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December 02nd 2013 print

To and Fro with a Fairfax Journalist

(subsequent to the initial rounds of correspondence published at Quadrant Online on December 2, further notes were exchanged. They have been added at the foot of this file)

Thursday 14 November 2013

Dear Professor Windschuttle,

I’m working on a piece on Kinchela Boys Home. I’ve read your work challenging some of the claims about abuses at the home.

I was hoping you could tell me how many former residents of the home you interviewed.

Yours sincerely,

Rick Feneley

The Sydney Morning Herald

 ****

Thursday 14 November 2013

Hello Rick,

Thanks for your inquiry. It would seem from what you have asked me that you have not actually read all of Chapter Five of my book on the Stolen Generations, where all my sources and investigations are discussed. It a long chapter but if you are writing an article about Kinchela I think you will find it essential reading. When you have done that I would be glad to answer any questions you have about what I have said there.

Please also note that I am not, and have never described myself as, Professor Windschuttle. I have not worked in a university since 1990 and to suggest otherwise would be another mistake.

Best regards

Keith

Keith Windschuttle

Editor, Quadrant

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Thursday 14 November 2013

Thanks Mr Windschuttle. Sorry about the Professor.

I’ve read chapter five and noted the sources. That is why I was asking, to be sure that you had not interviewed residents about their experiences at Kinchela.

I’m writing a piece for two or three weeks away, but I’m about to go off for surgery and won’t return until close to publication date.

I don’t want to put all the details in this email — so far out from publication – but I have interviewed men who attended Kinchela over two decades, from about 1949 to 1970. I’ve read the testimony of several others.

What is remarkable about those accounts is their consistency in describing systematic brutality, delivered daily by successive managers and other staff.

I’ll send more detail of that closer to publication, but I thought it was important to have your voice in the story.

I see that you have done exhaustive research on the available documents.

However, given your conclusion that historians have only been able to arrive at one substantial allegation of abuse at Kinchela — in 1935 — I wondered why did you not seek to balance that with the version of Kinchela’s history that is available from its old boys?

Yours sincerely,

Rick Feneley

 ****

Monday 25 November 2013

Dear Mr Windschuttle,

My reports on Kinchela Boys Home are scheduled to appear in the Herald on Saturday, so I want to give you this opportunity to be quoted.

A large group of former Kinchela residents is about to record video interviews about their experiences at the home. I have interviewed three of them and read accounts of several others.

As I said in my earlier email, what is remarkable about those accounts is their consistency in describing systematic brutality, delivered daily by successive managers and other staff.

The three men I interviewed attended at different times over two decades, from about 1949 to 1970.

Each described an almost daily event. Boys would be punished by being sent “down the line”. Every boy at Kinchela would form a line, typically from oldest to youngest. A boy deemed to have offended would walk the line as each boy in turn would have to punch him. No boy dared not deliver his punch lest he too be sent down the same line, the men said. Boys commonly finished bloody and bruised, they said.

All three said that wetting the bed was reason enough for such punishment.

Boys who wet the bed were also stripped naked and ordered to spend hours alone in the dark in the paddock, they said.

Other punishments included boys, as young as seven, being chained alone at night to a fig tree near the dairy. Making a mistake while milking the cows might have led to this punishment, they said.

One of the men — who was among the last of the Kinchela boys, there until it closed in 1970 — described his sexual abuse by a drunken manager. He said he was among many young boys of that era who were molested by the manager.

All said they were stripped of their names. All were given a number when they arrived and were referred to by that number until they left — between five and 10 years later, in these cases.

All described their forced removal from their families and they regard themselves as members of the stolen generations.

All said they were constantly told they were not Aboriginal. One described believing that claim, despite his dark skin, until he was confronted with the rejection of whites when he left the home — and then by the rejection of his own family.

The men I spoke to gave very convincing and measured accounts. I have no reason to believe they were embellishing their stories, and certainly no reason to believe they were lying.

Their reports of what happened are consistent with those of other men recorded on the website of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation.

Most of the Kinchela old boys have only started getting together in recent years. They formed an association in 2002, and its numbers have grown since. Many of the men will be giving their full accounts for the first time in the video project. But several have been telling their stories over the past 11 years, and a couple were quoted in Bringing Them Home.

