2018 Winners of the Walkley Award for All Media: Coverage of Indigenous Affairs Allan Clarke and Yale Macgillivray, with Team Unravel True Crime, ABC Podcasts & ABC TV:
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story contains references to deceased persons.
The “Blood on the Tracks” investigation into the 1988 death of Aboriginal teenager Mark Haines in regional NSW has had a huge impact on multiple platforms.
The longform read had over 250,000 views on the day it was published; the Australian Story almost two million views; the seven-part podcast over 100,000 downloads per episode; and a 360-degree video topped more than 111,000 views across social media.
Unravel cracked wide open the cold case of Indigenous teenager Mark Haines’ death. It uncovered a confession and prompted the NSW police to place a full-time detective on the investigation. These stories asked the broader question: “Does Australia have an appetite to rewrite historical wrongs?”
Allan Clarke and Yale Macgillivray, with Team Unravel True Crime, ABC Podcasts & ABC TV, won the 2019 Walkley Award for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs for this work, and the Walkleys’ Clare Fletcher had a chat with Allan about the impact of Unravel on his career and life, the damage that can come from working so closely with trauma, and the need for media to be a place where rights can be wronged. [This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
How did you first come across the story that became Blood on the Tracks and Unravel?
It was six years ago now. I was working for SBS on the program Living Black at the time, and I was sent to Tamworth on a normal assignment to cover a family’s appeal to the public for information about Mark’s [Haines] death, which had happened back in 1988. As far as I was concerned at the time, it was a regular story that I was flying into and I was going to just interview the family, get back to Sydney, put it up and it’s going to be something, like, two minutes on air. But the moment I set foot in Tamworth I had Uncle Duck — or Don Craigie, but everyone knows him as Uncle Duck, Mark’s uncle — literally just… I’m going to say it… just get up in my face about Mark’s death.
Straight away he was bombarding me with decades of theories and possibilities and scenarios, and it was very overwhelming. I was actually like, “Oh, I don’t know anything,” so I said to him, “please just give me the coronial inquest papers and I’ll have a look at that.” I went back to my hotel and that night I sat there, looked at the coronial inquest papers, I looked at some of the other documents he gave me, and then from that moment… [that] really was the starting point. I was just like, “Oh, even the most basic investigation by the police was not carried out. So anyone can see that they just did not do their job.”
I went back to Uncle Duck and I said to him, “Okay. Look, I want to look a bit further into this story and I’ll do that with you.” I promised him and the rest of the family that I would stick with it, and then I came back to Sydney, and that was six years ago.
In that six years, what did it take to get the story up — what sort of time, resources and challenges went into that process?
Enormous challenges. Just before I did Unravel, I was just, like, beg, borrow, steal to get traction on the story. I say this to particularly young journalists who have this idea about what investigative journalism is — no one’s going to sit down and give you, realistically, a plum investigative job. Investigative journalism to me is basically finding something that you, first of all, are personally attached to — because you have to be for the long-term — and it’s also about making your own opportunities. In the beginning, Mark’s story turned from being a very Indigenous Affairs story on SBS to…basically everywhere I worked I would beg, borrow, steal, just to get some kind of publicity on it.
Over the course of five years I was able to build up quite a few things [and] get some small wins in the sense of, like, “Okay, at least the police know that I’m on this. The family don’t feel so alone. I’m going to politicians, that takes time.” The majority of how I was reporting it was essentially Indigenous Affairs, and for the bulk of my career I’ve been an Indigenous Affairs reporter. When I looked at coming to the ABC to do Unravel, I was just a bit fed up with not having a larger impact.
I was just like, “Everyone should know this story, everyone should be behind this family.” And I really felt that if Mark was not Indigenous and it was about a non-Indigenous person, people would know much more about the case.
Doing Unravel, then, was a totally different way of telling the story, so it turned from a very ‘Indigenous Affairs-style’ story about social justice, the bad judicial system, institutionalised racism, all of those things — into very much having this True Crime layout. And then woven into that was [the fact that] this is an Aboriginal story but — I kind of coined this phrase — it became palatable and then I was able to punch people in the face with the truth.
Did the story go from being something that you were really personally invested in and working on alone, and championing, to ultimately a real team effort to bring it together?
Absolutely. I’d been with the story for so many years on my own and then suddenly working with a team, it was very important that we were all on the same page. You had to leave your personal things at the door. After I’d met everyone in the team it was really satisfying to know that everyone worked really hard to do this for Mark and his family, and there were no egos in the team, which was really important.
