Influencing the public discourse: Racism, Sunrise, Alan Jones et al

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Indigenous protesters disrupted Seven's Sunrise live broadcast at Broadbeach, Queensland (screen shot via YouTube).

Jeff McMullen addresses the Australian National University (today) on the relationship between the media and public discourse on Indigenous Affairs. His speech is reproduced here in full.

OVER 50 YEARS of writing filming and learning from the First Peoples in Australia, the Amazon, Guatemala, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the Saami Lands, have provided a great deal of evidence that our overwhelmingly negative discourse is shaped by the distinctly Australian matrix we occupy.

What is striking about this matrix is that we have such limited contact, knowledge and understanding of both the historical and contemporary realities of Indigenous people.

This matrix is not a virtual world such as the one in Steven Spielberg’s new film, Ready Player One or The Matrix in the Keanu Reeves film by that name. Here in Australia, we all live in a matrix of self-interest that maintains the control of Aboriginal people.

This self-interest is shaped by the degree of our family wealth and comfort, cultural upbringing, education and, to a considerable degree, by our fear of difference. The constant throughout all major Australian Government policies in this area is that Aboriginal people must assimilate. Our fear is partly an evolutionary trait, that suspicion that anyone different is a threat to our concerns. It also arises from guilt and unease over the shaky legal foundations of a nation founded by invasion, occupation and a Frontier War without surrender or settlement through Treaty. From the time English sails entered the waters of the Great South Land, it has usually been a case of "us" and "them" permeating the deficit discourse on Aboriginal issues.

What the rest of us do know about the First Peoples is shaped by the information we receive in the matrix. This includes mass media, popular culture, government information, advertising, special interest group messaging and the growing influence of social media. The challenge is to establish what is authentic information about Aboriginal people and what amounts to a "false reality". Here in Canberra, people should be well aware of the implications of "fake news", government propaganda that sometimes amounts to big lies and daily doses of "political spin". 

When the American political strategist, Karl Rove, spoke of this manipulation of the messaging, he bragged that the political spin doctors could create what he termed a new political reality even before the public had digested the previous reality. In other words, beware of three-word slogans such as "Closing the Gap" or renaming the NT Intervention as "Stronger Futures".

To shatter the matrix and arrive at the truth, journalism offers standards as does history, anthropology and medicine to test the veracity of the "facts". Consider a commonplace example. Are endlessly looped images of drunken Aboriginal people staggering through the streets of impoverished communities authentic? Well yes, sometimes, but too often in Australian media, this is a cruel stereotype, demonising all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when statistics confirm that many are less likely to drink alcohol than non-Indigenous people. 

It’s what is termed the "problem drinkers" that create the stereotype. The late Bill Leak stuck his pen bone deep into this sensitivity when he sketched an Aboriginal father so hopelessly drunk and dysfunctional that he couldn’t remember his own son’s name. This cruel stereotyping causes tremendous psychological damage and resurfaces frequently in the "deficit discourse". There was the echo of this last week when Alan Jones sarcastically asked the NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazard, whether the NSW Government was going to insist on separate places for Aboriginal people in pubs, as well as in hospital waiting rooms. For goodness sake, Jones added, “we are trying to integrate these people”.

The truth about what causes heavier burdens of chronic illness and disadvantage, as well as how to overcome these problems, is obscured by racialised stereotyping in cartoons and commentary. These prominent media players collude, not for the common good, but for maximum attention and even applause. It’s good for their ratings or their advertising revenue. As a result of this negativity, the public loses interest in policy solutions. The humanity of individuals and entire communities is diminished by a media gaze that pins them to a victimhood supposedly of Aboriginal making.

For example, the mass-media contributed enormously to the demonising of all Aboriginal men through the government big lie that preceded the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, alleging paedophile rings of Aboriginal men were abusing children. Although rejected by the Australian Crimes Commission, these unfounded claims were widely circulated as "fact" in the mass media. The false reality created by such distortions makes it all the harder for Aboriginal health teams to gather the support they need to improve the well-being of Aboriginal people. A confected outrage over the safety of little children has not led to any substantial improvement as reflected in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s latest Closing the Gap Report on Indigenous disadvantage. Significantly, too many Government approaches in many parts of this nation follow the deficit discourse, blaming the victims but rarely acknowledging that the policy approaches are fatally flawed. If a government does listen to expert advice, including from Aboriginal people, a thoughtful policy approach can still be undone by the negativity inside the matrix.

