threatening us with legal action if we spoke to children. Working closely with the fabulous Deb Auchanichie at ABC Legal — calling and emailing at all times of the day and night — we pushed through undeterred and held our nerve to broadcast.

Making this story was a highly unpredictable ride. Nothing went to plan. The NT government gave and then revoked our access several times over several weeks after our initial approach.

What was involved in getting hold of the vision inside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This was probably the hardest and most unpredictable aspect to the program. On the ground producer Mary Fallon and I drafted countless release, consent and authorization forms that had to be signed by the children (if we could find them!) their guardians and their litigation guardians. It was exhausting. We only obtained the first tranche of CCTV and handicam vision on the last afternoon of filming before we were due to return to base in Sydney. Several files wouldn’t open on my old ABC laptop so we didn’t even view all of the videos (hours of vision) before interviewing Minister Elferink.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna interviewing then-NT Corrections Minister John Elferink. Picture: Four Corners

I think we were successful because we just didn’t give up. We did it with the consent and support of the children who wanted the truth to come out. We did it with the consent and support of their guardians and lawyers. And ultimately we did it by abiding by all the regulations and the legislation. It proves anything can be achieved if you think and do it the right way journalistically.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: When I first viewed the tear gassing videos I was deeply disturbed. When we obtained the video of Dylan Voller being strapped to that chair (just a few days before broadcast) I thought I was going to vomit. These images had never been obtained and broadcast, except for one. That in itself was big. There was a reason why they’d been kept from public view — they were damning.

We knew it was going to have a big impact but I tried not to think about that. Our job is to focus on the program and getting it to air: the facts, the veracity, fairness and balance. Getting it right. Making it the best it can be. Protecting sources. We scrutinized everything. After working for 8 weeks without a day off your brain gets tired — Mary, Elise and I were basically joined at the hip night and day!

The night we obtained the vision of Dylan Voller hooded in the chair, I think we all realised the story was going to be huge. If it made us feel sick, and we had been desensitized after being immersed in this story for so many weeks, then it was going to outrage and disgust the audience.

Watching the reaction on social media as it was broadcasting was incredible. There was going to be fallout. But we never expected the Prime Minister to announce a record-breaking Royal commission within hours of broadcast. In the end, the images demanded it.

There had been media coverage, particularly in the NT, of issues in the juvenile justice system before your program, how important was the vision you obtained — and the stature of a program like Four Corners — in triggering action?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The vision was crucial. As I always say, seeing is believing. We only had one shot at making this story and it moved and changed so much during production. Journalistically the degree of difficulty for this story was 100 out of 100. We didn’t have a lot of time but we had a great team. The Royal Commission wasn’t called because it was Four Corners. I think it was because images don’t lie.

But we didn’t just get the vision. We also found the boys. We found almost all of them. Some went on camera, others didn’t.

The important thing was to humanize them: who were they? Where had they come from? What had happened to them as children to fall into a cycle of crime and incarceration so young? What crimes had they committed? Why were so many aboriginal kids ending up in prison? Why was it getting worse and not better?

It was getting the interviews with the boys and then matching them with the terrible vision, that took the story to the next level.

You’ve said this is the most difficult story you’ve done, what drives you on when working on tough stories like this?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Giving someone a voice and having someone entrust you with their story is a privilege and a big responsibility. The possibility of making change for the better drove us all over the finish line.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.