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The trailblazer

By Mark Baker  

Journalist Jan Mayman pioneered reporting of Indigenous deaths in custody

Jan would hate this. She never liked the limelight, constantly doubted her talent and was always self-effacing, unsure of her place on the margins between Black and white Australia where she had such a profound impact for good.

Her humility as much as her humanity was perhaps the secret of her success, why those for whom she fought so passionately and tenaciously throughout her life trusted her and shared their stories – and why she was able to pierce the defences of the powerful to reveal often shocking truths.

Jan Mayman, who has died at the age of eighty, was the most important journalist of her generation in exposing the systemic cruelty, neglect and injustice suffered by Indigenous Australians – long before most of the mainstream media were awakened to that grim and abiding reality.

For Jan, the turning point came in a hotel in the town of Roebourne on the northwest coast of Western Australia in 1983. A teacher friend had told her the alarming story of a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal boy who had died in police custody in Roebourne after a brawl with police officers. She flew north from Perth to investigate.

After the Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer refused to talk to her, a tall Aboriginal man approached: “I’d never met him before, he just beckoned me and I sort of followed him… He led me to a hotel room and he had eight Aboriginal people, all men, and they were lined up sitting on two beds and he said, ‘Tell her.’ And they all told me this shocking story.”

John Pat had joined a drunken confrontation with four off-duty policemen outside the Victoria Hotel on the evening of 28 September 1983. According to the witnesses, he was struck in the face by one policeman and fell backwards, striking his head hard on the roadway. Another officer kicked Pat in the head before he was dragged to a waiting police van, kicked in the face, and thrown in.

Other witnesses, who had been across the street from the police station, said Pat and several other Aboriginal prisoners were beaten as they were taken from the van and, one after another, dropped on the cement path. Each was then picked up, punched to the ground, and kicked. According to one observer, none of the prisoners fought back or resisted. An hour later, when police checked on Pat in his cell, he was dead.

The dramatic story was accepted by Age editor Creighton Burns, who ran it on the front page. The subsequent inquest, which led to the four policemen being charged with manslaughter, triggered the public outcry that precipitated the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Jan Mayman’s reporting earned her a Gold Walkley, the highest accolade in Australian journalism.

It would be the first of many powerful stories detailing injustice over the next four decades. These included more cases of abuses and deaths in custody, the plight of stolen generations survivors and the battle to protect sacred Aboriginal lands against the encroachment of mining – notably the epic struggle by the Yindjibarndi of the Pilbara against Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metals.

Jan became a champion of Indigenous rights with an unlikely colonial pedigree. Her grandfather, George Mayman, was a pioneering gold hunter and mine owner in the Kalgoorlie goldfields.

She was never comfortable in the tough, ego-driven world of journalism, where she was always an outlier, a freelancer who worked for some of the biggest newspapers in Australia and overseas but was never really embraced by the mainstream. Her independence was an asset, but she always struggled to earn enough money and was fearful of ruinous litigation without the guaranteed backing of a monied publisher.

She was both a powerful reporter and an elegant, evocative writer – a rare combination in journalism. While her investigative journalism was compelling, her writing captured the beauty of Aboriginal lands and powerful mystery of Indigenous traditions.

A generation before the killing of George Floyd in the United States ignited the Black Lives Matter movement around the world, Jan Mayman had exposed the ugly truth of endemic racism and abuse in Australia to a largely indifferent or ignorant mainstream audience.

The royal commission triggered by her journalism promised a sea change. Its 339 recommendations lit the path to reducing deaths in custody, imprisonment rates, inequality and disadvantage. “Few Australian royal commissions have attracted stronger, more passionate media attention than the 1991 final report,” journalist Wendy Bacon would write. The failure of that promise of change broke Jan’s heart.

The issues on which she fought so hard remain as far from resolution as ever. In the thirty years since the royal commission, almost 500 more Aboriginal people have died in custody. To John Pat’s name have been added others whose deaths are etched in shame – Mulrunji Doomadgee, Mr Ward, Ms Dhu. But most are forgotten numbers on a roll without end.

 

This article was originally published on Inside Story and has been reproduced with permission.

 

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7 comments

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  1. tess lawrence

    G’day Dear Mark, thank you so much for writing this poignant and authoritative memoir about this mighty woman whose heart was as strong as her pen.

    With her work on the murder of John Pat and other atrocities against indigenous youth and communities, she kicked in the doors of the police divvy vans and the walls of police corruption and white racism, to show Australia – and the rest of the world – the corpses that are known notoriously as ‘ Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.’

