Throughout much of the 20th century, language and meaning in Australia were strictly governed. Until recently, there was little awareness of the fact. Mostly because it affected Aboriginal people. You see, language and meaning are imbued with power and jurisdiction. Which is to say that language and meaning are capable of conferring, subverting – or preserving – sovereignty.
Australia’s Commonwealth has a grubby history of implementing policies designed to extinguish the sovereignty of Australia’s original people. Arguably, the most insidious of these involved outlawing the practice of First Nations languages on state-run Aboriginal reserves. As this was done under the guise of assimilation by state agencies such as the Aboriginal Protection Boards, it’s fair to say that Australia has always recognised the central role language and meaning plays in fostering identity.
Today, the promotion of First Nations languages in Australia is increasingly celebrated. It is a key path in the Aboriginal “resurgence” movement and even features prominently in a raft of recent recommendations to the federal government to recognise the continent’s First Nations peoples in the amendment of the Australian constitution. But in many ways, the impacts of the Commonwealth’s assimilationist policies of the last century are perpetuated in Australian society by contemporary media practices.
Until recently, I was a daily editor with the popular Aboriginal online media outlet, IndigenousX. In that role, I was regularly contacted for advice by media professionals about responsible reporting when it came to covering Indigenous affairs. It appears that within the media industry, and more specifically the news media industry, there is increasing anxiety about getting the job done with integrity: to do no harm.
Responding to the trend, IndigenousX began working with Oxfam and the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism to develop a bespoke curriculum for improving journalistic practices in representing blackfellas within the news media. Simply put, we wanted to take specialised “lunch-hour” workshops – largely drawn from existing protocol guidelines, though updated to include responsibly utilising social media and other online tools – into the “big” newsrooms of Australia’s legacy media.
Expanding on that thinking, we also wanted to develop a specialised basic journalism curriculum to take into Aboriginal communities, one that could empower Aboriginal people by continuing to develop their own participatory journalism skills.
Our intention was to infiltrate and disrupt the routines of the news media industry in Australia, and to forge new news systems that produce improved representation for First Nations peoples.
When speaking publicly about the representation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia’s news media, I try to situate my understanding of difference and Representation. Firstly, I want people to know what I’m talking about when I talk about Representation. Secondly, I don’t want to perpetuate a notion about accommodating difference. Like many other Aboriginal people, I reject “assimilation” and urge potential white allies to acknowledge difference. As Audre Lorde wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.”
When I consider Representation, I use the framework of the black cultural theorist and political activist Stuart Hall, who reminds us from the outset that Representation has a double meaning. According to Hall, Representation means “to stand in for”, as in, “a representative of the people”. It also means to depict or present something that was already “there”, to re-present a “thing”, otherwise termed as a “text” by cultural theory wonks.
In regard to Aboriginal affairs in the Australian news media, these two strands have traditionally come together in a manner that has created frustration within and between First Nations communities.
Until the last seven or eight years, the gate to the first strand of Representation was well guarded. There was next to no reporting on Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people; negligible Aboriginal influence on the product of Aboriginal affairs journalism; and only a select group of Aboriginal perspectives were ever accessed by the media industry. These were the voices of prominent Aboriginal public figures such as Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine. These kinds of figures were habitually approached by the media and often provided with an exclusive platform to express their views.
This situation became increasingly problematic as these figures were perceived by less “amplified” First Nations communities to be representing community positions in various policy forums without either the traditional, cultural or democratically elected authority to do so. So much so, that tension generated during this media industry practice continues to play out in the nation’s Indigenous public spheres to this day.
Since 2011, the rapid popularity of social media in Australia, and the inverse failure of “big” news media business models in the face of incredible innovation within digital technologies, has completely opened up the mediascape to a proliferation of new, different Aboriginal voices. The potential of this development is particularly dynamic in combination with Hall’s consideration of Representation’s second strand.
Hall points out that nothing is already “there”. There is no “true meaning” to exist as a baseline for measuring the integrity or distortions of re-presentations of “texts”, because meaning is always derived from interpretation and evaluation through systems of classifications. We, as humans, draw on these systems of classifications – these taxonomies and typologies – to make sense of things, to inscribe or re-inscribe meaning.
Basically, this processing system for meaning is very similar to the way that a regular search engine operates. It’s even the framework with which software engineers and programmers try to recreate, or replicate human intelligence in more advanced digital technology like artificial general intelligence cognition, otherwise known as Full AI.
These classification systems are constructed and seasoned by systems of texts, such as facial responses, units of language, images as signs. It’s also a system of “things” that news media utilises to communicate its messages and meanings to consumers.
One reason why it’s so important that Aboriginal people determine their own representations and narratives in news media is because of the hierarchies of classification inherent within a predominance of non-Indigenous systems of interpretation and classification. Or, to be blunt, because of systematised white supremacy within the news industry’s newsrooms and boardrooms.
When the final report of a four-year-long royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was tabled 27 years ago, four recommendations specifically addressed the practices, protocols and cultural awareness of the news media in Australia in relation to First Nations peoples.
Those four recommendations – amongst a total of 339 – remain significant for several reasons. They are an acknowledgement from the commission of the importance of representation to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people. Even today, in an atomistic social environment saturated with digital media, the potency of media representation and its relation to cultural and political agency is generally not as fully appreciated as it should be.
The recommendations also suggested that Australian Commonwealth governments needed to reconsider their own perspectives of Aboriginal people, specifically in light of formulating, implementing and reassessing policy that impacts upon First Nations peoples. Perhaps most importantly, recommendations 205 through 208 provide a handy entry point for much activity in what is now being termed the “Blak” news media.
