OF ALL the world’s trouble spots, it turns out the tiny NSW town of Bourke is the worst of them. No kidding. At least that’s the claim of the Sydney Morning Herald, which – after putting two and two together, and coming up with 86 – reported that Bourke was the most dangerous place on earth. We’re still not kidding. CHRIS GRAHAM* and CHRIS MUNRO* report from a town that is under siege not from terrorists with guns, but journalists with vivid imaginations.
STEVEN Ronayne knows a fair bit about danger. He was born and bred in Bourke, a small community of less than 3,000 in the far north west of New South Wales.
Bourke is a tough town in an even tougher location. It’s a long way from anywhere, and a full day’s drive from Sydney, renowned, of course, as being the official gateway to the Australian outback.
Unlike a lot of Aboriginal kids in remote areas, Ronayne grew up dreaming of broader horizons and bigger adventures. But like a lot Aboriginal kids, he had an independent streak a mile long.
“Growing up I wasn’t a terrible kid. I did my schooling. But I really just didn’t like authority,” Ronayne recalls. Which doesn’t explain why he decided to join the Australian Army.
“I joined because my father wanted to join when he was young, but he knocked back the opportunity because mum fell pregnant.
So I did it for him a bit.
“But I’ve always been interested in the military, and I loved the discipline, which I definitely needed.
“Once I got in, it snapped me out of (my dislike for authority) and made me see what I was doing wrong. It gave me the structure I needed.”
His sense of adventure helped as well.
“Yeah, definitely. Getting paid to go around the world – you can’t ask for much better that that.”
Ronayne logged onto the Australian Defence Force site from his home in Bourke and completed an online application. He did his medical in Orange, an interview Sydney, and then before he knew it, Ronayne qualified as a rifleman in Darwin.
If that wasn’t adventure enough for a young blackfella from Bourke, within a year of joining, Private Ronayne’s battalion was assigned to a tour in Afghanistan.
“It was pretty quick. It’s very rare you get that sort of opportunity so quickly. We were pretty lucky.”
Ronayne was based at a Dutch base in Tarin Kowt in the Oruzgan province, a region that has played an important part in the war in Afghanistan, both for the broader conflict and for Australians more specifically.
It was the first place to provide an organised Pashtun resistance to the Taliban, and it’s also the place where most of the Australian troops serving in Afghanistan have been based.
Since 2001, 242 Australian soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan, and 39 have died. The Oruzgan Province has claimed more than its share of those lives, with a lot of help from IEDs, a fact that Ronayne and his colleagues know only too well.
After Afghanistan, he returned briefly to Australia, before shipping to Iraq.
“We were based in and around Baghdad, which, at the time, was quite literally the most dangerous location on earth,” recalls Ronayne.
Like most returned soldiers, he doesn’t like to dwell on the violence he witnessed.
“In Baghdad we were bombed constantly, day and night.
“There were mortar shells dropping on us all the time. We had something like 130 in one month. It would average about five a day.
“And we had the constant threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and insurgent fire, so you get around in armored vehicles.
“You can’t leave the base without a fully trained detail of armed soldiers with you all the time.”
The base that Ronayne is referring to was situated right next door to a hospital.
“We saw a lot of bodies and a lot of casualties coming in. People would bring in their dead ones looking for help, and they’d bring in people with limbs blown off.
“There was carnage everywhere, but that’s all I really want to say about it.”
Ronayne completed his four year service, and today, he’s back living in Bourke, working in the public sector.
But surprisingly, Private Steven Ronayne didn’t have venture to the other side of globe to experience life in the most dangerous places on earth.
All he had to do, according to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald, was walk out his front door.
AS ‘EXCLUSIVES’ go – and that’s how the story was badged – they don’t get much bigger than the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page splash on the February 2nd edition of its Saturday paper.
“Bourke tops list: more dangerous than any country in the world: EXCLUSIVE” screamed the headlined.
