Fueling the fire: deepening the divide


“JUST like the first Stolen Generation, where a lot children were taken because it was for their wellbeing, we need to do it again, perhaps.”

Radio and television commentator Prue MacSween declared this while part of an all-white panel on Channel Seven’s Sunrise just over a year ago in March, 2018. Over blurred images of Indigenous women and children – in what was dubbed a dangerous environment – the message Sunrise sent to its national audience was clear: Aboriginal Australians are second-class citizens.

While the segment sent shockwaves through Australia, it only represented part of a much bigger problem that exists in the Australian media. The footage that depicted the alleged “dangerous environment” was not of an abused child, but of a toddler receiving medical attention in a documentary commissioned by the Indigenous charity One Disease. Not only was the footage shot by Walkley-winning photojournalist David Maurice Smith unrelated to child abuse, but it was also used without the creator’s permission.

Using unrelated images of Aboriginal people to their detriment is nothing new. In August 2017, the newspaper WA Today published a photo of Aboriginal children next to a completely unrelated story about child prostitution. Sunrise has since taken the clip down from their online site due to their misuse of the footage, however this was the least of the problems with the segment.

Australian Jillaroos (Rugby League) player and proud Kamilaroi woman Caitlin Moran said that the exclusion of Indigenous voices in Sunrise’s segment was extremely harmful. “Having an all-white panel for starters, that’s the first thing that gets under my skin,” she said. “You can’t have an all-white panel commenting on Indigenous Australia…instead of talking around us I think we need to start talking with each other. We need to get Indigenous Australians involved, not just speaking on our behalf.”

Ms Moran said that Aboriginal misrepresentation is prevalent in the Australian media. She described a news item that she saw on television recently, which depicted an Indigenous woman “going off her head outside a courthouse”.

“They showed that half-segment of her going off and straight away… it puts it in people’s head that that’s what all Indigenous women are like and all we do is worry about drinking and you know, Centrelink and stuff like that.”

Despite refusing to watch Sunrise’s ‘Aboriginal Adoption’ segment because it was “too hideous”, the first Aboriginal woman to serve in the House of Representatives, federal Labor MP Linda Burney, said the segment was “completely unacceptable”.

“I think Miss Armytage has probably learnt a very big lesson,” she said.

“I think the media has an enormous role and an enormous responsibility, and I wouldn’t say all aspects of the media are meeting that responsibility.”

Ms Burney, who has been involved in Aboriginal affairs for 35 years said under-representation of Aboriginal Australians was a major issue in the mainstream media. “There’s still a long way to go in terms of representing Aboriginal people in the media as much as we ought to,” she said. She described a “horrendous ice murder” of a young Aboriginal woman at the hands of her partner in Brewarrina three years ago.

“(The story) got a bit of a write up in a Dubbo paper and it got a tiny mention in the Daily Telegraph and at that same time there was another (white) woman in Sydney who had been killed by her partner and it was front page,” she said.

“So that’s an example of the bias that’s still there.”

Indigenous Cultural Studies lecturer at the University of Newcastle and proud Worimi man Dr Joe Perry said that Sunrise’s ‘Aboriginal Adoption’ segment represents everything that is wrong with race relations in Australia.

“The whole problem with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships, particularly with the Government and institutions is the lack of consultation with Aboriginal people,” he said.

“There hasn’t been real and meaningful talks with Aboriginal people where Aboriginal people are allowed to sit at the table and their opinions are valued.”

Dr Perry said that Government policies from Australia’s not-too-distant past are still impacting the way institutions treat Indigenous Australians.

“The Australian government’s agenda is still about Aboriginal people being assimilated. The commercial media…will reflect the values of what they want in this society…and that’s in the negative image of Aboriginal people,” he said.

According to the Reconciliation Barometer Research Project conducted by Reconciliation Australia, as of 2016, six out of 10 Australians have had little to no contact with Aboriginal people. This perhaps partially explains why huge gaps in non-Indigenous knowledge of Aboriginal people have been so easily filled by the media.

