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Power and the pressRape Allegations In Black and White
As australia's most powerful aboriginal leader, Geoff Clark is used to seeing his picture on the front page of the nation's newspapers and facing the grillings of media scrums. In his job overseeing the billion-dollar annual purse of Australia's peak indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, chairman Clark must regularly account for that organization's actions. Now he is being called to account for alleged actions of his own. Last week the Melbourne Age and its sister newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald published allegations by four women that Clark had raped them in the 1970s and '80s.

Running its article under the front-page headline geoff clark: power and rape, the Age left little doubt that it believed Clark guilty. The atsic chairman, against whom rape and assault charges relating to one of the women mentioned in the article were dismissed last year at committal, described the claims as "outrageous — totally unacceptable behavior by the media." But Age editor and associate publisher Michael Gawenda says the paper had a duty to print what it had discovered in a three-month investigation: "What we have done is what any decent newspaper or magazine would do when confronted with such compelling evidence."

Three of the four women quoted in the article had already had their claims investigated by Victorian police-but, apart from the one that went to committal, none of the cases has gone any further. "After consultations with the Office of Public Prosecutions, the matters will not be proceeded with at this stage," a police spokesman says. So has the Age put Clark on trial where the courts would not? That's not the media's job, says Gawenda. "There is a difference between something being true and something being proven in a court of law," he says, especially given, in this case, the time that has passed since the alleged offences took place. "We are not trying him or meting out any punishment. The media doesn't convict people of crimes."

Clark's has been an often-fiery voice for many years in Australia's black-white dialogue. But when he talks about his enemies, he's often referring to foes within the indigenous community. He says they're campaigning to topple him, with a little help now from accomplices in the media. Nonsense, says Gawenda, who points to his paper's strong advocacy of reconciliation and support for Clark's organization. What's more, he says, "we could discover no reason why [the women] would be part of any conspiracy to damage Geoff Clark."

Whatever the truth of the claims, many observers are disturbed that the press has been the forum for such serious allegations. "Everyone's innocent until proven guilty," said Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks. "I don't think there should be trial by public exposition or media."


Prickly Issue
Aquarium enthusiasts who want to create their own miniature Great Barrier Reef may soon have to settle for plastic coral castles. Commercial coral harvesting on the world's biggest reef will be phased out, Australia's Federal environment minister Robert Hill confirmed last week. Licensing operators to cart away up to 100 tons of coral a year from 50 football-field sized areas inside the 2,000-km-long national park is incompatible, the minister said, with fining tourists up to $A110,000 for trying to take a piece of the reef home.

But some coral experts say the ecological impact of current harvesting is negligible; the losses "are easily replaced by coral's natural recovery process," says Cooperative Reef Research Centre coral biologist Vicky Harriott. The phase-out hasn't impressed the Queensland Fisheries Service, the aquarium industry-and the 36 licensed harvesters, who say they were not consulted about a decision that could bankrupt them. Public aquariums will still be able to collect limited quantities of live coral for educational purposes.