The body of the story was a little more sedate: “The remote north-western NSW town of Bourke has topped the state in six of the eight major crime categories in the past 12 months, prompting a call for a “full-hearted attack” to fix drug and alcohol problems in the town.
“The latest crime figures, compiled and ranked by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research on local government areas, show the town of 3,000 has the highest assault rate in the state, along with break-ins and car thefts.
“When compared with United Nations data, the crime rate of the Darling River town makes it more dangerous per capita than any country in the world.”
That is a remarkable claim.
It also happens to be complete nonsense.
In order for the Herald to sustain its beat-up, it had to twist large piles of statistics, compare apples with oranges, and ignore other information that sunk its story.
In fact, the Herald article is so ridiculous that it’s hard to known where to begin tearing it down. So we’ll start at the beginning.
Undoubtedly, Bourke has more than its share of trouble, but that revelation is hardly new.
For the last few decades, the town has been over-represented in the official NSW crime statistics in most categories.
The figures on which the Herald article is based looked at eight areas: non domestic violence assaults; sexual assault; robbery; break and enter (dwellings); motor vehicle theft; steal from motor vehicle; steal from dwelling; and malicious damage to property.
Bourke is over-represented in all the categories, and with the exceptions of robbery and sexual assault, tops all of them.
But the figures the Herald has relied on represent a single year – 2012 – and they don’t go close to telling the real story.
The fact is, crimes in Bourke in the more serious categories –such as assault – are much lower than they were a decade ago.
The number of non–domestic assaults in Bourke in 2012 (the category on which the Herald relied to name Bourke as the world’s most dangerous place) was actually lower than it was in 2011 – down by two from 90 to 88.
It’s also been stable for the past five years.
But even worse for the Herald, the number of assaults in 2012 was 35 percent lower than it was in 2006 – down from 136.
At the same time, it’s worth noting who is doing the assaulting, and whose getting assaulted. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as at June 30, 2009, 48 percent of Aboriginal assault victims, and 49 percent of Aboriginal sexual assault victims were attacked by a member of their own family. In Bourke, the figures are likely much higher.
The Herald’s reporting looks even more ridiculous when you consider its reporting on robberies.
Robbery is not break and enter – it’s the act of physically robbing a person rather than a premise, such as a street mugging.
But rather than report the actual number of incidents, the Herald focused instead on the rate. There’s an important difference, and a good reason why the Herald left any mention of the actual number out of its reporting.
You can obtain a ‘robbery rate’ for Bourke by calculating the number of incidents that occurred in a year, set against the total population for the region. It’s then compared to the broader NSW average, and the final figure is expressed as a ‘per head of population’.
Bourke’s rate in 2012 was 162 robberies per 100,000 people. That means that if 100,000 people lived in Bourke, then 162 robberies could be expected to occur in a year.
But 100,000 people don’t live in Bourke. Around 3,000 do.
So how many robberies were there in 2012?
Five… precisely the same number that was recorded in 2006.
The Herald airbrushed that number out of its reporting – both the body of the story, and a graphic depicting different crime rates.
Now here’s the rub. In order for the Herald to claim that Bourke is the most dangerous place on earth, rather than just twist statistics, it also had to ignore some, one in particular.
Ironically, it’s the statistic that would – above all others – give a rough indication of the level of danger faced by Bourke residents.
The United Nations data that the Herald relied on for its story comes from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Herald focussed its research on assaults, sexual violence, robbery and theft.
But the category immediately above those used by the Herald, is the one that would genuinely show the whether or not a place was the most dangerous on earth.
That category is ‘murders’.
The reason why the Herald chose to ignore the murder rate in Bourke is simple. If they’d included it in their stats, the whole premise of the article would have collapsed.
The Herald’s article relates to the period October 2011 to September 2012. Disappointingly for the Herald, no-one was murdered in Bourke during that time.
That gives Bourke a murder rate for 2012 of zero, which makes it, ironically, one of the safest places on earth. It’s level with Monaco and Palau, the only two nations on earth which recorded zero murder rates in the latest available UN data.
Not much of a headline in that.