Alan Jones’ comments about the NSW Government’s attempts to improve Aboriginal access to effective health care in hospitals show how verbal poison works. Jones introduced Brad Hazzard by calling him the "Minister for Apartheid". The hyperbole is characteristic of one of the most listened-to Australian radio commentators. His introduction shaped the context for the discussion on air, which should have been about the life or death importance of improving the much higher rates of Aboriginal people leaving the emergency rooms without getting treatment or – in a related pattern, not even mentioned by Alan Jones – the number of patients discharging early against medical advice.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has urged all hospitals dealing with large numbers of Aboriginal patients to improve their staff response and create a more supportive environment, including a place where families can be informed of the medical issues facing their loved ones. Alan Jones said “these people” needed to toughen up, I quote, with a “teaspoon of cement”. The language is not accidental or casual, it is calculated derision, laced with verbal poison. As a consequence, there is a missed opportunity to inform Australians in a thoughtful way how these problems of leaving the emergency department before treatment or early discharge against medical advice are intrinsically connected to the chronic illness plague that is cutting the heart out of another generation of Aboriginal people. Brad Hazzard tried to tell Alan Jones that a trial of culturally supportive waiting rooms at some hospitals had halved the number of Aboriginal patients leaving without treatment but the broadcaster insisted, “If this isn’t apartheid, what is?”

Aboriginal people have long complained that it is almost all "bad news" for them inside the Matrix. Amy McQuire, the Buzzfeed reporter and former editor of The Tracker and National Indigenous Times, has argued persuasively that "reality" television especially exploits Aboriginal poverty, trauma and even the vulnerability of children as a form of "entertainment" based on conflict. Such media rarely challenges the frequent outbursts of blatant racism by some of the non-Indigenous "celebrity" commentators that make these choreographed "reality TV" programs popular.

We could add as additional evidence on the damage caused by the deficit discourse, the poorly informed comments recently on the Sunrise television program on the Seven Network about the Stolen Generations, adoption and fostering of Aboriginal children at risk. At least one of the Sunrise team appeared to be arguing that another Stolen Generation would be good for Aboriginal children. Others jumbled the facts about adoption and fostering.

The Sunrise discussion was prompted by a Nationals politician, Dr David Gillespie, Assistant Minister for Children and Families in the Turnbull Government, allegedly advocating in a News Limited report "white adoption" of abused Indigenous children — a report Dr Gillespie disavowed, saying he had not spoken of "white adoption" but only his belief that it was important to provide more permanency for children removed from family after abuse. In the matrix, basic facts are ignored or confused in the relentlessly negative assault on Aboriginal people. 

In practice, most children at risk are usually placed with kin and adoption only follows a period of fostering. In addition, while many foster families may have good and generous intentions these children at risk do often have vastly disproportionate levels of engagement with the criminal justice system. The cross-generational trauma associated with the original Stolen Generations flows on to exacerbate the multipole stresses impacting some children and families. This fuels the dangerous surge in contemporary child removal and so the cycle churns on. 

Both Dr Gillespie and Sunrise should know that such a painful social issue requires a concerted response to prevent abuse and protect children by improving the settings into which they are born. Any time an individual Aboriginal child is alleged to have suffered abuse you can depend on some sections of the media to suggest that Aboriginal culture is the problem. We know the damage that kind of verbal abuse does to Aboriginal children, how it alienates and angers, leaving them isolated and confused about where they belong in their own land. This deficit discourse also dangerously distorts the realities that must be faced to improve the well-being of all of our children including overcrowded houses, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and domestic violence.