The main purpose of my story is to report that a larger group of these men will give their own version of Kinchela’s history — and to record the stories of the three I have interviewed.

However, I think it is important to include your view, given you have challenged not only the notion of the stolen generations but also the extent of the alleged cruelty at Kinchela.

I was struck by two claims in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History — The Stolen Generations.

While you acknowledge the limitations of relying on Kinchela’s punishment book, you go on to write:

“Of the 85 boys at the school from 1952 to 1962, only 29 were ever caned. They committed 51 offences for which they received a total of 126 strokes, an average of 2.5 strokes of the cane for each offence. Over ten years, only two boys were given six strokes.[14] In my experience, and those of friends at New South Wales state secondary schools in the 1950s and 60s, white schoolboys were caned more frequently and much more severely each time than this. Even if we multiplied the figures in the punishment book by a factor of three, the Kinchela boys still got off lightly.”

You also conclude that historians have only been able to arrive at one substantial allegation of abuse at Kinchela — in 1935.

These are very big conclusions.

Did you consider testing them by asking some of the former Kinchela residents what happened to them?

You describe your visit to Kinchela and seeing some old boys who had ‘‘decided to drop in for a nostalgic visit. They walked about the buildings and grounds apparently enjoying themselves hugely, pointing out to one another various aspects of the place, laughing and joking all the time. They were anything but traumatized or speechless.’’

Did you ask them about their experiences at Kinchela?

Yours sincerely,

Rick Feneley

 ****

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Dear Mr Windschuttle,

Sorry, I meant to mention that I’m writing for a deadline of Thursday morning. Please let me know if you wish to be quoted, so I can ensure you are included.

Yours sincerely,

Rick Feneley

 ****

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Hello Rick,

Your three interviews with former Kinchela inmates, plus a reading of the four stories on the Kinchela website, is a pretty small sample on which to base the claim of “systematic brutality, delivered daily by successive managers and other staff.” Moreover, you don’t appear to have been to Kinchela to see what the place looks like and you haven’t interviewed any of the former staff.

In contrast, in the late 1980s, I visited Kinchela several times over a two-year period. (I can’t remember exactly how many without going to my long-archived files). I was a lecturer at UNSW at the time and was contracted by the NSW Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and funded by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs to evaluate a labour market program being run by Kinchela’s successor, Benelong’s Haven. In addition to the three tradesmen I mention in my book, I met several other former inmates who, after various periods of hospitalisation or imprisonment, had returned as adults and were living on the premises, which was by then a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

At the same time, I also met several former Kinchela staff members. It might surprise you to know that these staff were themselves Aboriginal people, who, if your own informants are correct, must have been brutal fiends. It might also surprise you to know that the manager of Kinchela in 1968, 1969 and 1970 was Herb Simms, an Aboriginal man who as a boy was himself a Kinchela inmate and who, after a career as an motor car mechanic, took over the job of running the school in those years. Are you including him in your charges of “systematic brutality … until it closed in 1970″?  If so, pardon my scepticism. I think you have been taken in by your informants and your article is likely to defame several good Aboriginal men and women who dedicated their lives to their people, without you making any attempt to tell their side of the story.

Some of the Aboriginal staff employed in Herb Simms’ period were still there in the 1980s working for Benelong’s Haven (though living in their own homes in Kempsey) when they showed me around the old school premises with some pride at what a good place it was. I never heard anyone tell the stories you mention. Nothing like that was ever raised at the time, either by the staff or former boys. This is not because I was some alien white person on an inspection tour who they would be reluctant to talk to. Most times I went there I was accompanied by Richard Aldridge, the principal officer running the program we looked after. Richard was a well-known Aboriginal man employed, when I first knew him, by the NSW Department of Corrective Services, and later by the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Richard was a dedicated activist trying to do the best for his people and had good connections with many Aboriginal communities throughout NSW. Despite my several years of contact with him, he never mentioned to me any of the stories you have heard.