In the Herald’s defence, there was a murder in 2011. For that year, the rate spiked to 32.5, but that figure doesn’t give a true indication of the murder rate, because of the small population.
If you look at Bourke over a five year period, then one crude way to establish the murder rate is to divide 32.5 by five.
That gives you a rate of 6.5
And for the record, there have been two murders in Bourke in the last decade. An Aboriginal man has been charged with the 2011 murder. A non Aboriginal man was jailed over a murder in 2006.
Apples & Oranges
Comparing crime statistics from a small Australian country town with an entire nation is obviously grossly misleading. In doing so, The Herald broke one of the cardinal rules of statistical research – relevance.
According to the United Nations data favoured by the Herald, Pakistan, for example, has a murder rate of 7.8 murders per 100,000 population.
But that’s an average across the entire nation.
No-one knows the exact murder rate of the lawless tribal regions of Waziristan in north west Pakistan, but as a Westerner, try going for a wander through there. You probably wouldn’t last a week.
Bourke’s ‘crude murder rate’ of 6.5 is around the same as the national murder rate in the Philippines, a nation recently named by Lonely Planet as one of the 10 hottest tourist destinations on the planet.
The Philippines is a relatively safe country in which to travel, but there are regions you simply don’t go. If you’re a westerner in the southern parts of the Philippines, such as the island of Mindanao, then you’re in far more danger. That’s a fact Warren Rodwell, an Australian recently released after being held hostage for 15 months, knows only too well.
UNFORTUNATELY, the problems with the Herald story aren’t just limited to a ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ approach to journalism.
The Herald reported: “Astonishingly, there are more than 50 organisations run by the state, federal or community in Bourke that receive millions of taxpayer dollars each year to address the town’s problems. A report released by the Ombudsman on Thursday found most were ineffective and lacked co-ordination.”
Despite reporting this, and despite also noting that “local, state and federal governments” had failed the people of Bourke, the Herald decided that only one organisation deserved public naming and shaming… an Aboriginal organisation.
Here’s how the Herald called it: “As the sun drops behind the paperbark trees along the Darling River, teenagers from the Alice Edwards Village throw a fishing line out to catch yellowbelly. There is little else to do in their village on the outskirts of Bourke; a group of rundown houses left to rot by their local Aboriginal Land Council which, despite this, continues to collect rent off occupants.”
And later in the story: “An elder… of the Alice Edwards Village, said her people had been paying more than $160 a week rent to the Nulla Nulla Local Aboriginal Land Council yet have received next to no housing maintenance in return.”
And then this: “The bitter in-fighting among Aborigines in Bourke has left the village flailing in Third World conditions, with mice infestations, brown snakes breeding in the roofs, electric shocks coming out of the walls and disintegrating fibro walls possibly riddled with asbestos.”
The Alice Edwards Village is situated just outside the Bourke town proper. It’s home to 13 properties, 11 of which are in very poor condition – no-one’s denying that..
But Nulla Nulla CEO George Orcher, points out that rather than being “left to rot”, the homes have been rebuilt or renovated numerous times, with the most recent works completed last year.
“From memory, those houses have been rebuilt and fixed up there or four times (since 1981),” Orcher says.
“And when they that say no-one fixes house, the most recent plumbing and electrical work was completed last year. That was at the village.”
Orcher also notes that shortly before the Herald article, the Nulla Nulla LALC ordered an inspection of the homes at Alice Edwards, to ensure they weren’t full of asbestos.
“We got the report back a few days after the story which claimed we’d left residents there to rot.”
The claim by the Herald about rent payment is also false.
Residents at the Alice Edwards Village are supposed to pay $80 per week in rent – not $160 per week – but until recently, only two of the 13 residents have ever done so consistently.
One of the residents quoted in the Herald article complaining residents paid rent and got nothing in return is currently almost $15,000 in arrears. She only began paying rent last year after an order by the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT) late last year.
The dispute over rent at Alice Edwards is almost as old as some of the houses. Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation, based in Broken Hill, took over rental management of the properties in the late 1990s.
