Madeline Hayman-Reber
Remaking our newsrooms

Australia is in the midst of a realisation, long overdue. It is a process, galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement, that has revealed how deeply ingrained what could be called “unconscious” racism is in this country. Seemingly to the surprise of much of white Australia.

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, meaningful change.

In the media, several Aboriginal journalists have recently brought the issue of the lack of cultural diversity and sensitivity in newsrooms, and the broader industry, to the forefront of this conversation – a conversation that we, as Aboriginal journalists, have been having forever, but one the rest of Australia is only now even close to being ready to engage with.

In spectacular fashion, accomplished screenwriter and Djaru woman Kodie Bedford courageously called out her former employer, one we share, for institutionalised racism.

In a way that could not be ignored, she took to Twitter to outline her time at SBS as a cadet journalist from 2008 onwards, recalling her experiences of institutional racism while working for the public broadcaster.

After just two years, she wrote, “my writing was worse, my self-esteem destroyed, I had suicidal thoughts. The stress on my body meant I developed eczema, I lost my period for four months, I stopped eating; a piece of toast filled me for the day because of anxiety.”

As an Aboriginal woman, I found it soul-destroying to read Bedford’s story, her vivid descriptions of the physical manifestation of her treatment. “This is what racism does,” she wrote.

But it was also that she had to describe her deeply personal pain so publicly in order for there to be acknowledgement of this truth. I feel confident in saying that all Aboriginal journalists, myself included, shared her pain. We have all had those experiences in very white newsrooms, to varying degrees.

This time though, something seemed different. This time, people were receptive – they listened to what Bedford had to say and shared in a collective outrage and sadness.

SBS’s initial response came from managing director James Taylor, who sent out an all-staff email linking to Bedford’s tweets for staff members to read. In the email, he wrote that he was “sickened and saddened” to read about what she had been through.

“I am deeply troubled that her time as part of the SBS family had left an indelible stain that so many years later, is still a presence in her life,” he wrote.

The all-white management team of our national multicultural broadcaster – something that had largely flown under the radar – was soon pointed out by writer and actor Michelle Law. It was a discovery that fuelled more anger from members of the media community, as well as the audience to which SBS appeals.

Taylor’s response was also overshadowed by comments from Michael Obeid, who had been SBS managing director in the years following Bedford’s cadetship.

Obeid told The Sydney Morning Herald that critics shouldn’t judge an organisation by its management team. “To me, what’s on screen, who’s on screen and the stories they tell are far more important than who is running the company,” he said.

In the wake of Bedford’s revelations, Walkley Award-winning journalist and Muruwari man Allan Clarke wrote for the ABC on this issue of mental health of Indigenous journalists, citing his own burnout and deep frustrations he felt with the whiteness of newsrooms.

Clarke wrote about the trauma of our roles in community and society. How we are constantly exposed to sheer injustices of others before returning home and seeing it happen again to our own families.

“For Aboriginal journalists like me, when we begin our careers, we’re expected to take a saw and hack parts of our soul and our lived experiences until they fall away just to get a bloodied foot in the door,” he wrote.

His words deeply resonated with Aboriginal journalists across many media organisations, including me.

I have spent many hours crying for the families with whom I’ve built connections, especially when reporting on Aboriginal deaths in custody. To get the story right, to tell it the way the family wants it to be told, we must give the time required to understand their pain. But then, at the end, it feels as though all you can do for them is go and write a story about it.

Many people, many other journalists don’t understand that for Aboriginal journalists our jobs don’t finish when we leave the office for the day. We never get to switch off. We are constantly held to account by our family and community. We must uphold our reputations as community members and those of our families, while attempting to communicate our ongoing trauma and pain to the rest of Australia.

We carry this, and then, in the newsroom, we are subject to subtle and sometimes overt racism. We are told to remain impartial, to be unbiased; essentially, to be white. When we are watching our own people die at the hands of the system though, that is impossible.

Time and time again, I see the stories of my community told the wrong way by white journalists, who butcher them for their white audiences under the guise of “fair and balanced journalism”, only adding more trauma to my already traumatised community.

This is why Aboriginal perspectives are important. Not just as a box-ticking exercise, but as professionals with specialised knowledge. We don’t need understanding managers or superiors; we need to be in these positions of power and respect.

There is dire need for systemic change, for the appointment of people of colour to positions of power and editorial control who understand the issues we face in order for constructive change to occur.

A few weeks ago, Melbourne Press Club elected yet another all-white board. In response I, along with three other journalists, have lobbied the club to address this in the form of an open letter. Almost 300 media professionals signed on. And, after sitting down with the press club’s newly appointed president, investigative journalist Nick McKenzie, I am cautiously optimistic the board is moving in the right direction and will soon implement the suggested changes.

These include the appointment of two media professionals of culturally diverse backgrounds and, as the organisation operates on Aboriginal land, one of the seats must be made available to an Indigenous person.

At SBS, following the resignation of news director Jim Carroll, there has been an internal push for the appointment of someone from a culturally diverse background to the position with an open letter signed by more than 100 journalists across SBS and NITV.

“Since 1978, the position of director of news has been occupied by Anglo-Saxon men with the exception of Irene Buschtedt between 1993 and 1995,” the letter reads.

“We are in a unique moment in history where all across the world, all industries and especially so the media are facing both a choice and reckoning over the diversity of their staff.”

The letter was last week delivered to James Taylor by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on behalf of its house committee. On Tuesday, he responded.

“SBS is working to build a diverse talent pool of suitably experienced and qualified candidates to be considered for the position of Director of News & Current Affairs,” he said.

“All candidates will be treated fairly and equally regardless of race, gender, religion, cultural background, sexual orientation or any other protected attribute.”

The response is somewhat dismissive of the sentiment of the original letter. There has been a commitment to nothing beyond what was already expected of a multicultural broadcaster.

There is a phrase often broadcast by Blackfullas on social media prior to a significant event, such as Invasion Day, or when blatant racism rears its ugly head. It goes something like: “We’re asking you to dismantle the systems of oppression that your ancestors have built.”

In the letter, SBS was handed an opportunity to do so constructively. But this moment is also an opportunity for those watching to consider how they can decolonise their own workplaces.

To continue to ignore our voices is to continue our oppression and is, quite frankly, blatant racism. Upholding white colonial values is not the way forward and does not reflect the multicultural society we live in, work on and believe to be vital.

As Aboriginal people, our ancestors fought for us to be where we are today. It’s up to us, and those reading, to continue the fight for a better future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2020 as "Remaking news".

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Madeline Hayman-Reber is a Gomeroi woman and an award-winning Indigenous affairs journalist.

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