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Daanyal Saeed

A News Corp journo promised NT killer cop ‘an article in your defence’. Here’s what she actually wrote

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers, please note that this article mentions deceased persons.

At the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the hands of Zachary Rolfe this week, the court heard that former journalist for The Australian Kristin Shorten had sent text messages to the former Northern Territory police officer offering sympathetic coverage in response to “leftist reporting”. 

The text came just two days after Rolfe fatally shot the 19-year-old in the rural NT town of Yuendumu, 300km northwest of Alice Springs in November 2019. Walker had stabbed Rolfe in the shoulder with a pair of scissors before being fatally shot three times at short range.

Rolfe subsequently faced a high-profile trial on murder and manslaughter charges and was found not guilty by a jury in March 2022. It was followed by an ongoing coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker, with Rolfe called to give evidence this week in Alice Springs as part of the inquest. 

Texts seen by the court showed Shorten first messaged Rolfe on November 11, 2019, at 10.34pm — two days after the shooting. 

“Hey mate, heard the news. Hope you and your shoulder are ok,” read the text. 

“Ignore the leftist reporting in the media. Hopefully catch up soon.” 

An hour later, Shorten, who Rolfe told the inquest was a friend by virtue of her partner being a fellow police officer, followed up. 

“I know what you did was totally warranted,” she said. 

“If you ever want me to write an article in your defence, with or without naming you, say the word.” 

“Hundred percent I already thought about it, if I want to put my side out there I would always come to you,” replied Rolfe. 

“Once all this investigation is over we’ll get to that. It’d be good to get some truth out there.” 

Shorten then replied: “PS if / when you want, I can write it without naming or quoting you, so it sounds like we never spoke.” 

Rolfe told the inquest he knew Shorten would be sympathetic when he sat down for an exclusive with her for a story that would eventually be published in March 2022.

Shorten continued to report on the Rolfe case over the course of the trial, with articles in The Australian as well as a podcast documentary series, Yuendumu: The Trial

Crikey reviewed some of Shorten’s reporting throughout the trial and inquest so far, which contained a number of exclusives with Rolfe.

On March 12, 2022, The Australian published a documentary exclusive interview between Shorten and Rolfe, titled: “Murder-charge NT cop reveals why he shot Kumanjayi Walker and how he tried to save his life”. In the conversation from 2019, Rolfe said it was “simply not true” that NT police were racist. 

“I personally don’t care what race anyone is,” he said. 

“I never have and never will. Race will never affect how I police or my perception, regardless of how many jobs we attend. I care about people’s behaviour, not their race.” This week, Rolfe “acknowledged his own racist language and pointed to a broader culture of racism within the NT police service” according to NITV reporting at the inquest.

On March 14, 2022, The Australian published another exclusive by Shorten: “Private schoolboy Zachary Rolfe fell in love with policing before being charged with murder over death of Kumanjayi Walker”.

The article detailed Rolfe’s career highlights before joining the police force. 

“During the 10-month lull between discharging in 2015 and starting with the NT police, he considered applying for the Special Air Services Regiment so undertook further medical and weapons training — at his own expense — to upskill,” the article read.

“His efforts that day earned him the National Bravery Medal, the Royal Humane Society’s Clarke Medal for bravery and the Hong Kong government’s Bronze Medal for Bravery, the first time Hong Kong authorities have awarded the city-state’s highest bravery award to a foreigner for an act performed outside of Hong Kong.”

In August 2022, The Australian published another exclusive by Shorten: “Innocent NT kill cop Zachary Rolfe shut out of his job”. 

“Despite Constable Rolfe being reinstated as a serving member of the territory’s police force, its executive has revoked the 30-year-old’s access to any police ­facilities and refused to ­return his police identification to him since his return to work on July 18,” the article read. 

In February 2023, The Australian published another article by Shorten titled: “‘I’d have got a medal’: Zachary Rolfe has last word as he flies out”, detailing Rolfe’s misgivings about how he was treated by NT Police. 

“Constable Rolfe flew out of Canberra on Thursday after sharing a 2,500-word open letter accusing the NT police, coroner and her counsel assisting of trying to publicly vilify him during the ‘biased’ coronial inquest into Walker’s death, which is due to resume next week,” the article read. 

In October 2023, The Australian published a story by Shorten titled: “Kumanjayi Walker inquest postponed as Zach Rolfe accuses coroner of ‘apprehended bias’”. 

“Earlier this month Mr Rolfe filed a 54-page application inviting the Coroner to consider recusing herself over ‘a cumulation of conduct that, when viewed in combination, gives rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias’,” the article read.

“It is unknown when the wide-ranging, long-running and costly inquest, which began in September 2022, will resume.”

Shorten, as well as The Australian’s editor Kelvin Healey, were contacted for comment for this article. Crikey put a range of questions to them, including whether they considered the relationship between Shorten and Rolfe a conflict of interest, whether it was declared, and whether they considered Shorten’s reporting on the Rolfe case to be ethical. A spokesperson for The Australian told Crikey that the paper’s “award-winning reporting of the Zachary Rolfe shooting of Kumanjayi Walker was balanced and fair”. The spokesperson said the publication reported all the allegations against Rolfe and “many difficult aspects of this case including domestic violence perpetrated against women and children in Indigenous communities including Yuendumu.”

Shorten did not respond to a request for comment.

Shorten’s reporting on the Rolfe case also earned her, among other plaudits, an NT Media Award in 2022 for best crime/court reporting, alongside a swath of News Corp colleagues. The awards require entrants to declare that the work complies with MEAA’s journalist code of ethics, which requires journalists to disclose conflicts of interest “that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of [their] journalism”.

The Walkley Foundation, which administers the state media awards, was contacted for comment.

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