In August 2008, it ended the contract because the housing was unmanageable. When Nulla Nulla was handed back its properties, they were completely run down. They’ve been trying to manage the housing stock ever since, and provide basic repairs and maintenance on homes which generate almost no income.
Rental collection dropped so low a few years ago that Nulla Nulla was advised to keep a separate rental account for Alice Edwards, so that it could identify what income came from the village and what came from the other 14 houses the LALC owns around town.
Even the threat of eviction didn’t motivate residents to pay up – in the end Nulla Nulla took the residents in arrears to the CTTT, and won an order against them.
But ironically, the Herald’s assault on Bourke has actually helped spur a thawing of relations between Alice Edwards Village residents and the Land Council.
When Tracker visited Bourke in March, Nulla Nulla was meeting with Alice Edwards village residents to find a way forward.
The first meeting ended positively, with residents agreeing to continue their new found commitment to paying rent, and Nulla Nulla agreeing to look at repair or rehousing of the residents.
None of that, of course, let’s the Herald off the hook. Somehow, despite quoting almost a dozen Bourke residents and several organisations in the story, the Herald never found it’s way to the LALC office on the edge of the CBD to seek their side of the story.
But to the Herald’s credit, they did get part of the story right, or at least most of part of the story.
“As other parts of the state prosper, Bourke is languishing with generations of socially dysfunctional families, high unemployment caused by drought, poor school attendance, alcohol abuse and deep scars from a long history of racism and land dispossession,” the Herald reported.
Low school attendance for Aboriginal students is a problem in many communities around NSW, and across the country. But as the Herald article broke, the Bourke Public School newsletter reported an attendance rate of 94 percent. Even so, the comments about “a long history of racism and land dispossession” resonated with many Aboriginal residents.
The Herald wasn’t able to flesh out any examples during its visit. They perhaps weren’t looking very hard.
THE MAYOR of Bourke, Andrew Lewis, is a tough-talking farmer from nearby Engonia, a tiny town 100 kilometres north.
While he was appalled by the Herald article, he concedes it had aspects of truth.
“I won’t say any other town is worse than Bourke – that’s just bashing some other town,” says Lewis.
“Certainly the issues they have (reported on) are based on fact. We all know the things that go on in Bourke, what the trouble is. We’ve got our issues and we’re trying to work on them. But the headline was way out of order.”
Lewis believes he knows the solutions to Bourke’s problems.
“If everybody in the community worked together it would be good. But you know, we don’t all work together.
“Some people think they’re owed a living….”
And by ‘some people’, the Mayor means ‘Aboriginal people’.
“A lot of it’s to do with not having work. Probably some of them think they don’t have to work. But there’s not been the work available for unskilled labour.”
Relations between the Bourke Shire Council and the Nulla Nulla Local Aboriginal Land Council could be described as ‘frosty’ at best, and non-existent at worst.
George Orcher has been involved with the Land Council for almost two decades. He believes he can pinpoint the time when things really started to go down hill.
“Since 1990, I’ve met with the Mayor once, and that was last year over a dispute about the Council over-charging us for rates at Alice Edwards.
“He knew how many horses we had on a paddock 60 kilometres out of town, but he couldn’t tell us how many houses we had on Alice Edwards village.
“They’ve been charging us rates for 20 to 24 houses on the village since 1984. “Since we brought that to their attention, that’s when the flack kicked in.”
Aboriginal people make up one-third of the population in Bourke, but only one Aboriginal person is currently elected to the Shire.
Mayor Lewis rejected the suggestion the Shire Council should work cooperatively with the Aboriginal community to try and increase black representation.
“They can’t get their act together among themselves,” says Lewis.
He also rejected suggestions Aboriginal people found it hard to gain employment at the Shire.
“Over the years we’ve put a lot of people on, they’re good for a week and then they don’t want to turn up.”
