“I Thought I Was Going To Vomit”: The Story Behind Four Corners’ Report Into Juvenile Detention

"It was outrageous. At every turn, there were attempts to stop us from doing our job."

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It’s been less than two weeks since Four Corners first aired an image of 17-year-old Dylan Voller, head covered, neck strapped firmly to a chair in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and it has since become iconic. Destined for the stands, the episode’s title ‘Australia’s Shame’ has been plastered across newspaper front pages around the world. A royal commission is on its way. A minister has lost his job. Indigenous Australians are sitting in makeshift cages in the streets, being pulled away by police in the early hours of the morning.

Though we’ve seen various headlines about institutional abuse in the Northern Territory (particularly of Indigenous detainees) for years now, 50 minutes of television has thrown the government into damage control and the nation’s international reputation into the dirt. It’s an issue which will dominate the news for at least the next few months. But, ahead of her appearance at The Walkley Foundation’s Storyology event next week, I spoke to Four Corners reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna about how she got the story there in the first place.

Junkee: Thanks so much for speaking to us. I know how crazy the past week or so has been. How have you found the response?

Caro Meldrum-Hanna: It’s been wild. We’ve been flooded with so much correspondence; so many emails and letters coming from people who watched. There are a lot of people saying they’ve experiences similar things in different states — children in incarceration. It was maybe idealistic to think this kind of conduct or behaviour was confined to the Northern Territory. It seems it isn’t. This makes the calls for the Royal Commission to expand all the more relevant and meaningful. It isn’t confined to one state.

Definitely. I saw your tweet the other night speaking to that. Are you going to be following up on these? Is there going to be another report?

Absolutely, I will. After Four Corners — I think for this one, we went for eight-and-a-half weeks and then a day off — you just really need to take a few days off to recalibrate your brain. This one really took it out of us. We had a lot of adrenaline too. Contrary to a lot of opinion that this was known about, no one had obtained these videos and no one had broadcast this stuff.

There’s good reason for that; it’s bloody hard to get [the footage]. It took a long time for us to get our hands on that bullet-proof, rock-solid gold evidence of this stuff happening. Talking heads are one thing, and anonymous sources and claims, but actually finding the boys and the guards and getting the vision… not just the vision that we knew about from the public report of tear gassing in 2014, but the stuff in 2010 and 2012. No one had any idea of that; it was highly confidential… and then of course the indelible video of Dylan Voller strapped to the chair. We only managed to obtain that a few days before broadcast. Right to the end it was a massive push.

Can you run me through the process of a story like this? I’m not sure how long an investigation like this would take, how many people are involved… What kind of obstacles do you face to get a piece up like this?

Every Four Corners is different, but you always have a team. There’s a reporter, a producer, a researcher (who’s back at base), and the film crew is a sound recorder and a cameraman. The reporter and the producer work day and night, meeting sources long after filming has stopped. You’re out meeting people, tracking people down, doing surveillance. You’re also writing and putting it together. It is really, really exhausting work. Once you’re ‘in the tunnel’ on a Four Corners you just have to keep going.

I have personally never worked on a harder story than this one — because of what we were up against. We had enormous pushback from the government and from government departments throughout the entire time of making this program. The Department of Corrections opened and closed the door on us four or five times. They allowed us access, then revoked it. We had planned our travel over the level of access the government was going to give us and they took all that back. When we were trying to speak to children, the Department of Children and Families were trying to prevent us from doing that. It was outrageous. At every turn, there were attempts to stop us from doing our job and shining a light on this very dark culture in the Northern Territory.

That was really frustrating but it just drove us along because we knew we were onto something. You don’t get that level of pushback, getting doors opened and closed in your face, being duped and having your time wasted, unless you’re onto something big. They don’t do it unless they’re hiding something.

Have you had similar stories where you’ve had this kind of pushback but haven’t been able to get it over the final line?

Yeah. Like a lot of journalists, you do have failures… But, for Four Corners to commission a piece in the first place, you have to have already ticked a lot of boxes. [It’s] pretty exhausting and such a demand on resources; you don’t waste your time.

I read that once you had a story on the backburner for four years and eventually got it to air. 

That’s right! That was a story about a cult in NSW. Sometimes you do; you put it on the back of the stove, turn the heat down, stay in contact with the sources and subjects, and wait until things are ready.

The other thing is — I think journalists often lose sight of this — is that you are dealing with human beings. You’re dealing with human lives. Personally, I take that responsibility incredibly seriously. I have sleepless nights thinking about how certain people are going to be affected; what’s the emotional and psychological toll on them. I really worry. Perhaps a little bit too much. But, if you’re a journalist doing these stories, you can’t just think about the good outcomes. You have to prepare for the bad too. You have to prepare for people’s feelings to be hurt, for people’s careers to be over (when they’re exposed).

The media is an incredibly powerful beast. You have to maintain your integrity and can’t get caught up in the game.

On that point, what did you anticipate with the response to this piece in particular? Were you surprised by the people immediately calling for a Royal Commission, for instance?

No, I wasn’t surprised that there were calls or a royal commission, but I was surprised by the swiftness with which the Prime Minister announced it, that’s for sure. A colleague said to me, joking, “never before in the history of Four Corners — likely in journalism — have we gone to bed after watching a program at 9.15/9.30 at night and by breakfast the next day we have a royal commission”. It’s incredible the swiftness of the decision.