In 2004, as a contribution to Reconciliation Australia’s efforts, I surveyed the media coverage and how it impacted the national discourse. 'Redfern Riots', 'Palm Island burns', 'Blacks dragged on leashes', 'PM's blacks not that sorry', 'Sit-down cash ends for blacks', and 'Welfare plan racist' — the newspaper headlines screamed of conflict. This is how Australia began the 21st Century.

It is confronting to discover, however, after examining the longer timelines of this deficit discourse that while some things have changed, such as the visibility of Aboriginal people in commercials, magazines and media generally, there is nonetheless a deeply troubling fatalism that has maintained the space between us for over two centuries. In the colonial period, newspapers reflected settler concerns with "marauding blacks", brutal tales from the Frontier Wars and only occasional editorialising against inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people. After reading 50 such newspapers, Professor Henry Reynolds was “shocked” to see graphic accounts by journalists boasting of taking part in atrocities and editors calling for a "war of extermination".

The racist construct of separate and inferior races, despite its scientific invalidity, is still frequently taken up by some in Australian media, some politicians and some academics. It’s intrinsic to the ongoing assimilation project. Calls by Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party for all Australians to be "treated the same", her insistence that she too is "Indigenous" because she was born here, and her latest diatribes about the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony being an "over the top" celebration of Aboriginal culture, clearly are amplified by mass media. What is hard to measure and deserves more research is how this relentless negativity feeds the outright racialised abuse — such as a young girl jeering at Sydney Swan’s footballer, Adam Goodes, calling him an “ape” or Penrith Panther Rugby League fans abusing Greg Inglis, another sporting warrior.

Important new scholarship on Australian media will establish, I believe, that racism is the jarring dissonance that negates human respect and mutual understanding and holds us back from pressing on towards a genuine equality. From my experience racism – like violence – is a contagion. Both spread organically, surfacing and re-surfacing when a volatile moment is primed inside the matrix.

As the African-American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, puts it, too many people believe in race as

“ ... a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then to humiliate, reduce, and destroy them –inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.”

What is required in a new research agenda is evidence to show how the best and brightest journalistic practice can give voice to the gravest Aboriginal concerns and help shape a more positive national dialogue. After the ABC’s Four Corners investigated the death of an Aboriginal man in a West Australian prison transport van, a revealing inquiry followed. A Four Corners report on the Northern Territory’s treatment of juveniles in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre led to a Royal Commission with relevance to over-incarceration of young Indigenous men and women around the country. These outstanding media investigations create some positive change by bringing abuse into the open glare of public attention.

Unfortunately, Aboriginal people are still let down by the reality that, in the contemporary era, no police or prison officer has been convicted for the deaths or abuse of Indigenous people in custody. We need research-based evidence that explores the link between the negativity of media and politics and the pattern of police violence and over criminalisation of Aboriginal people. Several media studies have established an additional complexity in that, from a public perspective, even determined investigations of abuse and over-incarceration have contributed to the pervasive sense that Aboriginal people are addicted to criminal and anti-social behaviour.

'From my experience, racism, like violence, is a contagion.'

This is explored in Ruth McCausland’s extensive research on the impact of what the media reports and does not report. Media surveys show that the more intractable an issue becomes, the fiercer the conflict in the discourse. This pattern indicates that beyond self-regulation, oversight mechanisms have not modified the most damaging contributions by media to the negativity, misinformation and racism.

Indigenous media spends far more time on innovative solutions to all of the problems I have discussed. Indigenous films, television, dance, art and literature have conveyed the humanity and diversity of the First Peoples. This is a precondition before closing this space between us. Additional investment in all forms of Indigenous storytelling could help build a more positive discourse. When the media and policy-makers make the effort to listen carefully we can have an extraordinarily positive influence and help bring about a just outcome.

As in the case of public servants and politicians, unless the media is suitably educated to understand the realities of Indigenous life we will fall short of the knowledge required to make sense of the issues. As a simple starting point, journalists could always seek a balanced Aboriginal response to contentious claims that are all too frequently white noise inside the matrix.

Ultimately, it is the art of listening that will give voice to Aboriginal people who hold the key to a positive discourse.

Read more by journalist, author and activist Jeff McMullen AM at

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