When Tracker interviewed Mayor Lewis, and the General Manager of the Council, Ross Earl, they didn’t know how many Aboriginal people had jobs at the Shire, although they suggested it was “a few”.
Local Aboriginal people suggested it was “one or two”.
The Shire, in response, said of 81 permanent staff that “12 identify as Aboriginal – that [we] are aware of, and there were a further four casuals.
Aboriginal people make up about a third of the Bourke population.
Employment figures aside, the Shire’s relationship with the Aboriginal community is generally very poor.
Nulla Nulla LALC acknowledged the newly appointed CEO Ross Earl had recently stopped into the LALC of his own accord.
“That’s the first time we’ve ever seen that happen,” said Orcher.
From the Aboriginal perspective, the animosity is driven by a perceived inequality of services to black and white residents.
And when you look around Bourke, it’s not hard to see why.
Like many country towns, Bourke has a poor area, and a comparatively rich area.
The flash part of Bourke – called ‘Uptown’ by Aboriginal residents – has wide streets, kerb and guttering, plenty of streetscaping, and footpaths.
The poorer area of Bourke – which is predominantly Aboriginal – has narrow streets, no kerb and guttering or streetscaping, and few foothpaths.
Rubbish is strewn all over the poorer parts of Bourke. Uptown is spotless.
All residents pay rates, but Aboriginal residents argue it doesn’t equate to equal services.
There are, however, a couple of things Bourke Shire and Nulla Nulla agree on, and both of them make the Herald article look even worse.
Crime in Bourke has reduced, and the streets are safer to walk, a belief backed up by the BOCSAR statistics.
“There were some big issues back in the 80s. Lot of things were happening then, a lot of agitations amongst the Aboriginals… land rights and all that,” says Mayor Lewis.
“I think it got the locals stirred up a bit. But it’s probably gone away from that sort of political agitation now, to just petty crime and drugs. That’s the trouble at the moment.”
Orcher thinks rampant racism might better explain violence in the 1980s, but he agrees it’s safer today.
“The shop fronts used to be all barred up. Now they’re starting to open it up a bit, getting back to normal glass. So it can’t be all bad,” says Orcher.
“The crime comes in waves. This week, five or six cars might get stolen and burnt out. Then a couple of months later you might have something else, like break and enters.
“We’ll get a group through town who cause a bit of trouble. They’ll get sent away (by family) and then everything goes quiet again. Then we get an influx again from Dubbo or Orange.”
Both Lewis and Orcher also agree that the people who cause trouble in Bourke are very much in the minority.
“I reckon there’s only 10 or 15 of them,” says Orcher.
Mayor Lewis thought the number closer to 20. Local police who spoke to Tracker estimated it might be slightly higher, at 20 to 30.
Whatever the true figure, if it is a small group of people causing most of the trouble – a claim on which virtually everyone in town agrees – then why do so many Aboriginal people from Bourke end up in police custody? And where do the higher than average crime rates come from?
DAVID Pheeney is one of two Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers based in Bourke. He’s been there more than two years, and is the only Aboriginal lawyer working for the ALS in NSW.
He’s practiced at other country towns around NSW, but acknowledges that while Bourke faces many of the issues that confront all NSW towns, it also has some issues specific to Bourke.
“It’s a really hard environment, but the people here are quite tough and they’re very resilient,” says Pheeney.
“Bourke’s got problems like any other place, like Albury, Wagga, Casino, Lismore, Sydney. But what’s different at Bourke from what you find (elsewhere) is our client’s ability to exercise diversionary options.
“They don’t have access to the same diversionary programs at court as their cousins in these other places. For example, the merit program, which is a magistrate’s diversionary program which looks at drug and alcohol, cannabis – that option is not available in Bourke.
“Access to a court-appointed mental health nurse is not available at Bourke.
“If they want to go into, for example, a residential rehab progam, if (the Only unit in Bourke) is full that means they have to travel out of their community, away from their family and their support networks. But without that networking and family support it’s very difficult for people to go down the road.
“There is a difference – there’s a disparity between Bourke and other areas in terms of what our clients can access when they go to court. And that’s really important.”