It was a fantastic team, and Ian Walker is an amazing investigative producer who gave me the base to keep going with the story, but also the team were just so onboard. It was a massive team effort. In the beginning, when I was initially talking about coming over to the ABC to do it, I said to Ian, “It’s really important for me that we have as many Aboriginal people as we can working on this project.” In the end Yale [MacGillivray] came over, and Yale and I have the most amazing working relationship, so I was just so grateful for that.
It was really important that we all got along and that we were able to support each other. And for me, Yale was that person. It’s hard, particularly if you’re an Aboriginal person and you’re exploring these issues, it can get very tough because often these are issues that affect you personally or your own family, and so sometimes the lines get a bit blurred, so it was very good to have someone like Yale onboard.
But I couldn’t have asked for a better team, a team that was able to fight back and to champion the idea of having an Aboriginal journalist as the lead. Also, an Aboriginal journalist who wanted to suddenly talk about their personal involvement in [the story], even though there was some early, not backlash, but there was some pushback about the idea of whether or not this was advocacy journalism, whether I could be objective because I was so close to the family at that point. Having the right team around me was just key to making this a success, and they fought back when there was that pushback.
The thing is, particularly if you’re working in a lot of bigger newsrooms most of your career, often I was the only Aboriginal person in the room. And it’s very hard — you are trying to be a part of a wider newsroom, but at the same time you are also trying to advocate for having more Aboriginal people in that newsroom.
The only time I felt the support the way I did with Unravel and having Yale there was when I worked at NITV, and that’s a newsroom full of Aboriginal journalists. But outside of that, it’s such a luxury, for me, and that’s a really sad thing. There should be more, it shouldn’t be a luxury, we should have more. We should be fostering, particularly, younger Aboriginal journalists to come into these environments and feel like they can succeed and be supported.
As you get older, it’s a very important thing in our culture, [the question], “But why are you doing this? Why are you trying to make this headway in this industry?” And it’s like, “Well, actually it’s for younger generations.”
So having Yale, who’s so young but so mature, come onboard, I wanted her front and centre, to give her that opportunity. It was quite an amazing thing. She probably did a lot more for me than I did for her.
How did you get into journalism? Did you study journalism, or did you go straight into freelancing or internships?
I was at high school in Bourke and I was a terrible student. The one thing I was good at was English, I could write. My art teacher said, “Oh, I think you should think about what you want to do after Year 12.” And to be honest, I didn’t think about it at all until maybe a semester before school finished, and someone said to me, “Oh, there’s this program where they take potential Aboriginal students from high school to Sydney and you get to spend a week going around different universities, meeting the Aboriginal units,” and so I did that.
We went to Sydney Uni, we went to UTS, all this stuff. It was great. The UTS people that I met from [Aboriginal unit] Jumbunna were like, “You know what, we have a really good communications course, we have a program for Aboriginal people that we see potential [in], that program will support you.” So I went back, thought about it and literally decided maybe a few weeks before school finished to go and do that course. That’s why I’m an advocate for Aboriginal placement programs in universities — the importance of being able to give people from backgrounds, where we might not be able to access these resources, the opportunity to go into an industry.
I went to UTS [and] it was a huge learning curve, as you can imagine. I’m from Bourke, a town of like 3000 people and I’m at UTS, which is in the middle of the city in Sydney, just one of the best communication courses in Australia, if not the world, full of a lot of affluent young people who are living on the north shore of Sydney. And I was just like, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
There really was a time there where I was like, “Am I going to stick with this?” Because I just kept getting really homesick and going back to Bourke. I would just leave Sydney and go back home to my Nan’s house and just be like, “Oh, I can’t do it.” And it was the Aboriginal unit, Jumbunna, that kept really supporting me, talking to the Faculty of Media Arts and Production, and liaising with them, letting them know that, “Okay, this is what happens sometimes [with] young Aboriginal people when they…‘come from the bush’.”
Anyway, thank God I did that. In the end of the first year, I was asked to do a story for The Sun Herald, the Sunday newspaper for The Sydney Morning Herald, basically an opinion piece about Reconciliation 2000, a massive event where people white and black walked across the Harbour Bridge together for reconciliation. They wanted to know, and I was 17 at the time, turning 18 that year, they were like, “Oh, we’d like a young person’s perspective about this, especially someone from a place like Bourke.”
