EDITORIAL: The state of black media

By Amy McQuire, January 8, 2014, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Every year it feels as if Aboriginal media is getting stronger and weaker at the same time, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

We now have more representation than ever – both behind and in front of the screens. We have our own free-to-air channel – NITV – and there are more and more opportunities to tell our stories (Redfern Now was one of the most successful home-grown television series this year).

Across the country we have hundreds of community broadcasters, from the tip of Cape York to the heart of Aboriginal Sydney. Our presence in print is formidable – through Tracker, the Koori Mail, Deadly Vibe, the Northern Land Council’s Land Rights News,the National Indigenous Times and the newly minted campaigning paper Brisbane Blacks (produced out of 98.9 FM in the Queensland capital and lead by talented young Koori journalist Callum Clayton-Dixon).

We now have First Nations people who project their voices by their own means – their words magnified by Twitter and teased out of the confines of 140 characters by mainstream media (an example is Kelly Briggs who’s Twitter account TheKooriWoman has become an influential online presence ,and lead to columns in the Guardian Online.)

But despite this diversity there is weakness.

We have more outlets for our voices, and yet we haven’t been able to put a dint in the national agenda. Sometimes our media outlets regurgitate the leftovers of mainstream media, picking at scraps instead of cooking the main meal. We may have all the raw ingredients, but we are working from the wrong recipe.

A case in point is NITV, which holds power in the Indigenous media space because it is perhaps the most publicly accessible outlet (both for whitefellas and blackfellas).

The amalgamation of SBS and NITV may have given the Indigenous broadcaster more resources and its own free-to-air channel, but it has also meant it has had to compromise. It has a muddled purpose.

The Stevens Review into Indigenous Broadcasting, tabled in 2010, made a number of recommendations.

It focused largely on the future of National Indigenous Television and prompted the government to merge the service into SBS.

The review outlined how important Indigenous broadcasting could be to the government’s own objectives.

It also focused on mainstream media’s role in showing positive images of blackfellas, and lifting self-esteem.

Positive images are undoubtedly important, and NITV does this well. But you have to ask the question: What is the purpose of black media? Is it solely to project positive images, or push for change?

Despite a newsroom full of journalists, NITV’s voice has been far from alternative. It’s on occasion dangerously substandard, preoccupied with keeping up with mainstream reporting rather than being proactive within our Indigenous media space.

An example is the new incarnation of Living Black – Living Black Conversations, a series of interviews with host Karla Grant. Grant is one of the longest serving producers at SBS and should be a role model to a generation of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander journalists.

But how could you explain the offensiveness of her giving Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest an hour to plug himself on Indigenous television, whilst letting him off on the expensive failures of his GenerationOne and Australian Employment Covenant initiatives?

This is supposed to be our media, not propaganda to service the interests of big miners. The rest of the series was based on soft interviews of sports stars, a complete waste of current affairs resources given NITV already has a functioning and hard working sports unit and dedicated sports journalists.

I’m not saying this because I dislike NITV – I don’t. I like watching it occasionally. I’m saying it because we all have a stake in building a strong Indigenous media sector and this is the most heavily resourced media outlet we have. Sometimes we don’t understand just how powerful and valuable it is to have Indigenous media. It’s a tool our elders fought for and we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Building a strong Indigenous media is vital. It is a model in which we can exercise self-determination, where we can control the message. It’s not just about broadcasting different voices, it’s about setting in place an alternative narrative to the one that already consumes mainstream reporting of Aboriginal affairs.

It’s about fighting, and providing a platform for the larger fight, and the exchanging of ideas. It’s about broadcasting the truth behind the spin.

You could argue that this year we had more black faces on mainstream television than ever before. Redfern Now is written, directed and acted predominately by Aboriginal people, and screened on the ABC to critical acclaim. But every week as I sat down to watch this show, I was continually disgusted.

It was supposed to be groundbreaking, and yet it re-hashed the same tired portrayals of Aboriginal people, while using suffering, misery and poverty as plot devices to distract from the lack of substance in each episode.

That’s if it wasn’t just substituting black faces into mainstream situations, and spraypainting over their Aboriginality, as if this did not affect their daily lives.

A storyline from last season, which dripped into season two, showed an Aboriginal cop, responsible for a death in custody, who was trying to ease himself back into the community. When has an Aboriginal cop ever been responsible for an Aboriginal death in custody? What a wasted opportunity to discuss one of the most important, complex and misunderstood issues affecting our people today.

I found another episode, which focused on gambling, particularly galling. Gambling is a real problem in Aboriginal communities, and I’m not denying that. But Redfern Now painted an Aboriginal woman drowning in debts as weak and manipulative, with no excuse for her behaviour.

Instead of showing her background, instead of discussing the root causes of this addiction, the episode finished with a suicide attempt.

This was incredibly irresponsible in these current times – where Aboriginal suicide rates are high and a large number of families have lost loved ones.

You could argue that it’s only drama, that it’s only fiction. But these issues are not just plot devices.

They are a reality that deserves careful and thoughtful treatment, not sensationalist twists that serve only to evoke tears. The ABC failed in its responsibility.

Aboriginal poverty is not entertainment.

Redfern Now demonstrated more than ever how important it is to have a thriving Indigenous media sector, one that is not subsumed into mainstream outlets.

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