An insider's take on Top End reporting for the ABC

Posted March 11, 2017 08:30:00

Screaming down a main highway wearing a shiny Olympic gold medal, celebrating an internationally anticipated verdict with beers in a bus, and an "endless" stream of crocodile stories.

These are just a few of the memories gathered by ABC veteran reporters since the public broadcaster opened its first bureau in the Northern Territory 70 years ago.

To celebrate the milestone anniversary, four current and former Top End broadcasters have shared their most memorable moments.

Tony Eastley: The Chamberlains and 'cold ones'

The hotels were fully booked. The "blow-in" reporters all had sunburn or heat stroke. And the ABC had never before done live television news from the Northern Territory.

"It was the trial of the century," veteran broadcaster Tony Eastley remembered.

Eastley had come up from Sydney in 1982 to cover the Supreme Court trial of the now-immortalised case of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain.

Accused of murdering their daughter Azaria, the Chamberlains' claim of a dingo stealing their baby divided Australia, had become fodder for gossip, and was being widely reported overseas.

To cater to the national appetite, Eastley and his crew filed stories every day for the duration of the six-week trial, often battling the "mad rush" of slowly sending off vision to the other side of Australia.

"We never missed deadline but we got bloody close," Eastley said.

Things culminated on the evening of the verdict — the first time Darwin's ABC TV went live to the rest of Australia.

After the "shocking" guilty verdict, Eastley ran out to a truck for the live broadcast, breaking the news in every 7:00pm news bulletin across the country.

Afterwards, the local television crew surprised the interstate reporters in true Territory style.

"The truck in those days had a large fridge in it and, after the successful live broadcast, the crew opened the fridge and there was a number of cold ones," Eastley remembered.

"So we sat outside the Supreme Court after what was a long and arduous trial drinking beers. It was very Darwin."

But, upon heading back down south, an unease about the story stayed with the reporter.

Thirty years later in 2012, and with Lindy Chamberlain's guilty conviction long-quashed, Eastley arrived back in Darwin to cover the third inquest into the case.

He ended up interviewing her, and then, a few years later, her now-deceased ex-husband.

"I feel privileged that I got to cover the case, but I wish it could have turned out differently for the family because it really did tear them apart," Eastley said.

Clare Martin: Land rights and spew buckets

Clare Martin's arrival in the Territory in 1983 echoes many others before and after.

"I knew nothing about Darwin. I knew nothing about the Northern Territory — like many Australians still today," she said.

Martin's initial hurdles included a mid-renovation radio studio, rare chances to travel to Arnhem Land, and remote communities with only one phone line.

"I would always have this vision of calling up this one phone box in the community and praying for somebody to pick up," she said.

It was amid this reality that Martin tackled the ongoing story of land rights, a legal issue she believed divided the NT government and land councils acting on behalf of Indigenous Territorians.

"It was the source of a lot of anguish, anger, invective, constant playing out of what I saw as a racist narrative," she said.

"I had plenty of interviews with plenty of government ministers who would talk about economic opportunities for the Territory being thwarted because there was another land claim. Narratives about claims wanting to take your backyard in your suburb.

"It coloured everything that happened in the Territory."

And it was not just the news being turned a different shade.

Presenting the ABC's 7:30 Report for the Territory later in her time in Darwin, Martin often interviewed politicians with a spew bucket next to her feet.

"I had both my children during those three years and, when I was pregnant, I was very sick. I used to get nauseated. My director used to give me a green count," she said.

Martin, who went on to become NT chief minister in 2001 for six years, said she believed much had changed in the Territory's media landscape, although perhaps a few things were still yet to evolve.

"There's so much going on that's at the forefront, but even now there's those endless crocodile stories."

Charlie King: Nova Peris and interview reels

Sports broadcaster Charlie King was just two years into his career at the ABC in Darwin when an old umpiring buddy rang him up one day in 1996.

"She said: 'I'm back in town and I've got the gold medal. Do you want to see it?'" King remembered.

"And of course I did."

That woman was Nova Peris, a former NTFL boundary umpire alongside King who had just become the first Indigenous Australian to win Olympic gold as a member of the Hockeyroos.

After Peris landed to a hero's welcome in her hometown of Darwin, King picked her up in his car for their interview back at the ABC studios.

"She let me wear her medal. I wore it all the way down Bagot Road," he said.

"I don't even know how I drove us, because I couldn't stop looking down at it. It was a big heavy thing."

Back in the studio, Peris opened up about crying before the game that won the Hockeyroos gold.

The catalyst had been a pre-game Slim Dusty song sent to her on a tape player by her sister.

"It was a song very much part of the Peris family," King said.

In 1996, radio broadcasters were still literally recording interviews to tape, with none of the luxuries of digital broadcasting or computer databases.

To broadcast his interview with Peris, King had two reels — one for his interview with the Olympian, noted for timing with a piece of white sticky tape, and another to swap to afterwards.

"Meanwhile you're playing the tapes off and putting back another. I don't know how we did it really. They were massive big tapes," she said.

Matt Peacock: Ozone holes and 'dodgy deals'

For Matt Peacock, going north in the early '80s was about getting away from "depressing" investigative reporting on asbestos deaths, as well as experiencing his Indigenous wife's connection to the Top End.

"I was keen to find out the history of the Territory. Plus, I'd heard it was great fishing," he said.

He soon found himself immersed and, sometimes, incensed by the region's issues.

Peacock's memories include an interview about a "dodgy deal" that needed to be physically sped up to broadcast to deadline, as well as being abused by a top government official about his take on the Stolen Generations.

"There seemed to be just a complete denial by some about the existence of the Stolen Generations."

Yet the story the award-winning reporter remembers most vividly is one not readily connected to the Territory — humankind's contribution to the world's ozone hole.

In the early 1990s, NASA missions were sending pilots into the newly discovered hole. Peacock had heard they were looking for chlorine levels to confirm the hole was linked to the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Amid a mixture of luck, determination and a fortuitously giddy interview subject, Peacock managed to get a NASA pilot in Darwin to open up about the ozone mission ahead of take-off.

"It was relevant everywhere. Darwin is a place of great international significance," he said.

"It's a very low-key culture, old Darwin, but it's still beating there amid the rebuilding from Cyclone Tracy and the booms and busts.

"People, if they breathe the air and suck up the culture, they end up changed for the better."

Topics:abc, history, journalism, land-rights, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, broadcasting, darwin-0800

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