Ms Kirstie Parker
The Koori Mail
Lecture Four in Reconciliation Australia’s Closing the Gap Conversations Series
I begin by paying my sincere respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional owners of this place.
Thank you also to Reconciliation Australia, for inviting me to give this lecture and contribute to the national conversation we must have if we’re to meet the shared challenge of Closing the Gap between the half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
I have been asked to talk about the role that Australia’s media is and might play in helping to Close the Gap. But I’ll also talk about the kind of relationship we’ll need between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians per se in order to fulfil that presently very distant dream.
It’s not that I think the current Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship is all bad but it doesn’t quite fly either. We see occasional glimpses of what it could be but we’re a bit stuck. We bump up against each other and sometimes quite like it but we’re also careless with each other’s emotions. We make assumptions and take each other for granted. We imagine slights and sweat small stuff – because sometimes it’s the only stuff we have. We generally get through life together but feel vaguely dissatisfied, never quite managing to really ‘take things to the next level’.
I’m not here to berate or harangue anyone – it’s easy to criticise others and much harder to pitch in and help. But we’re going to need more than cash plus a ‘business as usual’ approach to fix this situation where the First Australians come last – pretty much every time.
I will issue a disclaimer here and that is that I’m not trying to speak for or represent all Indigenous Australians. But I speak as an Aboriginal woman and the daughter of another for whom some gaps were insurmountable.
My mother died in 1996 at the age of 54. She was the eldest of 18 kids, ten of whom are now in the grave, nine of them without making it to 50. Mum started her working life aged 11 as a domestic servant (read: slave) before becoming a jillaroo, a cook, a taxi driver, Aboriginal liaison officer, and university arts degree student. Together, she and Dad – a Pom who first came to Australia following a dream of being a ‘cowboy’ – created a pretty good life for me and my sister and brothers. We’ve all had our challenges but thanks to Mum, Dad and Biaime we’re all doing okay.
I have been a journalist for 20 years on and off, the past three as editor of a wholly Aboriginal community-owned newspaper with the biggest guaranteed circulation of any regular Indigenous publication in the country. We don’t claim to know all there is to know about our communities but I think we have a better idea than most, especially about the vast diversity of opinion and the general ‘mood’ out there. I will draw upon all of this insight to make what I hope is a constructive contribution to this conversation.
This lecture is not grounded in new statistics. I have neither the resources to deliver them nor the inclination, given that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already drowning in statistics – though, as is becoming increasingly clear, not all of them targeted where they need to be.
As you’d all be aware, the gap is measured against a wide range of interconnected indicators targeting chronic disease, poor nutrition, access to clean water and sanitation, child abuse and neglect, substance and alcohol abuse, overcrowded housing, and job and income levels.
The facts are that – statistically – fewer Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians make it out of childhood alive but those of us who do are much more likely than other Australians to have trouble reading and writing, having a safe, clean and comfortable place to live, or ever having a job. Statistically, I’m much more likely than my non-Aboriginal neighbour to be bashed by my partner, land in prison, make less money, and end up hooked up on a dialysis machine.
It’s crazy but there’s a risk in just stating those facts. There are those who will happily ignore the complex mix of historical, social and cultural factors behind them and use them in unhelpful ways, furthering the politicisation and demonisation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.
But I don’t believe Indigenous Australians can ask for a hand up and simultaneously deny that there are major problems in our communities. And non-Indigenous Australians can’t paint themselves as decent and fair while doing nothing to alter the status quo. I understand why people do it – self-preservation, ignorance and habit – but I am sick of this dance of misplaced denial, unnecessary diplomacy, accusations and mistrust. Australia will not Close the Gap unless it stops.
The history of The Koori Mail stretches back 18 years, from a time when Indigenous voices received comparatively little exposure through the Australian media. Things have changed; for one thing there’s now often virtual saturation of Indigenous stories in all forms of the media – TV, radio, print and online. Ironically, it is perhaps because of this that Indigenous media are now needed more than ever.
Of course, we weren’t the first Aboriginal newspaper. That honour goes to The Australian Abo Call – the name a sign of the times, if ever there was one – six editions of which were published in 1938 by Aboriginal rights campaigner Jack Patten before a lack of funds forced its closure. Those six editions make for fascinating reading, illustrating how far we both have and haven’t come. If you’re interested (and I hope you are), this historic newspaper is currently on display across the lake as part of the National Museum of Australia exhibition From little things, big things grow: Fighting for Indigenous Rights (1920-1970).
From a public relations perspective, the Close the Gap campaign has been spectacularly successful.
