Here’s a brief rundown of Australia’s media diversity over the past 40 years. It starts in 1977, when 8-year-old Irfan Yusuf was forced to watch the news for one hour with his mum. It was Channel 10’s Eyewitness News with a blonde Anglo lady named Katrina Lee accompanied by an Anglo bloke whose name now escapes me. The closest thing to a “woggy” or “desi” looking reporter on that show was Eddy Meyer.
On Monday, I met Eddy for the first time at the Sydney launch of Media Diversity Australia, a new group of young media practitioners who share one thing in common – they don’t look anything like Katrina Lee. Then again, they also don’t look like me or my mum. But they are committed to making sure Australian media, its faces and its stories, are more reflective of the reality of Australia.
If you watch most commercial news channels, you’d think Australia was only located in Toorak or Mosman. Reporters that look like the Asian fruiterer where my mum buys mangos, or my Sydney-born dentist of Pakistani heritage, or my best mate’s Tokyo-born wife, rarely get a chance to report on Australia as it really is. For years, the only Indian bloke on Australian television was Apu from the Simpsons. Even today, despite Lee Lin Chin and Stan Grant and Fawzia Ibrahim, our mainstream media seems to largely operate a White Australia Policy.
Waleed Aly was guest speaker at Monday night’s launch. He spoke about the intersection of media and diversity and why both producers and consumers should care. Aly argued that in many cases the established house style in many newsrooms is to commit to an error, to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, whether it be the pronunciation of names. He used the example of Kerobokan Prison in Bali whose name he was ordered to mispronounce on radio despite knowing better.
So how do we get around this replication of error? Well, for a start, such errors wouldn’t happen if we had more people in our newsrooms who spoke Bahasa Indonesia. Gosh, how hard is that? Aly described it as a kind of narrowcasting of the newsroom.
Part of the role of journalism is to make those in power more accessible to those they claim to represent. It allows punters to poke fun at politicians, including the very white skinned ones that often don’t possess enough Australianness to sit in Parliament.
Media is an essential element of our civil society. Yet in Australia, our civil society consists of people of all colours and textures, speaking all kinds of languages. Let’s consider Muslims, too often the flavour of the month. How does one generalise about a group that includes migrants from over 180 different countries? Then we read about this thing called the “Chinese community” which should lead people to wonder whether we are talking about Lee Lin Chin’s family from Singapore or Beverley Wang’s family from Taiwan? Do all Mandarin-speaking Aussies subscribe to the Xi Jinping Thought On Socialism With Chinese Characteristics For A New Era as their guiding ideology?
If private citizens of all backgrounds cannot access or participate in media and similar institutions, it leads to a serious democratic deficit. Yet the number of people from diverse backgrounds in mainstream media are so small that they can be identified by name.
Aly wryly noted that the less visual the medium (such as print and online), the more diversity is tolerated. It’s as if the industry doesn’t want us to see and hear diversity, only to read it.
Perhaps the only diversity on commercial television is in reality TV. After all, you can’t stop black and brown and yellow people from cooking or building houses. But what of more scripted shows?
Media diversity is an important issue not just for the industry but also to its consumers. If all the mainstream media can throw at us by way of diversity is Waleed Aly, I’m sorry but that’s just not good enough. And Waleed agrees with me.