It was Frank Walker who commissioned it, who was the political editor at the time, I don’t know how he came across my name, but he did somehow. So I wrote this little opinion piece and then he said, “Oh, would you be interested in being one of the reporters on the day, just from your perspective when it all happens?” And that was the start.
The year after, I was getting really sick of studying, to be honest, like halfway through my degree I was working at various places just trying to make ends meet. And I called Frank again and said to him, “Do you have a job for me?” I sometimes wonder know, “Where did that bolshiness go?” Because I reckon just that sheer naked ambition, at the time, is what I think all young journalists need. Basically, he said, “Yes. Okay, I can put your name down and get you…maybe a job as a copyboy.” So I started my life in the industry as a copyboy, really.
I’d go into Fairfax at their old building, I think it’s in Darling Harbour, the Nestle building. Anyway, I lived in Pyrmont so I’d walk across to Darling Harbour and I’d mostly do the graveyard shift from 11PM to like 7AM, basically listening to all of the radio scanners, the police and fire and ambulance scanners all night, and listening out for any emergencies. And if there was an emergency, I’d call a journalist or a photographer to get out and do it — that was my first job.
I was working and I was like, “Okay, this is how you do it.” And I was surrounded by a lot of older people who never went to university, who were like grizzly old news heads who just couldn’t see the value in study, like, “Why? This is how you get experience, you’re working. You can’t get more experience than this.” So for me at the time, then, it was like, “Okay, why do I need to study? First of all, I need money, but also I’m getting experience in this industry.”
At the time I was the only Black person in the room, and I’m talking Fairfax — I know there were some other Aboriginal people who’d worked there in the past but they weren’t there at the time. But I was treated equally and I liked that, at the same time because, like I said, the people I was working with were a lot of grizzly old news heads who didn’t give a shit about who you were, they just wanted you to do your job well.
You notice the difference later on…like, years down the track, when you start to get the feeling of “we need more diversity in our newsroom,” especially when you start to actually do your own stories.
When I got into television no one had jobs at the time, and I just kept going. I used to write a list of people, in the early days, of who I should talk to. And I would go to events and just gatecrash all the time just to talk to people — I annoyed a lot of people. I vaguely remember harassing Rachel Perkins one time. It was networking, basically.
I really wanted to work with Aboriginal people, because I’d been working with white people all my career, so I was like, “Oh, I would love to do that, to work with actual mob.”
So I made a conscious effort to actually go and try and meet people who were making things. Rachel Perkins at the time was like, obviously, a black force doing amazing stuff — Darren Dale and Rachel’s producing partnership. A lot of other amazing people — Pauline Clague, who was a producer. All of these people have now become like my mentors, really, and saw potential in me.
Pauline Clague gave me my first job in television, in a way. She was working for Message Stick at the time, when the ABC was at Gore Hill, and she said, “Oh, look, OK, we have a job for a runner, a guy to get the bands from the greenroom and bring them to the studio.”
So that was kind of my first TV job. And then Karla Grant, who I’d harassed a lot at the time, finally out of the blue called me one day and said, “Oh, Allan, you wanted to get into television, we have a job going. Do you want to come to SBS and have a coffee with me, talk about it?”
So I went there and the only job going was a video journalist, and I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to record things. I’m no technical person.” She literally said, “Oh, you’ll learn on the job.” And it was the best few years of my life, to be honest, it was amazing. It was literally traveling the country, going to Aboriginal communities, just myself with a camera. Being a video journalist can be hard, but it can also be incredibly rewarding in the fact that you get to shape these stories.
I was able to, just me and my camera, just rock up to the most amazing places, talk to community, ask them for interviews and then do those stories. So that’s really how I got into TV. Then throughout my career I’ve thought it’s really important to keep working in different areas, so I’ve gone from print to TV, to digital, to video journalism, to podcasting now, to radio. I just think as a reporter, you need to keep flexing your muscles, exercising, and basically your storytelling is the better for it later on.
Plus I would get bored just doing the one thing, so I couldn’t do TV for too long. When I was at ABC, being able to file for Radio National, it was just like, “Oh, wow. What’s going on?” And then the podcast is this whole other thing. It’s interesting talking to young journos… like, I’m at this conference now… you just have to be multi-platform, you have to have a thirst for this thing. You want to keep refining your craft in that sense.
I take a lot of inspiration from people working in film, because I have a lot of mates who are screenwriters and producers, and they refer to it obviously as their craft, but they’re constantly honing their skills and learning, and I think we should do that in our industry as well.
