Legal

Joanita Wibowo

"Highly offensive": Sunrise hit with lawsuit over controversial segment

"Highly offensive": Sunrise hit with lawsuit over controversial segment

Channel Seven is being sued for defamation over a controversial segment on its Sunrise breakfast program.

In March 2018, Sunrise aired a segment on non-Indigenous families caring for Aboriginal children who have been exposed to abuse, the ABC reported.

Residents of Yirrkala, a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, have launched a lawsuit alleging the network had defamed 15 people by broadcasting insufficiently blurred footage of them for the segment.

Lawyer Peter O’Brien said the adult and children community members were still identifiable even after a blurring filter was used.

The footage was originally shot with the residents’ permission to illustrate a story on a health initiative in the community, but O’Brien said the negative context of the Sunrise segment put it in a different light.

“Simply picking up this footage and playing it behind that sort of context, particularly with the very sorry message that’s being pushed in this particular program, is very disturbing,” he said.

“The plaintiffs assert that the segment about child sexual abuse and the forced removal of children while showing identifiable images of innocent people is defamatory.”

O’Brien said the people featured in the footage, which had been alluded as having abused, assaulted or neglected children, “should not be depicted in this manner in the context of this program, just because they are Aboriginal.”

In the segment, where the issue was discussed by an all-white panel, Sunrise host Samantha Armytage incorrectly claimed that Indigenous children could not be fostered by non-Indigenous families. “Post-Stolen Generation, there’s been a huge move to leave Aboriginal children where they are, even if they’re being neglected in their own families,” she said at the time.

Panellist Prue MacSween also said, “Just like the first Stolen Generation, where a lot of children were taken because it was for their wellbeing, we need to do it again, perhaps.”

The segment was found to have breached the commercial television industry code of practice due to its inaccuracy and “strong negative generalisations about Indigenous people as a group”.

It also sparked massive backlash, with viewers describing the panel discussion as “blatantly racist”, “incredibly offensive” and “a new low”. Days after the segment was broadcast, more than 100 people gathered outside Channel Seven’s Martin Place headquarters to protest the network, the ABC reported.

Channel Seven emphasised that the footage had been blurred. “The proceedings relate to some footage used in the background to the story which was blurred to prevent any person being identified and Seven is able to defend the case on that basis,” the network’s spokesman said.

“We can’t comment further as the matter is before the court.”

The ongoing case will resume in the Federal Court.