We must build upon the foundations of Black media

23 Jul 2020

The power of Black media is not just in the ability to report on Aboriginal issues without the oversight of white people who want to control the narrative, but in its accountability.

Last week, veteran Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant became the first Indigenous reporter on ABC’s flagship Four Corners programme.

In a piece on the local Black Lives Matter movement following the tragic killing by police officers of African American man George Floyd, Grant sought to make a point about the blinding whiteness of Australian media.

“Four Corners has been on air for longer than I’ve been alive and I’m the first Indigenous person ever to have reported for it,” he said.

That fact shouldn’t have been shocking, because we know that the Australian media is overwhelmingly white, male, middle-to-upper class, and concentrated in inner-city suburbs. And yet, the reality has become so normalised that it is rarely challenged.

That has changed in this moment in time, as the world galvanised around Floyd’s death. Gomeroi journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber wrote in the Saturday Paper over the weekend: “A fight for diversity has been reignited, with many people of colour harnessing the moment, while we have the country’s attention, to highlight issues and push for real change”. This includes, she says, the fight for diversity in the media.

And yet, this conversation has largely been focused on the mainstream media and how it harms its Black employees. Black journalists are often not safe within these spaces, working within a structure that was ultimately set up to speak both for and above us.

To me though, it highlights where our fight should be: not solely in creating spaces in the mainstream media, but in building upon the foundations already laid by legends of black media. That is because the mainstream media in Australia is set up to preserve the power structures of the majority, at the expense of a minority Indigenous population whose oppression is directly the result of their prosperity. The media is supposed to be a voice for the powerless, but it holds its own power in determining the confines of debate, and the valuation of lives.

When I began my journalism career in 2006, Grant was one of the only nationally recognised mainstream Aboriginal journalists. That was largely because at the beginning of his career, he had refused to be ‘pigeon-holed’ into the Indigenous round, as he stated in his Quarterly Essay.

As a young cadet, I entered a media space in which there were no dedicated Indigenous reporters covering the Indigenous round and there were few mainstream journalists who wanted to cover the beat. That’s not to discount the many Indigenous journalists who have worked tirelessly and unheralded in mainstream newsrooms, particularly within the ABC and SBS (for example, Speaking Out, Awaye!, Living Black and MessageStick), but to note that Aboriginal people telling Aboriginal stories was not seen as an important factor in reporting on us.

It was a time when The Australian newspaper and its right-winged ideology dominated reportage on Indigenous policy and paved the way for the gradual dismantling of any form of self-determination in favour of the paternalistic, neoliberal policies that we are still battling today.

The Australian’s coverage selected only a few black spokespeople to quote, those who had developed profiles in the mainstream built upon telling white people what they wanted to hear.

White Australia did not want to hear about resistance, they wanted to hear about victimhood. White Australia did not want to hear about strength, they wanted us to bear our pain. White Australia did not want to hear about Black aspirations, they wanted to advocate for assimilation.

The Australian newspaper and the journalists who propped up this agenda, putting their hands out for embargoed media releases they published under ‘exclusive’ banners, were never held to account and went onto hold plum gigs at places like the ABC where they fashioned themselves as ‘Indigenous affairs experts’.

That has slowly changed and there are now spaces that have been opened for dedicated Indigenous affairs reporters with the assumption that Black affairs should be covered by us. That doesn’t mean the all-white panels pontificating on policies that directly impact our lives are extinct, but that there is a greater understanding of their consequences.

Yet the conversation on ‘diversity in the media’ is still narrow. It is about creating our ‘exceptions’, like Grant, rather than promoting the value of a truly independent, strong Black media space.

Aboriginal media serves as the voice of our communities. For example, when COVID-19 hit, mob in communities were getting their information from Black community radio, who were broadcasting public health messages from ACCHO’s directly to their audience, both over the airwaves and online via social media.
Aboriginal community radio is a sorely underfunded and neglected media space that is crucial for the health and wellbeing of our communities. And yet they do not rate any mention in talk about ‘diversity’ in the media.

This Aboriginal community radio space, as well as independent Black media like the Koori Mail, are seen as training grounds for Black journalists to jump into the mainstream. Some of our most well-known Aboriginal journalists have come from that background – Brooke Boney, Allan Clarke, even Stan himself. And yet it is missing from the conversation. Wouldn’t it be great to have a Black media space that is not seen as just a beginning, but as an end?

The power of Black media is not just in the ability to report on Aboriginal issues without the oversight of white people who want to control the narrative, but in its accountability. Some of the harshest critics of Black media are Aboriginal community members themselves, because Aboriginal people are the most astute media critics in the country, with the ability to dismantle damaging discourses and representations in their own words, and they are not quiet in doing so (just think of the protests after Sunrise’s all-white panel on Aboriginal child removal).

That critique is important because we know how powerful Aboriginal media is, and the potential it still has within our movements. The challenge should not be in working within white structures, but in building up a powerful Black media that can be at every inquest into black deaths in custody, that can be at every Royal Commission, that can be in the budget lock up and parliamentary inquiries scrutinising government policy, that can uplift our communities and tell our success stories in ways that do not pander to the easement of white guilt. The challenge is to create an Aboriginal media workforce that is well supported and trained to do this.

The issue is not about winning awards like white journos, but in gaining the support and trust of our communities to know that there is always someone listening for those who are so often unheard.


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