Bourke’s lack of diversionary options is hard to fathom given, as the Herald notes, there are more than 50 organisations funded by the taxpayer, providing services to a population of just 3,000.
Pheeney says that if the state government is serious about addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, then diversionary options are important.
“When magistrates and judges come out to places like Bourke and Brewarrina, if diversionary options aren’t available to them to the same extent as, say, Sydney, their hands are tied.
“It makes their job difficult and they get to a point where if these options are not there, then what’s available to them? A suspended jail sentence or custodial sentences.
“So it’s really important, and it’s a challenge the state government needs to look at.” Pheeney also believes the programs available to Aboriginal people before they offend are not having a strong enough impact.
“I think there’s a lot of issues around grief and loss, things which have happened in a client’s past,” he says.
“If you really want to address the problem, you have to address the person as a whole.
“You can’t just have retribution, denunciation. You have to address all the other factors that go into it.
“I think the historical context, the relationship Aboriginal people have had with police, the criminal justice system, past injustices, is very important.
There was the forced removal of children, deaths in custody, dispossession, stolen wages. It all adds up and it’s part of the factors that go into the mix that really affect Aboriginal people. And it’s a very difficult thing to tackle.”
Pheeney says policing – specifically how it is done – is one important factor. He acknowledges many local police in Bourke have a general awareness of the level of loss and grief suffered by Aboriginal people.
“Many of them are sensitive to those issues, and that’s to their credit. We’ve got an Aboriginal sergeant here, and he’s very good.
“I suppose they approach it from a viewpoint that they’re protecting the community, that’s their focus, their function.
“We’ve got quite a few young officers out here now, but it’s an ongoing process of education and dialogue between Aboriginal people and police.”
Of all the problems around crime in Bourke, Pheeney identifies one area which requires urgent review.
“We have quite a lot of traffic matters in Bourke, particularly drive while disqualified, or ‘never licensed’ matters.
“I’d say it makes up about one third of our clients. And if you’re over-policing, you’re going to pick up a lot of traffic matters.
“In Bourke you’ve got limited public transport, and you’ve got geographically great distances people have to go.
“If you’re driving while disqualified, yes, you are disobeying a court order and really you can’t do that.
“But if it’s an unremarkable offence – there’s been no harm, or nothing done to society, no property damage, no injury – then they’ve picked you up, then they’ve picked you up again, you face the prospect of going to jail.”
And that’s precisely what has been happening in Bourke.
A recent study by the ALS in Dubbo, south of Bourke revealed, that Aboriginal offenders convicted of ‘Driving while disqualified” were sent to jail at three times the state average.
Forty-six percent of convicted Aboriginal offenders were sentenced to a prison term, compared to only 20 percent of offenders convicted of possessing child pornography went to jail.
In fact, the ‘drive while disqualified’ imprisonment rate was four and a half times higher than ‘Dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm (involving drugs and alcohol)’ and three times higher than the rate for ‘assault occasioning actual bodily harm’.
It was even higher than the rate for ‘Use offensive weapon with intent to commit offense or resist arrest’, and only marginally lower than ‘Disseminate/produce/possess child abuse material’.
While Bourke police deny claims of over-policing, and the Shire Council agrees (arguing police aren’t actually doing enough), the figures suggest otherwise. And the methods for catching offenders… well, they’re unlike most country towns.
CCTV has been installed throughout the Bourke CBD to combat crime. Bourke Police roster officers on to watch the footage much of the night and day. Drivers who think they can sneak through town unlicensed at three in the morning often get caught, because the camera operators simply notify an available car.
Says Pheeney: “I’m not trivialising the more serious offending behaviours – break and enter, serious assault, sexual assault – but for some offending behaviour (like driving while disqualified) 20 or 30 years (disqualified) is a huge sentence.
“It’s just very crushing, and if we’re serious about Aboriginal people wanting to engage in the economy, doing those sort of things is not allowing them to be players.