Under the subheading Accommodating Difference: Relations Between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal People, recommendation 205 exhorts that “Aboriginal media organisations should receive adequate funding in recognition of the importance of their function.” Clause b proposes that all media organisations should develop protocols related to the presentation of Aboriginal issues, the founding of media monitoring bodies and the implementation of training and employment programs for Aboriginal workers in all classifications.
Recommendation 206 advocates that the media industry and relevant unions recognise excellence in the reporting of Aboriginal affairs through awards, thus fostering more considered journalistic practices. Recommendation 206 also argues that the adjudication of said awards should include Aboriginal people.
Recommendation 207 urges journalism schools to develop and provide course units on Aboriginal affairs. This too is to promote more responsible, contextual reporting of the issues affecting Aboriginal people. Then, in recommendation 208, comes the kicker: “Aboriginal people throughout Australia express disappointment in the portrayal of Aboriginal people by the media,” it states, before suggesting that the media industry and unions should encourage contact with Aboriginal organisations for the purpose of cultural exchange and improved understanding “of issues relating to media treatment of Aboriginal affairs”.
The four recommendations emerged from a detailed investigation into wider issues leading to the disproportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration, as much as they spoke to the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody and detention. They were informed by scores of research papers, public submissions and hearings, all synthesised and considered by the commissioners and their research associates.
Clause b of recommendation 205 states, “All media organisations should be encouraged to develop codes and policies relating to the presentation of Aboriginal issues, the establishment of monitoring bodies, and the putting into place of training and employment programs for Aboriginal employees in all classifications”.
Since 1991, and certainly in the last half-dozen years, we’ve seen more Indigenous cadetships offered at the dominant news organisations, but after 27 years, how many Aborigines are in influential senior producer roles within the major news organisations? How many are on the senior executive?
The representation of Aboriginal affairs in Australia’s “dominant” media today is often just as atrocious as it was during any decade prior to the submission of the inquiry’s final report in 1991.
Earlier this year, commercial broadcaster Nine News Queensland aired a feature story in response to a $30m settlement paid by the Queensland state government to 442 Palm Islander residents over the actions of Queensland police following the 2004 death in police custody of 36-year-old Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee. Rather than focussing on the details of the police actions that were deemed by a Federal Court in 2016 to have seriously breached Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, the Nine News story centred on the experiences of a former police detective, Kathy Richardson, who in 2004 had been temporarily posted to the small tropical island located off the coast of North Queensland.
Queensland prime-time viewers were informed that Richardson – a non-indigenous woman – was left traumatised by the behaviour of a local Aboriginal man named Lex Wootton during the community uprisings that followed Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death. Richardson told Nine News that Wootton and other black Palm Island residents ruined her career in the Queensland police, and consequently Wootton owed her an apology. In a effort to obtain it, Nine News “door-stopped” Wootton in his back yard, with Richardson in attendance, loitering in focus beyond the fenceline on the perimeter of Wootton’s yard.
The setup unfolded over the next three-and-a-half minutes into representations of Wootton the Aborigine costing Australian taxpayers over $34m; Wootton as a sexually violent, murderous and sociopathic Aborigine; and Aborigines in general being verbally offensive. The kinds of representations of Aboriginal people that flourished during the early and middle decades of the 20th century were, sadly, still present in Australia’s news media. In terms of ticking the boxes of just about all the racialised stereotypes of Aboriginal people held by bigoted, non-Indigenous Australians, Nine News Queensland’s story was an outstanding success.
It wasn’t an isolated news incident either. In March, on commercial broadcast Channel Seven, there was the Sunrise program’s treatment of the issue of vulnerable Aboriginal children being removed from their parents and placed with white, non-Indigenous families. This involved an all-white panel invoking ghosts of past White Australia assimilation policies just a month after the 10th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Forget, for a moment, the insensitivity and offence caused to inter-generationally traumatised Aboriginal peoples: the basis for the segment eventually turned out to be premised on a mis-quote from Australia’s then Federal Children’s Minister David Gillespie. That segment provoked a series of protests, led by Aboriginal activist groups, outside the filming of subsequent Sunrise broadcasts. In a staggering display of cultural and historical ignorance, the program’s producers then literally attempted to erase these Blak demonstrations using a wall of digital screens depicting a more acceptable and serene streetscape outside the studio windows.
This episode perfectly encapsulates the way the racist colonial project in Australia persists, sustained by the professional decision-making and production values of the news media. And it will continue to do so – despite the best efforts of Blak media agitators – until there are more First Nations peoples working at all levels within dominant media.
Just as online activism has in fact has proven to be an effective mechanism for mobilising participant-users towards more traditional forms of social movement (based on what the Canadian journalist-author Malcolm Gladwell terms as “close-ties” in “bricks and mortar” spaces), outlets such as IndigenousX will also be limited by the mainstream discourse. It may never sufficiently shift broad public sentiment and in turn pressure Australia’s key institutions to redress the inequality and disadvantage that impacts the lives of First Nations peoples.
The phenomenon of IndigenousX and the popular social media accounts of writer-activists such as Celeste Liddle, Amy McQuire, Chelsea Bond, Natalie Cromb, Nayuka Gorrie and a diverse network of others participating in the Blak media movement has undoubtedly reassembled Aboriginal representation in online “niche audience” spaces. But collaboration with “establishment media” remains essential for wider change to occur. The objective is to “reconcile” its industry practices to better represent Blak interests, rather than be co-opted into the reproduction of the status quo.