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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nino Bucci and Amanda Meade

Kumanjayi Walker’s family’s complaint about The Australian’s coverage not investigated by media watchdog

Zachary Rolfe
The friendship between Zachary Rolfe and journalist Kristin Shorten was the subject of a complaint by Kumanjayi Walker’s family to the press council. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AP

The family of Kumanjayi Walker complained to the media standards watchdog in 2022 about The Australian’s coverage of the Warlpiri man’s death, questioning why the journalist responsible had not disclosed her personal relationship with Zachary Rolfe in her articles.

But the Australian Press Council decided not to investigate the 2022 complaint, saying it considered it was “unlikely that a breach of [its] standards of practice has occurred”.

Text messages exchanged between Kristin Shorten and Rolfe only days after the former Northern Territory police officer shot and killed Walker were put to Rolfe in evidence on Wednesday at the inquest into the 19-year-old’s death.

Rolfe shot Walker three times while trying to arrest him in Yuendumu, about 300km from Alice Springs. The 19-year-old Warlpiri man stabbed Rolfe with a pair of scissors shortly before he was shot by the then constable. Rolfe was found not guilty in March 2022 of charges of murder and manslaughter relating to Walker’s death. The inquest into Walker’s death is currently ongoing.

The messages revealed Shorten told Rolfe: “I know what you did was totally warranted. If you ever want me to write an article in your defence, with or without naming you, say the word.” She also wrote: “Ps if or when you want I can write it without naming you or quoting you so it sounds like we never spoke.”

In a complaint sent to the press council in October 2022, and seen by Guardian Australia, concerns were raised about Shorten’s coverage of the story in The Australian.

The coverage in The Australian was described as a “national disgrace” by the Indigenous affairs officer at Media Diversity Australia, in the days after Rolfe was found not guilty of murder in March 2022.

The complaint alleged that The Australian had breached press council standard No 8, as it had not ensured that “conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material”.

“This journalist has written very bias [sic] material that has painted Zachary Rolfe in a positive light and Kumanjayi Walker in a negative light,” the complaint said.

“This is highly inappropriate due to her relationship with Zachary Rolfe – her husband is friends with Zachary Rolfe.

“They have a friendship, which was not disclosed publicly … this kind of conduct breaches both transparency and integrity. It is a large conflict of interest and frankly disturbing.”

The complaint also outlines concerns about what it alleged could be breaches of other specific standards, including the need to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice unless doing so is in the public interest.

Further allegations included that information was presented in the article as if it had been gained during interviews, rather than taken from court documents.

In December 2022, Paul Nangle, the press council’s director of complaints, told the complainant that the watchdog had considered the matter but decided not to proceed further.

“Upon receipt of your complaint, council staff met to carefully consider the matters outlined in your complaint form, the article that is the subject of your complaint, the council’s standards of practice and any other information that was considered relevant,” Nangle said.

“After careful consideration, it has been decided to not proceed further with your complaint as it is considered unlikely that a breach of the council’s standards of practice has occurred.

“Although your complaint will not be considered further, the publication will be informed of your complaint.”

The press council said complaints were considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Based on the information available to Council when it responded to the complainant, the article in The Australian was considered unlikely to have breached the Council’s Standards of Practice,” the spokesperson said.

On Friday, The Australian said the “award-winning reporting of the Zachary Rolfe shooting of Kumanjayi Walker was balanced and fair”.

“The Australian 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,” a spokesperson said.

”The Australian Press Council closed the complaints and made no adverse findings against The Australian or its reporting.”

Shorten has been contacted for comment.

NT government gazettes and other articles that were available at the time the council rejected the complaint confirmed that Rolfe and Shorten’s husband both previously served in the defence force and joined the NT police in 2016.

It is unclear how long they had known each other prior to Walker’s shooting, but in court on Wednesday Rolfe confirmed Shorten was a friend and that he knew she would be very sympathetic when interviewing him.

Rolfe also said in court on Wednesday, when asked about a video diary entry he had made as part of the Seven Network’s Spotlight program, that “in hindsight … [I] wished I’d never … spoken to the media because in trial we were able to prove my innocence and the media was not required”.

“The media was a tool that I believe sometimes [was] used against me. And then sometimes I utilised the media as a tool as well.

“There was no need for that. And in hindsight I wish I never did it.”

In 2022 Shorten won two journalism awards for her reporting on the case, including an NT media award backed by the journalists union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

Along with colleagues from News Corp, she also won a News award, a journalism accolade handed out to employees of the media company.

The MEAA says the NT media awards “support and encourage professional and ethical reporting”. An MEAA spokesperson declined to comment on the revelations about Shorten’s relationship with Rolfe but told Guardian Australia new criteria for the state-based awards were being introduced.

“To ensure that all state and regional awards continue to reflect contemporary community values, including respect for Indigenous cultural values, MEAA conducted a thorough review over the past 12 months of the awards criteria and judging processes,” the spokesperson said, speaking generally.

“New criteria has now been introduced as a result of this review … and these are being progressively implemented across the various MEAA state and territory media awards.”

The national broadsheet published an on-camera interview with Rolfe, conducted in late 2019, in which he said the footage from the body cameras shows he and his colleagues tried their best to stop the bleeding after Walker was shot and to keep him comfortable.

The documentary, executive produced by The Australian’s former editor-in-chief Christopher Dore, was titled: “I’m no racist: Zach Rolfe speaks in exclusive documentary”.

The newspaper published several negative stories about Walker, including a description of him as “a very scary man” and an unwanted baby, and a headline that read: “Kumanjayi Walker’s family told cops where to find him”.

Shorten was reporting for The Australian until last month, but has now joined the West Australian’s new digital newspaper the Nightly, as has Dore.

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