Thanks to the efforts of a very energetic coalition of health and human rights campaigners and politicians from all sides, in less than three years it has found real traction in the Australian community. And, to give credit where credit is due, after decades upon decades of neglect, the promise of billions of dollars in Council of Australian Governments (COAG) funding for Indigenous health is nothing to be sniffed at. Indeed, even the most jaded and exhausted in our communities near fell over when they learned of the good news, then dusted themselves off and welcomed it enthusiastically.
With COAG’s commitment came a real broadening of the Close the Gap campaign, far beyond health and life expectancy to all kinds of other indicators which – if one thinks about for even just a minute – are linked and dependent upon each other.
Of course, funding commitments are all well and good but it is only efficient expenditure of that funding in partnership with our people and organisations that will maximise the returns on this investment for our communities.
In July, Productivity Commission Chairman Gary Banks stood before an audience something like this one. His lecture – the third in this lecture series – posed the question ‘Are we overcoming Indigenous disadvantage?’
Gary – he can call me Kirstie, should we ever meet – spoke of the findings contained in the Productivity Commission’s latest Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage (OID) Report which measures and compares 50 indicators of disadvantage, ‘re-calibrated’ against the six major COAG targets in life expectancy; infant mortality; early childhood education; reading, writing and literacy; Year 12 attainment; and employment.
And it was clear that things weren’t real flash:
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the Productivity Commission’s findings as ‘devastating’. “If you ask me, are we are better placed than we were 18 months ago to get to that point? I think we are,” he told a press conference in Darwin. And, referring the Close the Gap campaign as ‘this bus’, “But you know something, we are barely half a step along the road.”
So not only is the Close the Gap ‘bus’ making very slow progress, in terms of the deficiencies in trend data no-one actually knows where it took off from. And while we all know where we’re headed – that destination of equal life expectancy etc – no-one’s ever been there before so there’s no real roadmap. Unfortunately, no-one has yet really asked those with arguably the best sense of direction: such as people working in Indigenous community-controlled health services.
Since the release of the OID report, we’ve seen a bunch of other reports confirming slow progress or slippage: the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) is behind in the NT; Australian Institute of Criminology reports tell us that Indigenous incarceration rates are at shameful new highs; and the latest report on the NT Intervention – smartly re-badged as ‘Closing the Gap NT’ – shows that reports of child abuse are up, as are convictions but not by as much. School enrolments are up, as is attendance albeit to a lesser degree.
I don’t wish to sound flippant or harsh – I am actually very hopeful – but we all need to remember that the journey doesn’t start and finish with a down-payment on the bus.
Now, I don’t want to go too much further without saying something about the media…alternately the bane and champions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, depending on who has the megaphone. But in truth, a bit of both and everything in between. I can no more legitimately generalise about journalists and their bosses than anyone else can about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There’s been some exceptional, insightful, well-researched reporting on Indigenous issues over the years. Some has exposed funding scandals, government and community indifference, or outright racism. On the other hand, there’s been plenty of appalling reporting too – unbalanced, arrogant, sloppy and much of it reinforcing stereotypes of Indigenous people.
So…how ‘bout them journalists, hey? I’m not sure about you guys but pretty much all the ones I know are drunks. They can really put the grog away! And they’re such stickybeaks; they really think they’ve got a right to know everybody’s business. And lazy…whew! They never let the facts get in the way of a good story…as long as they get their byline, they’re happy. And they’re all in bed with politicians…but at least it keeps the gene pool nice and narrow.
Now, I hope you all realise that I’m not serious. Really…some of my best friends are journalists! I’m not so much joking as trying to illustrate a stereotype. Because stereotypes are at the heart of the problem in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and reporting of Indigenous issues.
Some people might think stereotypes are pretty harmless, a bit of a joke, but perpetuation of them can have very serious consequences.
Take the example, from a few years back, of the internationally renowned Aboriginal opera singer. After experiencing a diabetic turn while sitting on a bus bench on a busy Queensland university campus, this well-dressed Elder was left for dead for hours because passers-by assumed that she was just drunk. It took two international students to ask her if she was okay and call the ambulance that saved her life.
Not so lucky Mr Ward, the Goldfields Elder who died in the back of a prison van last year after a bush JP failed to follow numerous guidelines or apply the most common sense option available to him, and because two prison guards decided it was okay to place Mr Ward in the back of an un-air-conditioned van with just a frozen pie and a small bottle of water and then drive for four hours in heatwave conditions without a single stop.
