‘Multicultural Australia is Mainstream Australia’: Calling for True Diversity in Our Media

How do we achieve true diversity in the Australian media - and why is it important? Fatima Measham looks at the gap between the cultural make-up of Australia and of our media, and asks what we can do to close that gap, and make sure we have a wider variety of voices and experiences representing us.

Earlier this year, I attended a select-entry workshop for ‘minority’ or ‘diverse’ writers run by a media organisation. The terms were used interchangeably. Fifteen participants from different states paid their own way to Sydney to pitch three stories each. For most of us, it was unprecedented access to editors and we were thrilled.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected so much. It was never actually clear what we were getting out of that session, apart from the chance to sell our wares in person. In the 22 weeks since, only seven of us got a byline, two of whom were published more than once. One of these two had already had four articles published prior to the workshop (and was published five more times afterward). As far as I can tell, he is a white man.

'Quite often, even raising these questions is difficult and can provoke degrees of defensiveness.'

Tim Southphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Perhaps he pitches more often; I do not mean to subtract from the merit of his writing. But the outcomes raise questions around the authenticity of reaching out to ‘minority’ writers, whether workshops like this really address the impediments to more varied representation in the media, and how best to cultivate a robust, permanent mix of political and cultural commentators.

The issue is of course heftier than a single organisation can address. Whether on radio, in television, newspapers, magazines or online, we are far more likely to come across content-producers and characters who are, for want of a better word, white.

It is difficult for me in this context to craft an argument for representation that is not self-serving. I am Filipino by birth, Australian by citizenship, an outer west suburbanite. I write op-eds in a cramped market and would benefit from conditions that better account for diversity.

The question is: aren’t I entitled to my own space in the public square, anyway? Surely it should no longer be remarkable for people who look like me to be there – and to be able to comment on matters at the centre, not just the periphery?

In other words, greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life.

In reality, we’d be lucky to get past the perimeter. It is not an imaginary barrier. Last March, in a completely unscientific exercise, I checked the commentary by-lines in four major news organisations over four consecutive days. I drew up Column A for ‘arguably white’ (best guess from the last name and headshot) and Column B for ‘arguably non-white’. I took North European and British names and faces as ‘arguably white’.

It went something like this. Day 1: Column A (19), Column B (2). Day 2: Column A (27), Column B (0). Day 3: Column A (18), Column B (2). Day 4: Column A (22), Column B (2). The ratio of white to non-white commentators is 14 to 1. I’d be the first to concede that this comes from a statistically laughable sample, but I doubt that a wider tally would present a different conclusion.

‘There’s this rather strange public discourse led by old white men that exists in parallel to the reality of this country,’ says ABC broadcaster and editor Jonathan Green. ‘The power elite in opinion and discourse tend to be people like me. That becomes rather self-replicating, outside acts of tokenism.’

To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.

It is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society. This isn’t a matter of vanity, as if people who look like me merely want to see themselves in the mirror. Anyone with a genuine interest in the truth, a commitment to nuanced debate and a willingness to engage with complexity should be disturbed by the lack of diversity among our opinion-makers and policy-setters.

‘When we’re talking about social and political issues, they’re not always issues that can be detached from people’s lives and their ability to live with dignity and meaning,’ says Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Racial Discrimination Commissioner. ‘If people who are writing about them have no sense of the human cost or what is at stake, then all those dimensions of public debate can go missing. What you have is a sterilised debate.’

It is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society.

The ideal, according to Green, is ‘a range of ideas from a range of backgrounds being brought to bear on the big issues’. ‘That sort of conversation would shape the nature of those issues to more truly represent the actual state of affairs.’

In other words, greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life. It’s not just ‘talk’, as if the tensions between ideas have no bearing on real people. How values are interpreted, including the weight apportioned to them, penetrates norms and policies such as the way we treat migrants, women and people with disability. So who is interpreting for us?

The answer should compel us to critically examine the barriers to participation for non-white writers and commentators. For instance, to what degree does their invisibility in the mainstream inhibit their involvement? ‘If you have a public sphere that does not contain diversity, the real risk is that you deter people from entering the realm,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘You end up perpetuating the status quo and possibly exacerbating it’. The barrier creeps forward as one generation is dissuaded from participation, discouraging the next.

There are also, quite broadly speaking, economic factors at play. Dr Soutphommasane points out that writing commentary is not lucrative, so the field tends to favour those with backgrounds that can withstand work that is not highly paid. What does this mean for news organisations who genuinely want to diversify their roster of columnists?

‘The important thing is to be able to have a conversation in the first place about these issues,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘Quite often, even raising these questions is difficult and can provoke degrees of defensiveness.’ He adds that a bias toward one group of people over another may be unconscious rather than malicious, but unless we grapple with it, we won’t see progress.

It is no longer enough to suppose that it’s only a matter of time before we see greater diversity in our commentary pages and the media more generally. We’ve been anticipating this for at least a couple of decades. It is time to reconcile with who we are, if only because it is the best version of ourselves.

As Dr Soutphommasane points out: ‘Culturally diverse voices should be regarded as mainstream voices – because multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia.’

Portrait of Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer with a focus on sociopolitical issues. 

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