Despite a chorus of objections, there is some merit to the accusations of racism recently leveled at the ABC by influential Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson. Though the issue could perhaps do without the kind of splashy fanfare served up by The Daily Telegraph, which implied that Pearson, supposedly a local equivalent of US President Barack Obama, had “schooled” the national broadcaster in the fundamentals of racist representations.
Whether Pearson’s comments were designed to deflect the ABC’s burgeoning interest in a revealing 2014-15 audit of his Cape York Academy initiative or to advance what many ABC stalwarts perceive as the Murdoch-driven overhaul of Aunty, harsh truths were delivered concerning the approach the ABC has to reporting indigenous affairs.
Pearson said the ABC was “willing the wretched to fail”, an allusion, by my estimation, to the broadcaster’s historical fixation with a deficit discourse when it comes to the practices and values of indigenous news coverage. There is an abundance of research into the concept of deficit discourse in relation to Aboriginal affairs, but put simply, it is a dominant focus on the negative aspects of indigeneity which, it is generally accepted, fosters a “victim” mentality in the subjects of the story.
“They need blacks to remain alien from mothers’ bosoms, carceral in legions, living short lives of grief and tribulation,” Pearson went on. “Because, if it was not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations, about whom could they report misery and bleeding tragedy? Between Quadrant’s hard bigotry of prejudice from the right and the ABC’s soft bigotry of low expectations on the left lies this common ground of mutual racism.”
The ABC’s official response pointed to the increase in representation in terms of indigenous content. ABC media manager Nick Leys rightly cited the “extended platform” his organisation has provided, albeit recently, to “a range” of indigenous voices, and its social investment in delivering programs like Redfern Now, Gods of Wheat Street and Black Comedy to broader Australian audiences. But the issue isn’t located in the dearth or surfeit of opportunities offered by the ABC to the Aboriginal commentariat, nor does it reside in the selection of drama and comedic entertainment on ABC Television. The issue sits squarely with ABC News, principally the journalistic practices and values within its newsroom.
It’s not enough to have a set of editorial guidelines for the practices and protocols of reporting on indigenous people sitting in a binder on a shelf. While the ABC may have reinvigorated its journalism training when it comes to cadet programs, there is clearly not enough awareness within the organisation’s senior producers and editorial hierarchy to make the adjustments necessary to do Aboriginal affairs differently. All too regularly, tired formulaic practices and redundant values are resorted to by an overworked and under-resourced newsroom. This is the reason why First Nations people continue to abandon Aunty for alternative news outlets, primarily through social media. This trend brings with it a host of new concerns, but the shift is understandable.
As with the broader “grassroots” Australian electorate more recently, Aboriginal people are reacting to protracted conditions of socioeconomic disenfranchisement and political disaffection by turning to channels that impart measures of agency. Currently, these channels are Twitter and Facebook. But in addition to the agency they afford, these channels also yield more reporting on Aboriginal issues and events by Aboriginal participatory users. New reporting practices and values are in play, and Blackfellas are engaged with it.
In late October I hosted an indigenous panel at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, where we discussed, among other issues, the concept of indigenous representation in the news media. It was established very quickly that effective representation went well beyond placing brown people on news screens. While that intervention may be a strong start, a more systematic fix was required. The panel identified diversity of indigenous perspectives and the lack of indigenous people in senior roles at dominant news organisations as key components to address to improve the quality of Aboriginal affairs coverage, and by extension, the quality of Australia’s reconciliation with its First People.
Twenty minutes after the session concluded, new ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie announced in a fumbling keynote address the appointment of Stan Grant as editor of ABC News’ Indigenous Affairs. At that point it wasn’t clear, even to Guthrie, whether Grant would work exclusively at the ABC or maintain his editorial positions at Sky News, NITV and Guardian Australia, as well as his position at the head of the Prime Minister’s special advisory council on indigenous recognition.
I wrote at the time that I remained ambivalent about the appointment. As it became clear that Grant would commit exclusively to his new position at the ABC, certain concerns softened, but in talking to other Blackfellas it became clear that general scepticism persists. Grant, like Noel Pearson, is not held in the same regard in Black Australia as he is in middle White Australia. This view is not informed by “old guard” resentment of a rapidly emerging indigenous middle-class. It comes back to the matter of diversity of perspective. That and the demonstrable fact that the ABC, along with every other dominant news organisation in this country, has historically limited the range of voices permitted onto their platforms and restricted the frames of reference for reporting Aboriginal affairs.