Dr Perry said that the continuous negative images portrayed by the media create the wrong idea of Aboriginal people in the minds of non-Indigenous Australians. “The stereotypical images of Aboriginal people have always been portrayed in the media, you know, Aboriginal people the drunk, Aboriginal people the criminal, Aboriginal people the dole bludgers. Those images have been flaunted throughout the history of Australia.”

The introduction of Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu includes a diary entry by a colonist Peter Beveridge, which describes an interaction between himself and Aboriginal Australians in 1843.

“Many of them had green boughs in their hands, and after ‘yabber yabber’ they began swinging the boughs over and round their heads, and shouting ‘Cum-a-thunga, cum-a-thunga.’ We of course did not know what their meaning was by these antics, but we guessed that by it they meant we were welcome to their land.”

As Bruce Pascoe goes on to say, “you have to work hard to convince yourself…that Aboriginal people were delighted to give away their land”. Clearly Australia was not ‘settled peacefully’ as some historians and some media would have us believe.

Despite the evidence and common sense that says Australia was invaded, this fact is still denied today by some media organisations and politicians.

Ms Moran said that she understands why a lot of non-Aboriginal Australians prefer to bury their heads in the sand about the past, however she believes that Australia cannot truly achieve reconciliation until it is properly acknowledged.

“No one likes being told ‘this is what your people did and they were wrong, you’re wrong’,” she said.

“It’s very easy to just be…like ‘I wasn’t a part of it, I didn’t do it’. I think they’re just quick to go to a defence. They didn’t have to do it but it was their ancestors that did that stuff to my people. If it’s just respected and acknowledged first, then we can move forward together.”

Commentator Andrew Bolt has infamously labelled the Stolen Generations a “myth” and has been responsible for headlines such as ‘It’s so hip to be black’ and ‘White fellas in the black’.

For a month in 2017, Ms Burney travelled with Bolt through Australia and New Zealand during the filming of the ABC documentary ‘Recognition: Yes or No’. The program explored the opposing stances held by the two on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians. Ms Burney said Mr Bolt has built “an industry out of being the way he is.

“That’s his decision and I think it’s wrong, I think it’s disgusting, it’s certainly not about Aboriginal people,” she said.

Despite her disagreement with Mr Bolt’s agenda, Ms Burney said that she “couldn’t care less” about the influence he and other commentators have over their audience.

“I don’t even read it…I know what he’s going to say, it’s based on fear, it’s based on ignorance, it’s based on division and you know what? Life’s too short,” she said.

“I learnt a long time ago in life that you put effort and energy into people that are willing to change their views and for those that aren’t, then I’m not going to waste my time on them anymore.

“I don’t dislike Andrew as a person but…he can’t change his mind because it means he loses his position and his influence. Even if he does change his mind you will not know about it. Because he loses his audience.”

Ms Moran said that non-Aboriginal Australians need to better understand the concept of trans-generational trauma and the fact that colonisation still negatively impacts Aboriginal people.

“It’s so frustrating…trying to fight the fight on this side,” she said.

“It is still happening and I think people need to acknowledge that it is happening and how we’re going to go towards stopping it.

Even the thing of changing the date of Australia Day – I think that is a massive one and the fight between that is like oh “that was years ago it’s always been Australia Day” and it makes me sick to my stomach that people think that it’s okay that that’s the day that they celebrate.

“When they say we’re a nation that comes together and that they accept everyone kind of thing but yet the first Australians are still getting treated the way we do.”

It is not all doom and gloom according to Linda Burney who believes that things are changing for the better, partly due to the rise of social media. “Look at the response from the Sunrise thing, that would not have happened five, 10 years ago, it just wouldn’t have. But now you’re seeing people pushing back, and people are just going to continue to push back.

“I think the other thing is that we’ve got our own journalists now, I mean look at Brooke Boney, look at Stan Grant.

They’re doing mainstream things and they happen to be Aboriginal and that’s really important.”