But that wasn’t acting without thinking. The power of that material and the people in it was so strong it required decisive action. We had a nation outraged. Q&A followed Four Corners that night; the panel had been watching it in the green room (which is pretty unusual) and it just erupted straight after. It was fantastic to see; it was that visceral immediate reaction. Often, the reaction after really big stories when journalists break things, comes with a frustrating lag time between the reception and the digesting of material to action. It’s during that period that the possibility for the required action that’s demanded becomes less and less. Things get wound back. With this, I think the power of the material left no other option.

It led the bulletins all around Europe, America, Asia; it completely exploded. We knew that was going to happen — particularly when I first watched that video of Dylan Voller being placed in that chair. I actually thought I was going to vomit. We watched it in full. You only saw a piece on it on Four Corners. It was so disgusting.

Was there much more [abuse] that made you feel like that, or was it the sheer length of what was happening?

There was more. The guards had him handcuffed with his hands pushed through the food hatch of the cell door. He was half-naked, bent over, and forced to reverse back to his cell with his hands through this food hatch. You just looked at this kid, and you were horrified. You see him being tied down to that chair and he was calm. He was so calm. He didn’t spit at those guards. He didn’t threaten those guards. The remark that placed him in that chair was such a throwaway remark. He was complaining that the guards had taken the mattress away and he said “you’re treating me like a dog, you can’t treat me like this, I want my mattress back”. And they said: “you can’t have it back, you’ll chew it”. And, well. Isn’t that disturbing that there’s a boy chewing his mattress? What does that say about his level of psychological stress?

You just think: this kid is just totally trapped in there. When he turns his head to the camera, and the guards walk out, that’s when I thought I was going to be sick. It was like a horror movie.

Do you still feel tied to the story — do you take it as a responsibility to go further?


There are obviously more calls now, not necessarily on Turnbull, but for other ministers to step down or for the detention facility to close, do you feel like you have to push that issue to keep it moving? 

I don’t think it’s about pushing the issues, rather than telling the story and broader calls if they are being made. I don’t think it’s ‘pushing’ it, because I don’t have an agenda to push. I’m more of a vehicle to tell other people’s stories.

I always say to myself and anyone I’m working with: we’re not making programs to please ourselves, or political groups or advocacy groups. We make programs for Australians. Some people aren’t going to like them, some are, but you can’t be captured by anyone. I always say — it’s a mantra — we report without fear or favour. Without fear or favour. All the time.

You’ve had such a great run with that in your career to date. Four Corners and 7.30 are two shows which do this so well. Do you think it’s increasingly rare that we see places like this — ones that not only follow the mantra but also provide the resources to do these investigations? 

You know, if you asked me that question even six months ago, I’d say yes without hesitation. The outlets where the resources are put into investigative journalism like this are dwindling. But then we saw BuzzFeed roll out that fabulous tennis match-fixing expose. They’re a relatively new outlet, and they don’t operate like traditional media outlets do, but they’ve achieved so much.

I think we should all start appreciating that there are so many ways you can do investigative journalism. It’s not just with the conventional program. We’re going to see more coming out of online and social media-based outlets which are just as good. We’re seeing more investigative journalism than we have in quite some time.

That feeds in well to your talk at Storyology on new technology with Heidi Blake (who wrote the tennis piece). How do you think things are changing with that new technology? Is it something that you engage with at all?

I don’t do it to the extent that BuzzFeed does, so I can’t really comment on it… but I just think there are different ways to do things now. There are different things to harness. Four Corners, for all of its incredible power and might and skill, it’s a resource-intensive program… Television is totally different because it’s just so bloody expensive. It’s apples and oranges. I don’t think you can compare television investigations and what happens online.

That’s an interesting point with this story. TV investigations are difficult in that they’re time-consuming and expensive; you might think that would get cut back as people increasingly watch TV less. But then you get these moments where everyone’s watching and it becomes such a political force. Do you think there will always be a space for the medium in that way?

Absolutely. Nothing rivals the power of television. Nothing rivals the power of an image. We’ve seen that with greyhound racing, we’ve seen that with the Lynette Daley program — the woman who brutally died on the beach after being fisted and bled to death. Nothing beats that imagery.

Also, people are watching more television than ever before, the change is that they’re watching it differently. It’s not all free-to-air television like it used to be, but people are hopping on Stan and Netflix and then they devour it… That’s many more hours that people are consuming than before. Look at Making a Murderer; that was a global phenomenon. People are hungry for this sort of journalism, it’s just now about finding the right platform to get your stories out to more people. The ABC’s Michelle Guthrie has recently talked about utilising things like Netflix to get our stories out.

Absolutely, well the clip which was released for this episode of Four Corners went viral before the show even aired. It now has over 2 million views.

I remember! Our social media editor told us it was going absolutely berserk on social media. That’s how you know it’s going to be a big program — that people are talking about it before it even goes to air.

Before I let you go, I was going to ask: what do you see as your most satisfying moment on the job?

Well, we often say: you’re only as good as your last story. I’ll invoke that.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna is speaking at The Walkley Foundation’s Storyology next Friday. Storyology runs from August 10-13 in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Limited tickets to the Sydney festival are still on sale here.