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On-screen diversity is important but what happens offscreen is paramount

On a Saturday afternoon in June, I put on my mask and caught the train to Sydney’s city centre. On the way there was good news – the protest had just been declared legal. I arrived at Town Hall to one of the largest deaths-in-custody rallies Sydney has ever seen.

This was a dizzying time. In the weeks before this moment, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the death of George Floyd, had supercharged the conversation in Australia surrounding race and Indigenous deaths in custody. At work we saw a surge in interest in Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside database, which at the time had counted 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission (that number is now even higher). That protest in Sydney was one of dozens held around the country. Nationwide, the number 432 was scratched, painted and drawn on signs and bodies as people took to the streets.

And then, at 4.32pm, the protest stopped. Alongside thousands of others, I knelt in the streets as the crowd went still – a minute of silence for David Dungay Jr and the hundreds of others gone.

This movement also led to a series of reckonings, small and large, on race and representation in many industries, including Australian media. As organisations and communities attempted to respond to this moment, many looked inward, to their own treatment and representation of Indigenous people, and were found wanting.

In the past few months shows like Insiders and Four Corners on the ABC included an Indigenous host or panellist for the first time. More than 100 journalists signed an open letter addressed to the Melbourne Press Club’s chief executive and chair asking for racial diversity on its all-white board. Then, in late June, a former SBS employee and Indigenous cadet, Kodie Bedford, posted about the years of bullying and racial abuse she was subjected to at our multicultural public broadcaster, in a Twitter thread that quickly went viral.

As a former Indigenous cadet at SBS myself, reading her post was horrifying and familiar, like remembering a bad dream. It opened a floodgate, with many former employees, including myself, posting about the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt forms of racism we experienced there.

In response, well-meaning friends and former colleagues reached out with kind words. “I’m sorry you experienced that.” “OMG is SBS racist now?” Others in SBS management reached out, afraid that I was posting about them, that they were the problem.

All of these messages missed the point. The point is not whether one organisation is racist, or if any one individual is racist – it’s that Australian media as a whole is often an uncomfortable and unwelcoming place for young diverse journalists. We should not be shocked by individual moments of racism in a system that’s so incredibly white.

When I left SBS in 2019, in the news and current affairs division, barring NITV, the head of every single program was white. After Kodie’s tweet it was revealed that SBS employees were circulating an open letter calling for the director of news role to be filled by a member of Australia’s multicultural or minority community. Since 1978 that position has been filled – with one exception – by Anglo-Celtic men.

If you’re surprised reading that information, you’re not alone. About this time a photo of SBS’s largely non-diverse leadership team was posted online by the writer Michelle Law, with the words “what in White hell”. I saw a former SBS colleague comment underneath: “THANK YOU. FINALLY”.

The lack of diversity in TV is not just a problem at SBS. By many measures, SBS is a shining example (or at least the best we have). A report released last week by non-profit organisation Media Diversity Australia provided a damning snapshot of diversity in TV, finding that “news and current affairs media does not represent all Australians”.

For this report they conducted a two-week study of every face seen on Australian news programs. They found that just 6% were from an Indigenous or non-European background, despite the fact that these groups account for about a quarter of the Australian population.

There was also an extraordinarily low representation of Indigenous presenters, commentators and reporters on all networks. Channel 10 has the highest representation with 5.4%. But Channel Seven and Nine had none (in the period analysed), and SBS only 0.2% (this report excludes NITV, as the authors believed it would “skew the results from SBS” – a decision that was queried by NITV staff). Instead, most of these coveted roles were filled by one cultural group, with more than 75% of presenters and journalists on Aussie TV from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

This report was groundbreaking – concrete proof at last of a problem that had been staring us in the face. But the majority of the coverage about it focused on the on-screen talent. I would argue that the lack of diversity in the powerful positions offscreen are much more important.

Firstly, the higher up the food chain, the worse this picture gets. Outside NITV, this report found that 100% of free-to-air television national news directors in Australia have an Anglo-Celtic background (and they are also all male). At the top, the board members of Australian free-to-air television are also overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic. Within this group of 39 board members/leaders, there is only one who has an Indigenous background and three who have a non-European background.

This is where the power is in Australian TV news. These are the people setting the agenda for news coverage, signing off who gets promoted and who gets hired. We need people in these roles with lived experience of Australia’s many cultural groups originating, informing and guiding these stories from start to finish. We need leaders on all levels who understand the importance of representation in the media, because they themselves have shouldered the burden of representation and wish to make a world where others of non-Anglo heritage see themselves on and off screen. The consequences of doing otherwise are stark.

In my short TV career I saw young, diverse reporters pitching incredible stories, securing exclusive interviews and finding unique angles from their communities that only they could find, only to be met with discouraging words from a clueless news manager. I also saw much of what Kodie described – a bewildering approach to “mentoring” young Indigenous journalists. I was told by one white manager that NITV hadn’t taught me “proper journalism” and regularly overheard similarly demeaning comments.

A reminder – this is Australia’s “most diverse” TV network, and basically the only designated organisation in Australian media for young Indigenous and diverse reporters to grow. Yes, this is the best we have, but it’s not the best we should expect.

It’s been nearly three months since that protest in Sydney. After a deluge of companies issuing statements of solidarity and commitments to “do better” on diversity and Indigenous representation, I’m beginning to see a shift. SBS has promised a suite of changes to hiring and management. Across the media there’s a new hire here, a new face there. If those statements meant anything, this can’t be a one-off commitment, a guest host. We need all levels of our media to reflect our society and that will take seismic, structural change.

This first appeared in The Guardian here.

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