Are you also aware that from 1944 onwards, the governing body for the Kinchela school, the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, always had two prominent Aboriginal activists as directors? This began in October 1944 with William Ferguson and Alexander Solomon elected to their positions by Aboriginal people, followed by Walter Page. Ferguson and Page were from the Aborigines Progressive Association. Both have entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which you should read. From 1954 to 1957, one of the Aboriginal members of the board was the well-known political activist Pearl Gibbs, a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association, the Australian Aborigines League and the Communist Party. One of the duties of the board was to inspect the conditions and management of the three Aboriginal children’s institutions in NSW at the time — Kinchela, Cootamundra and Bomaderry. While some of the Aboriginal board members at different times were highly critical of living conditions on some NSW welfare stations and reserves, I do not know of any similar criticisms they made of Kinchela. Do you think such people, who were otherwise intelligent and effective advocates for their people, could have been so ignorant and so innocent that they failed to see the gross brutality your informants claim was taking place right beneath their noses?

None of this is to deny that boys at Kinchela were given corporal punishment (the cane, as I discuss in my book), or other forms of punishment that our society would not tolerate today. In the twentieth century, up to and including the 1960s, all schoolboys — whether black or white, at public schools or private — were subject to physical punishment. We might think today that some of this was too severe — such as the example my book records of former Labor politician Lindsay Tanner’s experience at the Church of England Gippsland Grammar School — but you cannot call it racist because it was the norm at the time in all educational institutions for boys of whatever colour or ethnic background. It was definitely not unique to Kinchela.

In short, I think you should do some more research for your story, and only publish it when you have better information. Your sources are inadequate for the charges you make. You are basing your accusations entirely on the word of a very small sample of disaffected former inmates. You don’t appear to have done even elementary research into the Kinchela archives, or the minutes and reports of the Aborigines Welfare Board. Nor have you read any publications from the period that might have helped you see things from the perspective of those running the institution at the time.  You are trying to reinvent history without doing a proper investigation.

Yours sincerely,

Keith Windschuttle

****

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Hi Keith,

This is all interesting background but none of it answers my questions. Have you ever asked former residents what they experienced at Kinchela?

You mention that you met some former inmates in drug and alcohol rehab. Did you ask them what happened to them?

Regarding my ‘informants’, they are three former residents. Do you believe they are fabricating these stories?

They are among many more former residents who are about to tell their stories. I’m not sure what makes them ‘inadequate’ sources, as you describe them.

Do you think the version of what happened at Kinchela — told by the inmates who were there — should not be told?

Rick

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(The most recent exchange is below)

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Monday 2 December 2013

Hello Rick,

Thanks for the publicity over the weekend. I am returning the favour, as you will see here: https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/bennelong-papers/2013/12/investigative-journalism-fairfax-style/

Cheers,

Keith

****

Monday 2 December 2013

Hello Keith,

And still you don’t tell your readers why you thought it was okay to make such strident conclusions about the alleged fabrications of abuse without daring to sit down with some of the men who made the allegations and ask them what happened. Perhaps you were worried you could not so readily dismiss their sincerity.

As you write now, you did not know to ask them in the late 80s. That was excusable, at the time, if you had never heard such claims. But it was no excuse when you decided to publish your version of their history in 2009, by which time you knew – or certainly should have known – that former Kinchela boys had been making these claims for quite a while.

There was at least a ‘handful’ on the public record by then. Why wouldn’t you have tested their claims, with those men directly, if you found them so implausible – and knowing you were about to challenge the accounts of the people who happened to have been there?

Would you think of writing a history on sexual abuse in church schools, for example, by relying only on the official contemporaneous documents and interviews with clergy and former staff – without asking a single alleged victim what happened?

Would you say you had spoken to some church school boys and none had ‘mentioned’ being abused?

They might not mention it unless you asked — or unless that was the point of your discussion.

When you decided to write your take on Kinchela’s history, wasn’t that the time to have such hard discussions?

The ‘handful’ of Kinchela boys is about to become five handfuls. They have the government’s support to tell their stories. You might mention that much to your readers.

If you want to tell your readers not to trust the word of those 25 men, that is your business. But you should at least tell them — it will be 25. And that that the O’Farrell government and its aboriginal affairs minister, unlike you, believe them.