Then, there’s the more than 15,000 almost exclusively Aboriginal Northern Territorians who are subjected to compulsory income quarantining – not because they’ve been proven to be bad parents but because they live in one of about 80 communities ‘prescribed’ under the NT intervention.
And the countless Aboriginal kids who’re branded trouble-makers or unruly in the classroom because a continual cycle of chronic ear infections prevents them from actually hearing and therefore learning from their teachers.
I’m not trying to pin all of these incidents on the media but they’ve all been fed by stereotypes that the media has contributed to over time.
This media beast is very powerful. Despite the fact that only about one in four Australians thinks the media does a good job of informing the public about important issues, we all absorb a lot of what comes into our homes and offices via the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines and online.
The media beast comes in a range of breeds: from national to local; commercial and publicly-funded; metropolitan and country-based; from esteemed commentators to lowly hacks; and of course, mainstream, ‘ethnic’ and Indigenous. None of these are purveyors of balance or bias alone when it comes to reporting Indigenous affairs.
But if Australians were unlucky and took all of their cues over the most recent period from a particular narrow range of media sources, they could be forgiven for thinking that Indigenous communities are relentlessly miserable, dangerous hellholes presided over by incompetent or corrupt organisations. That every one of our kids roams the streets day and night, out of control and with snot constantly streaming from their noses. That every woman has eyes swollen-shut and teeth missing from beatings from her husband or countryman. And that every house or car has been paid for by (presumably white-only) taxpayers, and then trashed.
‘Here she goes, media-bashing’, I can almost hear some of you thinking. But, hey, don’t shoot the messenger. As one of our readers said to me not so long ago, “If I see one more front page newspaper photo of a forlorn-looking black man or woman sitting on a filthy mattress in an Alice Springs town camp, I’ll vomit.”
I have also heard the following from within our communities:
Despite this long laundry list of Indigenous complaints about the media, few people in our communities really want or expect favours from the media, or for them to just stop reporting on our issues. Even in these times of budget cuts, shrinking newsrooms, growing demands for multi-skilling, and panic about slides in circulation and viewer or listener numbers, we should continue to insist on journalists doing their jobs well – informing themselves of all of the salient facts and then applying the same tests of balance, fairness and accuracy to Indigenous stories as they would to any other. We’ll benefit far more from rigour and high journalistic standards than puff pieces by bleeding hearts.
If the media do tend to focus too much on bad stuff, this can probably be blamed at least partly on the human condition; people are naturally drawn the salacious, the shocking, the juicy. But relentlessly feeding these tendencies can help skew perceptions.
It could also be based upon a well-meaning belief that Australians won’t act to address something terrible or unjust unless they are first shocked, repulsed or horrified. There’s some truth in this but it’s a risky strategy that can backfire if people develop immunity to misery, coming to accept it as the norm. Or, if they feel overwhelmed, forming an opinion that a problem is so big and intransigent that it’s just not worth trying to fix.
If we’re not already there, I think we’re very close to real public fatigue around Indigenous child abuse, violence and alcoholism. And, if you were welded to particular news sources, you’d think these scourges only afflicted Indigenous people.
The upshot of all of this is that, in my view, most Indigenous Australians view the mainstream media with real suspicion. That’s not to say that some of us haven’t become very skilled at using or engaging with the mainstream media – especially individual journalists and organisations – but they’re definitely in the minority.
You might ask why, if things are so bad, the Australian Press Council and similar industry bodies don’t receive more complaints than they do. I think it’s because a lot of Indigenous people have given up; they’ve resigned themselves to never receiving a fair go. What a sad state of affairs.
Undoubtedly, frustration cuts both ways. Indigenous community leaders aren’t always in a mood or space to engage with journalists. They may be disillusioned about previous coverage. They may be exhausted; as leaders, they’re likely to be run ragged on a range of fronts. They may not have the resources to formulate or distribute their analysis or comment on Indigenous issues within a news cycle, before the media turn their interest elsewhere. All quite valid but any vacuum of Indigenous opinion will inevitably be filled by non-Indigenous ‘experts’ and perceptions and that’s less than ideal.
I will concede that some Indigenous people get pretty thin-skinned or hyper-sensitive about criticism but it doesn’t come from nowhere. Mind you, we’re all different. What offends one Indigenous person will bounce off another.
We could argue ‘til the cows come home about whether Indigenous pessimism and disappointment in the media is justified but, as long as it’s a reality, Indigenous Australians can’t efficiently use the media as a vehicle for their views and the media can’t do its job well. And this has major ramifications for the role that media can play in Closing the Gap.
