Whose Australian stories? Cultural diversity at the ABC

The ABC has a charter requirement to reflect the national identity – but it falls short when it comes to cultural diversity. Velovotee, CC BY-NC-ND

Australia’s national broadcaster this week launched a rebranding campaign for its flagship television channel, ABC1, that features Australians from diverse cultural backgrounds. But if you look at the ABC Equity and Diversity annual report for 2012-13, you might be surprised by what you find.

Video promo for the rebranded ABC1.

I started working at the ABC 31 years ago and would argue not enough has changed at the national broadcaster in terms of cultural diversity.

The ABC content makers group has the lowest percentage of people of Non-English speaking background (NESB) – at only 8.3%. Of course that figure may well get even lower after the recent job losses at Australia Network and Radio Australia, which, as part of ABC International, is a division with one of the highest ratios of NESB staff.

The technologist occupation has the highest percentage of NESB people at 28.4%. That’s higher than the 26% national figure for the numbers of Australians who were born overseas.

Of this group, 53% spoke a language other than English at home. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census also revealed that 20% of the population are second-generation Australians, with at least one parent who was born overseas and 20% of these spoke a language other than English at home.

In May, a young producer at the ABC called Mohamed Taha was one of six panellists invited by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation to discuss the topic of Faith and Media: An unbridgeable chasm?. Also on the panel was Sharri Markson, media editor of The Australian.

No doubt many issues were discussed but two months later, The Australian honed in on Taha’s comments on the “whitebread” nature of the ABC. The article, by Paul Cleary, quoted Taha at length:

I would agree that the ABC is incredibly white, incredibly homogenous and incredibly monocultural but, geographically ignorant as well. A lot of them don’t go past Leichardt. They think Western Sydney is Strathfield but people in Penrith think Parramatta is inner west.

We need to see more diversity on our screen, we need to hear different voices and we need to see different names on opinion pieces and articles online to reflect Australia today.

When I read this I felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Welcome to my world, Mohamed – I would have hoped that things had changed for you in 2014.

An earlier generation’s ABC

Thirty-one years ago I joined the ABC as a researcher on Nationwide and then a cadet in South Australia. I think I was probably the first NESB reporter in the Adelaide newsroom. There was no-one who looked like me on air even though the newsroom was full of people who didn’t look or sound like Stephen Fry.

My parents were proud but my cousins Frank and Jimmy thought it hilarious. The ABC was “so uncool” and alien in the western suburbs – Port Adelaide, Mick Young territory and the home of the Magpies football team. I not only looked different but sounded different too.

The intellectual Max Harris, of Angry Penguins fame, wrote a column in The Advertiser firmly correcting my pronunciation. I was crushed. Hilarious, thought the cousins.

I wanted to compare notes with Mohamed Taha but he politely declined to be interviewed for this article. I can understand why.

Instead, I spoke with a man who was one of the ABC’s first NESB cadets. Tony Maniaty is a Sydney-based author and academic who reported on the East Timor invasion for the ABC in 1975, he is also a former Executive Producer of the 7.30 Report.

He’s the son of a Greek refugee from Asia Minor and an Australian mother who ran suburban corner shops in Brisbane.

My brother and I grew up like most Australian kids of the era with the exception that we had a “funny name”. At school I was known as “Mac”, short for “macaroni”, as in “Tony Macaroni”.

In 1967 Tony beat 405 applicants and landed himself a cadetship at the ABC.

I was the ethnic oddity, perhaps even chosen for the job because of my “new Australian” background – I suspect they at least saw that as a boost in an era when “kids of migrants” (let alone “migrants”) were still unseen in the media.

Soon, voice classes beckoned. Tony recalls:

The course was run by a pompous Englishman who had clearly been imported from the BBC to ‘improve our English’“. He was one of a dozen cadets at the training session.

The instructor declared that we were all pretty bad, but "the boy from Queensland” (me) was without doubt the worst. My voice was I suspect not much different from anyone else’s, so I figure my name had something, or perhaps a lot, to do with it.

Five decades later – what has changed?

An ABC spokesman told me recently that the broadcaster has been implementing strategies for equal opportunity since the introduction of the Equal Employment Opportunities Federal legislation of 1987. The broadcaster submits annual reports to the Minister of Communications outlining performance against its plan.

He said the 2013 NESB workforce was 12.7% and that “Indigenous Employment levels are at or close to target”. The Equity and Diversity report records the Indigenous Content Maker occupation at 1.6% and 0.9% at Senior Executive level.

Sky journalist and presenter Stan Grant, who comes from the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales, spoke of his frustration with the ABC during a 2013 Late Night Live discussion on elite racism and the Australian media. He told Phillip Adams:

The ABC, after 20 years of bringing Indigenous people into the organisation at a trainee level as part of their affirmative employment policy, have not sent one Indigenous person overseas as a foreign correspondent. Not one is reporting for Four Corners or 7.30. This exclusion, this absence, based on the expectation that we will not aspire to those things, means we are simply excluded from big chunks of mainstream life.

That really goes to this idea of elite racism and to people who cannot even see it when it’s happening right under their noses.

New approaches

Two months ago, ABC News and Current Affairs set up a Diversity Action Group (DAG), which replaces the five year Indigenous Reference Group. The division’s newly appointed Media Manager, Sally Jackson, told me by email that nine of the 14 members are of Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The group, she says “is working to increase diversity in content and workforce”. It is “developing resources to make it easier for editorial staff to access guests and talent from culturally diverse communities”.