Rick

****

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Dear Rick,

When I commented on 26 November on what you planned to write about the Kinchela Boys Home, I tried to be as helpful as I could by telling you I thought you had not done enough research. Unfortunately, you ignored my advice and went ahead anyway. You now have to live with public exposure of some pretty bad mistakes and one piece of dubious journalistic practice. Let me remind you:

  1. Despite your headline “They were numbers; now they have voices” and your melodramatic claim that “tiny children” were “stripped of their names and referred to only by number” during their time at the home, it was easy for me to show from other testimony by a former Kinchela boy that your story had got it wrong.
  2. You also got wrong the numbers you allocated to Cecil Bowden and Manuel Ebsworth. The Kinchela Admissions Register 1923-1962 records different numbers for both boys. There is no number recorded for Richard Campbell in the register because he went to Kinchela after 1962.
  3. You made a dramatic claim that seven-year-olds were employed milking cows at Kinchela, and those who misbehaved were chained to a tree outside all night. Wrong again. Only “work boys” of 14 years and 10 months and older were employed to milk the cows.
  4. You also made a pretty serious omission. Despite my telling you clearly, you failed to mention that in the late 1960s the home was largely run by Aboriginal people themselves. You thereby defamed several good Aboriginal people for allegedly barbaric practices against Aboriginal children. You should be ashamed of yourself.
  5. In what you claimed was an “interview” with Cecil Bowden, you cut and paste information directly from his website into your story. In case you haven’t heard, when students at university get caught doing that these days, they automatically fail their assignment and often have to show cause why they should not be expelled from their course. At universities they call this plagiarism. But at Fairfax, apparently, the practice is OK for journalists like you. As I said in my piece in Quadrant Online, it is sad to see standards of journalism fall so low.

In your latest communication, you insinuate that in my writings on Aboriginal child institutions, I am “relying only on the official contemporaneous documents and interviews with clergy and former staff”. You really need to read my book again, especially Chapter Five. I offer plenty of evidence recorded directly in interviews with children who had been inmates of the welfare homes for Aboriginal children in NSW, especially Cootamundra where at least two series of interviews were made by Anne Deveson and Merryl-Leigh Brindley. I also recorded my direct impressions of three Kinchela old boys who, when I was there in the late 1980s, turned up for a nostalgic visit. As I say in my book, they appeared to be “enjoying themselves hugely, pointing out to one another various aspects of the place, laughing and joking all the time”. They never mentioned in my hearing anything about being flogged, or chained to a tree, or addressed only by their number. I acknowledged in the book that this was no more than anecdotal evidence, but it tells a different story to the anecdotal evidence you offer. Readers can decide for themselves the value of this kind of stuff.

In any case, I’d be grateful if you would give me references to the “handful of claims” of abuse made by Kinchela boys that you say had been published by 2009 when I wrote my book. However, don’t bother including Bill Simon’s memoir Back on the Block, which came out that year. I’ve already read it and, in fact, I used it as one of my sources to disprove what you said in your SMH and Age articles. Please tell me why you decided to omit from your article some of Simon’s evidence, in particular his statement that his teacher, Mr Telfour, always called the boys by their names and not their numbers. Did you leave this out deliberately because it would spoil your story? Or didn’t you know he’d said this, which would confirm my original suggestion that you had not researched the topic properly?

Finally, just because 25 former Kinchela boys are soon to repeat charges of the kind you record, that does not make them true. The Human Rights Commission recorded in its 1997 publication Bringing Them Home the testimony of 535 Aboriginal people who claimed to be members of the Stolen Generations. At the time, human rights lawyers, including Julian Burnside and Ron Merkel, plus numerous Aboriginal legal aid services, had been lining up for years to prosecute claims of false imprisonment, misfeasance of public office, breach of duty of care, and breach of fiduciary and statutory duties of those responsible. Yet when the most promising of these cases were tested in various courts, including the High Court, only one claimant was ever successful. This was Bruce Trevorrow in 2007. Moreover, as I demonstrate in my book (Chapter 12), Justice Thomas Gray’s judgement in the Trevorrow case not only failed to confirm the Stolen Generations thesis, it provided ample evidence to show it was not true.

When I was employed on daily newspapers in the 1960s, journalists wore their cynicism and skepticism as a badge of honour, especially in cases where someone announced they had “government support to tell their stories”. You are letting down the side, mate.

Best regards

Keith