“They can’t contribute to the economy, they can’t go out and earn a living, they can’t be taxpayers. You can’t get a job.
“It’s a problem area and an area that needs reforming.
“The way the laws fall, they really do affect Aboriginal people in remote areas.”
THE Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, Don Weatherburn, declined to be interviewed for this feature. However Dr Weatherburn directed Tracker to comments he’s already publicly made about media reporting of crime statistics.
Dr Weatherburn laments the fact that consistently, BOCSAR put out statistics and studies which make comment on crime, but routinely media report the opposite of what the studies show.
During the lecture, he points to several examples – all of them are perpetrated by the Herald’s main competitor, the Daily Telegraph.
Dr Weatherburn notes: “This kind of thing is relentless. These aren’t isolated cases.
“This goes on week in week out – the media misleading the public about what goes on with crime, and for the obvious reason that sexy crime stories sell newspapers, increase television rating and increase radio ratings.”
Apart from gross misinformation, Dr Weatherburn notes that bad media reporting of crime statistics also costs the country money.
“One thing it does result in is distorted government spending priorities,” he says.
It also promotes public fear and anxiety.
Dr Weatherburn suggests you “think critically about ‘news’å and do your own research.
“Don’t listen to what shock jocks have to say about crime and justice. Don’t believe what tabloid newspapers say about crime and justice.”
The Sydney Morning Herald, ironically, went from a broadsheet newspaper to a tabloid just weeks after it’s Bourke beat-up.
For their part, the Sydney Morning Herald is prepared to die in a ditch to defend this story.
Tracker sought an interview with the editor-in-chief of the Herald, Sean Aylmer. Through a spokesperson, Mr Aylmer declined to comment and instead referred Tracker to one of the journalists who wrote the story, Rachel Olding.
Ms Olding rejected outright any suggestion that Herald’s reporting had mislead viewers, or that she had used the statistics in any way inappropriately, stating that any attempt by Tracker to portray it as such was “sneaky”.
“I took statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and I compared the crime rates for the countries in those statistics with the crime rates in Bourke as provided by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
“I took the offences in Bourke that were the most common offences and I compared them to the same offences to the countries listed in the UN data.
“When the comparisons were made Bourke had a higher crime rate per 100,000 population.”
Ms Olding said she was unaware of the homicide rate in Bourke – which is zero – but said that it was not considered in the article because it didn’t top the NSW crime rates.
She also argued that the Herald’s interpretation of ‘danger’ was valid.
“I can see that this is coming down to an argument over semantics about the word ‘dangerous’.
“You would like to define dangerous as homicide or gun crime or something of the sort.
“In this article we’ve defined dangerous as street level crime, such as assault and break and enters.
“There were common offences like assault, motor vehicle theft, break and enter, malicious damage to property, those sort of offences that are very high street level based opportunistic crime. I think those sorts of crimes are the sorts of crime that impact people’s general feeling of safety.
“I 100 percent stand by the fact that that is a fair representation of danger. There are a million different ways that you could describe danger in the town.”
Olding rejected the suggestion that a high rate of malicious damage or assault does not sustain a headline that a place is the most dangerous on earth.
“That’s alright, we can disagree on that.”
She also rejected the suggestion that it was grossly misleading to compare crime rates in a small Australian town with a population of less than 3,000 with crime rates across whole nations.
“It’s not misleading if you tell your readers what statistics you’re comparing,” she said.
But that appears not to have been her view immediately after breaking the story, when she began receiving messages on her Twitter account from Herald readers accusing her of misleading reporting.
One tweeter, @RaeLeeBaker wrote to Olding on February 1: “We need comparison to other towns, other nations is a bit misleading as they have more and less dangerous parts.”
Olding tweeted in reply: “Yes, agreed. Motor vehicle theft was 10x worse and assault was 4x worse than (New York City).” Asked about her tweet, Ms Olding suggested that Tracker had “misinterpreted it”.