When problems emerge anywhere, people tend to cast around for solutions. ‘Let’s create some new rules, checks and balances to make people do the right thing’, they often think.
But there’s no shortage of useful general and Indigenous-specific protocols, codes and guides: The MEAA’s Code of Ethics, the ABC’s editorial and program policies; Stephen Stockwell and Paul Scott’s All Media Guide to Fair and Cross-Cultural Reporting; and Commercial TV Australia’s advisory note on the portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, to name just a few.
Report after report has made very worthwhile recommendations but unfortunately they’re rarely treated as the newsroom bibles they should be. Nearly two decades on, the media recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) make for instructive reading.
There’s been movement on some of them: various new codes and policies on the presentation of Aboriginal issues; the establishment of an annual award for excellence in Indigenous affairs reporting (now a Walkley category); and greater emphasis on Indigenous affairs in journalism courses.
But there’s still much work to be done. For example, media organisations implementing the RCIADIC recommendation of ‘putting into place training and employment programs for Aboriginal employees in all classifications’.
I trained and began my career as a print journalist in the mainstream media – with The West Australian newspaper in Perth. Today, some 23 years later, I can probably count the number of qualified Indigenous journalists working in print on both hands, perhaps just one. There’s a bigger critical mass of Indigenous journalists in mainstream radio and TV but some of the momentum created by, say, the large intakes at the ABC during the 1980s and 1990s seems to have dropped off. Recent success by the Brisbane-based Centre for Aboriginal Independence and Enterprise (CAIE) in brokering commercial media placements for Indigenous people – notably with Network Seven and Austereo – is a shining light.
Unbeknownst to many Australians, around the country there are more than a hundred small remote radio and television broadcasting facilities, 25 licensed community radio stations in regional and urban centres, several community television services, a new national Indigenous television service, and several multi-media and/or print enterprises including The Koori Mail which goes national, and Land Rights News in the NT.
The very first media recommendation from the Royal Commission related to Indigenous media, and I quote: “Aboriginal media organisations should receive adequate funding, where necessary, in recognition of the importance of their function”.
Let me be clear; the Indigenous media does not currently receive adequate funding. Don’t think I’m angling here for government bucks for The Koori Mail because we neither receive nor want it. We’re in the fortunate position of enjoying a healthy income from advertisers and growing sales and subscriptions.
But the funding pie for the Indigenous public broadcasting sector has remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade; incredible given how vital a feature Indigenous radio stations are in the landscape in our communities. Scrimping on funding to Indigenous public media is like restricting oxygen in our communities. Who will fight for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice? The new Indigenous representative body and others, I sincerely hope.
A long-term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dream was fulfilled in 2005 when the Federal Government announced it would support the establishment of National Indigenous Television (NITV), which is rapidly growing the amount of excellent quality Indigenous TV programming as well as opportunities for Indigenous content makers.
But the advent of NITV created problems too, reducing opportunities for remote communities who previously broadcast their own unique content on what became NITV’s satellite channel.
And just six or so months before NITV’s initial funding runs out, our community still does not know whether or to what extent it will be re-funded. This can’t help but be creating anxiety amongst staff and big problems around planning, commissioning and programming. I can’t imagine anyone putting up with such of uncertainty around funding for the ABC or SBS, so what’s going on there?
Many Indigenous media organisations are members of the Australian Indigenous Communications Association (AICA). Some are thriving and hardy, some less so. Some rely on government funding for their survival, some don’t. Some are better at their jobs than others. But I can confidently say that virtually all enjoy a good deal of affection in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And why not?
Afterall, Indigenous media come from Indigenous communities themselves and, on this basis, are more likely to have similar values. Indigenous media understand that their life force – news and views from within communities – would quickly dry up without good relationships with those communities. Indigenous media don’t pick up Indigenous issues for one news cycle, only to drop them for something more interesting. They can see beyond the dysfunction that the mainstream media tends to lock on to like heat-seeking missiles.
At The Koori Mail, we think any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person – whether expert or ‘everyday’ – who has an interesting story to tell and/or can articulate a compelling view or opinion on matters relevant to our community, you should have an opportunity to do so. It’s not for us to censor or umpire the various perspectives, even though from time to time we see campaigns by forces both within and outside our communities to stymie or shut down alternative views. Genuine, mature discussion is not just our right but also the only way we’ll work through and hopefully resolve the many tough, complicated issues in front of us. This is not a veiled pitch either way on any particular controversial or contentious issue or measure. But when someone dares to step off an established, well-trodden ‘Aboriginal path’ is dismissed as somehow suddenly less Aboriginal… Honestly? That bores me shitless.