If you stick to one thing for too long and you just suddenly develop a formula in your work, then I think you become complacent, and you’re actually not having the impact you want.
As an Aboriginal man telling a really tragic and traumatic story about the death of a young Aboriginal man, what were some of the special considerations of the story for you? How did you take care of the people that you were interviewing and how’d you take care of yourself as well?
I was very conscious about what Mark’s family were going through. Before Unravel, I was dipping in and out of stories — I’d come back to Sydney, move on with something. And I was very conscious that, for them, this took up the majority of their life, so in a way, I very clearly in the beginning [was] being very transparent with the family about…demystifying how the media works. “Okay, this is what’s going to happen, this is how we take your story, this is how we put it up, this is some of the edits it might go through,” just to have them feel like they were collaborators rather than I was using them as some kind of talent.
They’d had white journalists before come in and use Mark’s story just to get maybe a byline, and that felt really seedy and I obviously didn’t want to do that to them. So from the beginning, I was like, “If I’m promising you I’ll stick with it, I will stick with it.”
And then the trauma stuff…this is hard work, you’re essentially constantly asking people to open up about the most traumatic experience of their life, time and time again. For me, it was to make sure that they were comfortable with everything, that they were actually in on the process… I didn’t want them to feel removed from it. And I think that gave them some kind of comfort — I would often call them, run things by them, just make sure that they knew I was actually doing this for the family. And in some way, we had quite an amazing working relationship in that sense.
I’ve caught flack for it, like people said, “Oh, maybe you can’t be objective, maybe you’re too close to the family, dah, dah, dah.” But at the same time, I’m like, “Well, you’re trying to get some closure for this family. At the same time, you’re constantly ripping off these old scabs.” So I was like, “How do you do that?” You have to take in these special considerations. And I think just me being Aboriginal myself and talking to them honestly about that, I understood where they were coming from. There’s a level of cultural trust in that, and in many ways they understood that.
As we were doing Unravel, at the beginning I didn’t realise how big it would be until maybe we were like halfway through and I realised, “Okay, this is going to have some impact, this is going to really affect their lives,” particularly for the family members who hadn’t spoken publicly before.
Uncle Duck has been speaking for six years, or essentially since 1988, but there were family members who’d never spoken publicly. And I was like, “Oh, suddenly they’re going to be out there in this very big way.” To manage that potential fallout, or trauma, I made sure that I also spoke with their friends in their communities, to just try to have some kind of support network around them and make sure that when they hear the podcast or watch the Australian Story, if it was triggering or there was any kind of trauma that came up, they would have that support network with their friends and family. That their friends and family would understand what they were going through.
I think that goes back to that community support process, which we just, as Aboriginal people, naturally have. So I was just like, “Okay. Well, who’s going to support mob when they’re in trauma? It’s their community,” so I brought them in, and it was a really nice way to make sure that people were looked after by people that really cared.
Constant contact is one thing, just to make sure that people don’t feel like you’re kind of taking their story and making a name off it, and particularly something like Unravel, which is very big, if you start winning awards, or you start getting public traction, which is what we wanted. But I think there’s also a level of, “Oh, if I wasn’t in contact all the time would they feel, ‘Oh my God, did he just take this story to further his career?’” I think just communication, talking is key, trust is key. They knew they could also talk to me anytime, and in fact I’d get a few late night phone calls, just to have a safe space to talk about their trauma when the reporting brought up personal things.
I guess in my own trauma, I didn’t think about it for very long, I thought it was really selfish to think about… I was like, “Oh, this isn’t a story about me, this isn’t a story about my issues. I’m not the one that lost a loved one. Mark wasn’t my family. It’s a bit selfish to suddenly talk about the idea of how maybe this vicarious trauma would affect me.”
At the end of Unravel, there’s a monologue that’s just right in the last episode, where I recorded it on the hotel bed in Tamworth after a really big day and I couldn’t even remember recording it, and there was so much emotion in it. And I realised that I was really burnt out and I really had taken on a lot of stuff.
At the start of this year I took a few months, and I was just not proactive. I wasn’t doing things the way I normally do things, I just basically was sluggish all the time. And I was like, “Why is this happening?” And I was working on a project at the time, and I was missing deadlines, and I was just like, “This never happens to me, but I just can’t.” I had all the time in the world and I just couldn’t do the work. And then, basically, I did some Dart Centre work with Cait [McMahon] and some of the things she brought up, I was like, “Oh my God, actually really, I’m suffering from some kind of…” it wasn’t depression, but it was just…burnout, in a sense.