    Her indefatigable work led to the Royal Commission. We would be forgiven for thinking little has changed since then. But Jan forced some Editors and publications to at least acknowledge what was happening.

    The fight for Justice is far from over. Jan’s courage to get into the ring has since inspired several generations of journalists, including indigenous journalists, to continue the fight – and to expose those institutions that still indulge in and perpetuate such racism.

    In earlier days, Jan and I spent time together and she would stay with me when visiting Melbourne. I learned so much from her.
    She remains a hero to me. She was so modest. Her words were as fire sticks to white racism and the indifference shown to the deaths in custody.

    To her, indigenous lives mattered. So too their deaths.

    Thank you Mark, for saluting our journalist sister, Jan Mayman. She left Australia a better place than when she found it. I know the toll this work took on her, the emotional grief. She fought on, knowing that for indigenous families and communities, this was, and still remains – a daily reality.

    She was regarded as a sister to so many indigenous Australians, who trusted and confided in her.

    I hope that my peers and press clubs and associations – and universities – consider a prize in her name and perhaps amalgamate the names of Jan Mayman and john Pat.

    No history of indigenous affairs and/or journalism would be complete without the name of Jan Mayman being writ large.

    Goodby Sister, you will always be in my heart, and you will always fuel my pen.

    tess xxx

  2. Roswell

    Thank you for this tribute, which had enlightened me.

  3. Kate Ahearne

    Hi, Mark. Thanks so much for this lovely piece. What a wonderful woman she was! An inspiration to all who grieve over the injustices of the world. But such a sad statistic: ‘In the thirty years since the royal commission, almost 500 more Aboriginal people have died in custody.’ I hope lots of people will read your piece.

    Tess,

    How wonderful for you to have known her! Not difficult to see why she has been such an inspiration for you. And thanks for the extra info.

  4. tess lawrence

    Dearest Kate, the stats you quote, just crush me. It was always a joy to welcome her into my home. I had a vast and comprehensive library, before the NAB and McKean Park lawyers illegally took it away from me. She would spend hours, reading and researching.
    I did my best to make her feel at home, and the ‘ red room’ was also known as ‘ Jan’s room.’ Although she was always working, I tried to ensure my company could help her with everything she may need, in terms of recording equipment and so on. Plus, she was always very polite at my cooking, to this day, all meals are known as ‘ splodge. She said I should do a cookbook on Splodge and she would write the foreword.

    She endured such psychological pain, in the sense that we all looked to her for guidance and clues as to how best to get a story out – how to expose the corruption and racism that still infects Justice for the indigenous community. Plus, she was always juggling so many cases.

  5. Michael Taylor

    It disturbs me that so few of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into the deaths in custody have actually been implemented. It’s just not right.

    I ran into a bloke I used to play footy with in Adelaide. He is now a police officer. When I told him that I was doing Aboriginal Studies at uni he told me he is disgusted at the way his fellow officers treated Aboriginal people. Some, when seeing an Aboriginal driving a car would always pull them over under the suspicion that the car had been stolen.

    About a year later I ran into him again. This time the news was more positive. Every officer in his unit were now required to complete two subjects at uni. One was “An introduction into Aboriginal Cultures.” I forget the other one, but it was something else to do with Aboriginal Studies.

    In Canberra I was talking to an ex-NSW copper, who had know idea I was working for ATSIC. He proudly told me that him and other fellow officers would bash up Aboriginal prisoners. When I angrily asked why, he said “Because they’re Aborigines.” What a nasty bastard.

    I’d better stop there or I’ll be writing for the next two hours. I’ve some horror stories from my ATSIC days in Port Augusta and Coober Pedy. Perhaps I’ll leave them for another day.

  6. DrakeN

    “It disturbs me that so few of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into the deaths in custody have actually been implemented. It’s just not right.”
    But Right, in a politcal sense.
    The feeling of white supremacy, the ‘correctness’ of subjugating the indigenous peoples of this land and an ingrained ‘otherism’ which afflicts a huge portion of the Australian community.
    I moved into a small country town nearly 24 months ago; other than one meeting – with a recently arrived couple – no-one within this little tight knit community has deigned to call in to welcome us, to offer advice, information nor help for a couple of aged, impecunious and invalided pensioners.
    The tribalism is profound.

  7. RosemaryJ36

    I am a dual citizen, and take no pride in either of those two nations.
    The damage done, all round the world by colonialism might not all be laid at Britain’s door, but their version of. Christianity has stalked the LGBTIQ mob.
    And Australia just does not seem able to grow up!

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