Like any minority group anywhere, for Indigenous Australians it's comforting – a thrill even – to see or hear or read about people who look and sound like them. Every fortnight, the faces of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people grace the pages of our newspaper. Those faces can be happy, sad, angry, relaxed, confident, wary, cheeky and much more. The stories that accompany them relay a full spectrum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, in all its glory:
Bored yet? I could go on…and on and on… but my point is that this veritable feast is not something The Koori Mail has to work hard at. It is quite simply life as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know it – complicated, multi-dimensional, depressing at times, inspiring at others. To continue with the culinary theme, this is a smorgasbord that is rarely served up – in full – in the mainstream media. Most menus feature the same old dishes. Australia is missing out on the glorious view just over the rise.
Now, apart from my day job, one of the things I really enjoy is imagining the relationship that I honestly think we – Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – could have with each other, if we just got a few things ironed out.
I love a good analogy and when I was thinking about how best to describe what it is that I and, I think, any other Australians long for in our relationship, plenty came to mind.
The forging of a better relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians might be like Christmas Day for some families. Everyone comes together and is on their best behaviour and then one sibling makes some little comment to another and then, because everyone’s a bit tense, it turns into World War III. At the table will be the neurotic sibling (there’s one in every family but none of us thinks it’s us), and the one who feels they’ve failed if they can’t orchestrate a gathering that runs like Brady Bunch episode. Then there’s the easy-going one who ‘just wishes everyone could just get along’, and the other one who just doesn’t show up (I laughed when my big sister said ‘Sounds like someone we know well!) So there’s a screaming match but, once it’s over, you all feel so much better. You may all annoy the hell out of each other but if any outsider picks a fight with one of you, you’re the first one there.
I long for an Australia that’s a bit like my girlfriend’s softball team. They’re this bunch of loveable misfits. Half of them are party girls, the other half reformed alcoholics. There’s blackfellas and whitefellas, a Quaker, a few Catholics, and some atheists. Some are professionals, others are students and stay-at-home mums. They come in literally all shapes and sizes. Some are loud, others are quiet. They alternately give each other the shits and adore each other. And they often drop the easiest high balls because they’re laughing too much.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the honest, gentle and good-humoured approach that underpins our best personal relationships must also underpin the one between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, including the media.
Again these are just my opinions. Others will no doubt feel differently.
I’d like to conclude now by briefly summarising some of what I’ve already said today and making just a few specific suggestions.
The relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, including the media, is by no irreparable but there’s quite a bit to fix. We’ve grappled with this fact before and come up with some very constructive potential solutions. There’s no need to constantly reinvent the wheel; we can just modify it to suit different, contemporary terrain. To journalists and media organisations – Indigenous and non-Indigenous: Dust off every report relevant to coverage and portrayal of Indigenous issues, read and absorb them.
RCIADIC recommendation 208 said ‘media industry and media unions should encourage formal and informal contact with Aboriginal organisations, including Aboriginal media organisations where available. The purpose of such contact would be the creation of a better understanding, on all sides, of issues relating to media treatment of Aboriginal affairs’.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous media are not wholly different from each other. The things they have in common should be enough to bed down a better exchange than has really happened organically to date. I would like to see someone pick it up and make it happen. Perhaps Reconciliation Australia in consultation with the MEAA, AICA and others? I would like to see every non-Indigenous journalist reporting on Indigenous affairs to sign up for a one-on-one exchange with one of our mob. Each side might, at times, offer the other support or advice of a technical or practical nature, or perhaps insight on nuance or community dynamics. These are all things that can improve standards and inject greater rigour into reporting on Indigenous affairs.
Indigenous organisations including our media must be properly resourced to build their capacity, become qualified and engage in a more robust way. Our organisations must make media training for their spokespeople a priority.
‘Why weren’t we told?’ has become a common refrain from non-Indigenous Australians when confronted with aspects of our shared history. The slow-boil awareness of the Stolen Generations story, topped off by last year’s National Apology, is a classic example. And, increasingly now, the legal battle for stolen wages now being waged in NSW, Qld and elsewhere. Also the theft and other practices that led to the depositing of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s remains in the cupboards, and drawers and shelves of the world’s museums.
‘Why weren’t we told?’ of these things is a good question, and one that must be answered in part by the Australian media.
The media must choose the role it intends to play in Closing the Gap. And we – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – have to choose ours. I hope both will step up.