SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's most-read newspaper apologised for its coverage of a massacre two centuries ago in which it campaigned against prosecuting colonists who slaughtered dozens of Indigenous people, saying "truth is an essential force for reconciliation".
Though Australia's history since European arrival in 1788 is replete with colonial violence against the original inhabitants, the Myall Creek massacre of June 10, 1838, is seen as a turning point because of its brutality and the fact it sparked the first criminal charges for settler violence against First Nations people.
About 28 sheltering Indigenous women, children and elderly men were decapitated with swords or stomped to death by horses, their bodies later burned, while one woman was kept to be raped over the following days, according to historians.
But the Sydney Morning Herald, in an editorial posted at the top of its website on Friday, said it had "failed dismally" at the time by publishing articles calling for the attackers to be spared prosecution and, once found guilty, spared the death penalty.
"Today's generation is not responsible for the sins of earlier ones, yet we can help heal old harms nonetheless," the Nine Entertainment-owned paper said. "The capacity to recognise a past wrong is a sign of a strong future."
The unusual editorial reflects a mood of atonement that is building in Australia as the government plans a referendum, expected between October and December, on whether to change the constitution to include an Indigenous advisory body to parliament.
Most polls suggest the country will vote in favour of the change, although the lead is narrowing as opponents, including the federal opposition, warn it would divide Australians.
The Herald, which gets the most website visits of any Australian news outlet, according to industry data, invoked the referendum in its editorial to mark the 185th anniversary of the massacre for which seven people were ultimately found guilty of murder and hanged.
"As Australia prepares for a referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians later this year, the nation is thinking deeply about what reconciliation looks like in 2023," it said. "So too is the Herald."
(Reporting by Byron Kaye. Editing by Gerry Doyle)