Significantly there is not one executive producer from any ABC radio online or television current affairs program on the DAG. Which brings me to the sacred cow of ABC News and Current Affairs: Australian Story.

Whose stories?

Australian Story is a much-loved and popular half-hour documentary program that has been on air and overseen by the same executive producer, Deborah Fleming, for the past 18 years. The distinguished and pioneering broadcaster Caroline Jones often presents it.

The genre is a difficult one to do well – and Australian Story excels, having won many awards. The program website states:

We seek out unique stories that feature fascinating characters and original storylines with unexpected “twists and turns” and compelling visuals.

But why are an overwhelming number of those stories white? Sometimes I think I am watching Landline. There are too few Indigenous and culturally diverse stories – and, when they exist, they are too often about white Australians as the key characters “helping” Indigenous communities. Individuals from the diverse communities featured in the new ABC1 promotional material do not tend to tell their stories on Australian Story.

There are times when the station tease promises diversity – “Coming up on Australian Story - saving Sumatra’s orphans” only to find the story is about elephants.

I have scoured the online archives looking for diversity throughout the past 18 years of programming. Among the episodes on Phar Lap, the Crocodile Hunter, the double episodes with Greg Norman, Black Caviar, the double episodes on Kerry Packer, Shane Gould, Hazel Hawke and Ray Hadley there are sometimes stories on individuals such as Li Cunxin, Noel Pearson, Hazem el Masri and others – but not nearly enough.

In some years the percentage of stories featuring Indigenous and NESB talent is as low as 2.7%. In 2000 there was one such story all year. That’s not good enough.

Academic and Radio National presenter Waleed Aly told Phillip Adams that there is a “majoritarian filter” at work in society. This, he says, is a structural racism. That is:

the people who get to make decisions about our syllabus or what stories are on the front page and so on are narrowed to a particular group. In this case the majority – the white people of Australia.

The ABC has diversified its “on air” look, with a number of young NESB and Indigenous presenters. Jeremy Fernandez told The Australian newspaper recently that his appearance on the ABC has “proved to be inspirational for ethnic communities around the country”. Déjà vu Jeremy. But as Mohamed Taha told the Interfaith Panel – it’s a “cosmetic” and not a cultural change.

UTS Professor of Sociology Andrew Jakubowicz told me this week that the ABC’s decisions over the past five years to make itself more “more colourful” are positive small steps but but do not go to the heart of the question. “This is catch up in a very rapid and limited way.”

He says the Western Sydney bureau seems to be part of the ABC’s “international development” and it remains to be seen what comes out of it. “I’ve done quite a lot of work with the ABC and what surprised me is how little they know about the country which they are a part of.”

“The BBC and ITV in the UK have had people of colour on the screen as their most authoritative spokespeople for three to four decades,” he said.

The BBC approach

But the BBC still thinks it is not diverse enough and last month announced groundbreaking initiatives that will put the ABC’s DAG and other policies to shame.

The BBC has pledged to spend £2.1 million (AU$3.8 million) to make the broadcaster more representative of the nation’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population. According to the 2011 Census for England and Wales, 19.5% of the population is from an ethnic group other than White British.

Director-general Tony Hall has pledged that one in seven presenters, or 15% of on-air staff, will be BAME by 2017 (the current figure is 10.4%), along with one in ten managers. “It’s time for action,” he said. He told a gathering at the BBC’s Elstree Studios, “I am not content for the BBC to be merely good or above average. I believe in this and want our record to be beyond reproach.”

The measures will include an “Independent Diversity Action Group” comprising leading BAME figures such as comedian Lenny Henry, writer George Mpanga and athlete Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, among others. Hall is also appointing “commissioners of the future” who will be trained specifically to work in factual, daytime, comedy, drama and children’s programming as well as 20 BAME graduate interns.

Earlier this year senior BBC staff were made to take a course in “unconscious bias” to stop them from recruiting employees in their own image.

ITV is also expected to announce measures to get more BAME actors in television dramas. It’s even talking American-style quotas.

Professor Jakubowicz says that over the years, the ABC and its audience have been culturally deprived.

The interaction between them intensifies that cultural deprivation so in a sense as we move into the future the organisation and what it is trying to do is becoming less and less relevant to a wider and wider group of Australians which is why its becoming increasingly vulnerable.“

In spite of cuts to the ABC, supporters have not rallied to the cause in marginal electorates.

If it was doing its job in relation to multicultural diversity then in everyone of those marginal electorates out west where people are screaming blue murder for instance over 18C and the Racial Discrimination act, where every Liberal member of parliament out there is telling the PM do not go with this idiocy that the IPA and Brandis have come up with – you would have a similar sort of energy directed toward saving the ABC. But because they haven’t done their work for such a long time there is very limited bite in those places.

And I think the ABC has only itself to blame. It’s a self reproducing culturally ghettoised organisation and if you lock yourself into a ghetto, the consequences are you lose.

What about SBS?

At this point I can almost hear the proverbial screams emanating from the corridors of Aunty: "That is what SBS is for!”

That response ignores the ABC Charter requirement that the broadcaster “contribute to a sense of national identity” and “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community,” and that it “take account of the multicultural character of the Australian community.

Jakubowicz lays the blame for a monocultural ABC at the very top. "The board has been systematically ethnically cleansed for generations by political parties of all colours,” he says – and there has never been anyone to insist on diversity and there is not likely to be in future either.

The so called committee that was established to appoint new members to the board did not represent the diversity of Australia, it did not chose people who represented the diversity of Australia, the new government will not chose people who represent the diversity of Australia and will go back to the same – with a harder right-wing agenda.

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