“100 percent I stand by the fact that this story conveys an accurate picture to readers. And I think what you have to remember, if you step back and look at the bigger picture for a second, that was one line in about 3,000 words that I wrote on Bourke that look at the real issues facing that town, and the people in that town, and what is not being accurate is to take that one line and not look at everything else that surrounded it.
“I understand why (the headline) caused concern – of course it’s a shocking line to be compared against crime rates from all around the world and to come out on top, but there was so much that was written about Bourke in those three articles that I did that looked at the real issues as well.”
“I spent a week in Bourke, I spoke to almost 30 various community leaders and elders, and just general members of the public, and I wrote some really comprehensive stuff about the issues facing Bourke. And to take out one line is being pretty sneaky.”
Of course, it wasn’t just one line – it was the headline, the most important line in the story, a subject that came up during Olding’s twitter exchange with readers.
One tweeter, @benmillo1 remarked: “Having worked at Bourke between 2003-05 as a police officer, it is far from the (most) dangerous place on earth. Yes there are issues but there are plenty of great people in the town making a difference.”
James Brickwood, the Herald photographer who accompanied Olding on the trip, responded: “Ben I share a similar distaste for such a misguided headline. We do not have a say in (the) process of the newspaper. Port-au-Prince, Cape town, Harare, Rio… not Bourke.”
The fall-out from the Herald article is still unknown. In summer, Bourke regularly tops 40 degrees Celsius. Earlier this year, one day topped 48. So Bourke’s tourism season hasn’t yet begun – the Grey Nomads and other visitors usually start flocking in late May and through winter.
According to the Shire, tourism is a major – and growing – part of the Bourle economy.
“The Shire’s prosperity is built around the pastoral, irrigation, tourism and service industries which are strongly supported by a wide range of attractions and activities,” the Shire’s website reports.
“Tourism is becoming an increasingly important part of Bourke commerce, and there are opportunities in hospitality, customer service, waitressing, cooking, tourist guides and operators.”
The Shire is worried about the impact of the Herald article. And it’s worried about the ability of local businesses and service providers to attract staff, given Bourke now wears the label of the ‘more dangerous than any country on earth’.
None of it really matters to Steven Ronayne, the soldier who grew up in Bourke, served in the world’s scariest hotspots, and has now returned to live in a town he loves.
“It’s not even comparable,” Ronayne laughs. “You can’t even say it in the same sentence.
“Honestly, you can’t put it in the same breath. It’s just ridiculous.
“How can you compare a fist fight… to walking down the street and people shooting at you for no reason because you pray to a different God, or because you’re wearing a different uniform?
“People are out to kill you over there.
“I can’t even put it into perspective properly to tell you the truth, because it’s just so ridiculous.”
Ronayne says the Herald’s use of statistics like ‘Steal from motor vehicle’ to make a case for Bourke being the most dangerous place on earth beggar belief.
“In Iraq, we were too busy to worry about motor vehicles. Trying to dodge the incoming mortars was more a priority for us.
The only thing I’d maybe worry about in relation to motor vehicles was car bombs.”
Ronayne acknowledges that the Herald’s claims about Bourke would have offended veterans who served in dangerous places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but he added that his time in the Army had put a lot of things in perspective for him.
“You get ignorant people who don’t know anything and want to put you down. These days, I just say, ‘No worries.’ They’re not even worth my time of day.
“And that’s the way I reacted to the Herald article. I started reading it, but I never finished it.
“It’s just people who run out of something to print so they go and make up a story.
“I don’t have the time for that – I have other stuff to do.”
And so, it seems, do many former readers of the Herald.
Marketingmag.com.au reported last year that in one period, while online readership for Fairfax remained steady, the Herald’s Saturday circulation fell a whopping 17 percent, from 332,492 down to 274,682.
It is, according to the article’s headline, the “highest print drop on record” for Fairfax, a statistic, no doubt you’re unlikely to see featured on the front page of a Saturday Herald any time soon.
* Chris Graham is the former Managing Editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelance journalist. Chris Munro in a Kamilaroi man and the current Managing Editor of Tracker.