LAST Thursday, the Hindmarsh Island developers were awarded $110,000 in a major libel case. Judge Lowrie of the South Australian District Court found that Tom and Wendy Chapman had been "grossly" defamed by anti-bridge anthropologist Dr Neale Draper and the Green Left Weekly magazine.
The Chapmans became embroiled in arguments about Aboriginal beliefs and found themselves at the centre of a possibly unprecedented storm of lies and allegations in the early l990s.
They have already won payouts through five defamation cases, have seven others pending and are planning more. Their lawyer has an extraordinary number of documented cases of alleged libel about them which appeared in the print or electronic media.
Hindmarsh Island matters because it marked the turning of the tide against the many white people around Australia who for years got their kicks by manipulating Aborigines and their beliefs. The dispute began because middle class whites in Adelaide with holiday houses on the island didn't want a bridge to be built, as it would have brought in more people and disturbed their privileged tranquillity.
They enlisted the aid of various environmental groups and scientific research was misrepresented to come up with dodgy arguments against the bridge. When this failed, the whites decided to try the Aboriginal angle and enlisted the aid of some members of the local Ngarrindjerri tribe.
They changed the name of their protest group to the Aboriginal name for the island, Kumerangk. When even this wasn't getting anywhere, a white anthropologist said to them: "It would be nice if there was some women's business." Shortly after (as the subsequent royal commission found) secret women's business was fabricated.
The most interesting part of the story is what happened next. About a dozen Ngarrindjerri women went public pointing out that neither they nor any of the many anthropologists who'd studied their tribe for 150 years had ever heard of "secret women's business" (which in fact exists in central Australia but not in coastal South Australia).
You'd think this would have been the end of the matter. But what happened was that the Keating government and its Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner, most other politicians, anthropologists, churches and media ignored the truth and became propagandists for the fabricated beliefs and the faction within the Ngarrindjerri which supported them.
This became Australia's version of the Emperor's New Clothes. The truth was simply stood on its head. The media threw all the rules of reporting out the window, led of course by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Paul Lyneham, one of Australia's leading political journalists, was working for the ABC at the time. He later said:
"I had an increasing sense of frustration about the coverage. A situation developed very quickly where the private agenda and value systems of individual journalists in Adelaide were interfering with judgments on a serious issue.
I complained to ABC executives in Sydney about the cosy, warm, unquestioning coverage which was mixed with an unhealthy overdose of feminism and a view that these Aboriginal (proponent) women couldn't put a foot wrong. All we saw was this California-style, New Age coverage which I don't think did the truth a great justice."
The Chapmans, being developers, were routinely portrayed as evil and accused of all sorts of specific wrongs, most importantly that they had not consulted Aboriginal people. This was not even likely — why would they have risked a multimillion-dollar project by breaking the law? — but it was believed and repeated around Australia.
When in the early days the Chapmans' lawyer wrote to some of the people running this line, explaining the truth and asking them to stop, the Chapmans were accused of trying to suppress free speech. Those involved are now paying the price. Defamation cases have already been settled against The Bulletin, The Australian and The Canberra Times.
Cases are pending against the Australian Democrats, The Australian Financial Review and others. Amazingly, there are about 20 separate libels alleged against the ABC. This ought to be a matter of public scandal, particularly as we now know the corporation's managers ignored the warning of Paul Lyneham at the time.
"I believe this case sets a very important precedent," said the Chapmans' lawyer, Steve Palyga. "It shows that activists, whether opponents of development or otherwise, must act responsibly. They cannot just say what they like with a view to damaging those that they oppose."
Indeed, it might prove to be a watershed in the history of the misuse of Aborigines and their beliefs by white radicals.