And I think that’s when it all hit me, it’s like working on that case for like six years, also managing other jobs, you just don’t stop, particularly as a reporter, even when you’re on holiday, you don’t stop. So suddenly after Unravel, I left, I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to do some freelancing,” and I don’t know, I collapsed.
I suppose you don’t always get an ending in journalism, or a resolution, particularly when you work on something for that long. So I suppose for you to wrap something like Unravel, that really ties it all together?
And it is the highest of highs, because investigative journalism is obviously the Holy Grail. But [it’s a question] of the space, the time, the storytelling, and who gives you that kind of remit, who gives you seven episodes to explore one story and a two-parter Australian Story.
“Oh yes, after all of this work of us begging, borrowing, stealing, just to get Mark’s name out there, suddenly you have this massive project.” Once it was finished we got a lot of traction, we got Mark’s remains returned to his family, we had the reward issued by the police, half a million dollars, we had a detective looking at it full-time, all of these things that when I’d first sat down six years ago [had] said, “Okay, if I’m going to take this on, what are we working towards?”
And we ticked off all of them by the time we got to Unravel, it just got us into that public consciousness and actually saw authorities held accountable, which was ultimately the goal all along.
You ask any investigative reporter, you have to be attached to these stories to do that, to actually go into that level of detail — and you go into it. So it does take this kind of personal toll. And when you’re off the big projects, it’s like coming off a high, really, you feel a bit lost. Either you jump into your next project or you have a break and suddenly you have to sit there and make peace with it, if that makes sense.
It’s a very weird thing to go through. It is like, in a sense, weening yourself off a drug. You’ve just had this massive high, got all these things, you’re personally invested in it, and then suddenly it’s finished. It’s like, “God, what do I do now?” For me, in Mark’s case, that will always be the story that is the story for me. Every journalist obviously has their story, the one story that stays with them all their life; that’s mine. In my mind I’m like, “Where do we go next? What do we need to keep doing? How can I keep furthering this story? Where can I take it next?”
I spoke with the family and I was like, “Are you comfortable with me talking about how I feel in terms of our relationship and making that public?” It was the first time I’d put myself in a story as well. And they were like, “Yes, we want you [to]…it’s important, you as a blackfella, to put this out as well so other people understand that this is an important thing.”
Just suddenly talking very candidly about how you feel as the reporter…it was a very emotional period, I have to say. So afterwards, like I said, I was really burnt out and I didn’t recognise it for about two months. I did four more awareness courses with Cait at Dart Centre, just to be like, “How do I manage this?”
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
It’s hard to put into words, but journalism, it’s just so important, particularly investigative journalism. We’re a country that is — and I’m talking as an Aboriginal journalist here — often unable to deal with the past. So our governments don’t do this, our education system often fails Aboriginal people. Often the only way we can get some kind of recourse on historical injustice is literally by going out and getting the public onboard, and the only way to do that is through very good reporting. I think Unravel’s a good example of capturing the public’s consciousness, getting them to feel empathy and getting them to also see that it’s wrong, what happens with Aboriginal victims, and that there is institutionalised racism.
I think journalism has a very special place in terms of being able to rewrite those historical wrongs, and there is an appetite for it.
I think journalism has a very special place in terms of being able to rewrite those historical wrongs, and there is an appetite for it. But we just need much more investment, particularly having younger journalists come through and be able to work across different areas and different audiences.
It’s the whole “truth to power” in that sense, and like I said, as an Aboriginal person, sometimes the only recourse we have to rewrite these historical wrongs is not through the government, not through royal commissions, often it’s through good, honest reporting.
I think journalism plays a larger role in Australia’s consciousness in that sense — if we weren’t doing this type of reporting, so many things would just slip through the cracks. When you’re talking about Aboriginal people, or people of colour or minorities, the only place for them to realistically go, when they’re shut out of the system that’s designed not to hear them or be empathetic towards them, often the only place they can go is to the media.
This is why we need a robust, healthy media to be able to give those people a voice, otherwise they have nothing and they’ll never get to hold truth to power in that sense. We’re advocates, even though a lot of old school journalists don’t like to use the word advocate, because they think it means you taint your objectivity. But whether you like it or not, when you are working with this vulnerable news, we are advocates. We’re advocating for injustice, to fix injustice and things like that. So yeah, God, it’s essential.
Allan Clarke is a Muruwari man and an award-winning investigative journalist, producer and presenter. He has previously worked for BuzzFeed, SBS and NITV.