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Democracy, the media and human rights: Dodson (1997)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Democracy, the media and
human rights

Address by
Michael Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner,
to the Public Lecture Session - Diplomacy Training Program, Manila, Phillippines,
22 January 1997

and the media

many western democracies contemporary beliefs about the role of the media
are directly shaped by enlightenment ideals and the struggle against state
despotism. Although somewhat tarnished, these ideals continue to inspire
resistance to oppression, and sustain battles for freedom of conscience,
speech, and individual liberty, for political self determination and democratisation.

In the
early nineteenth century the media was termed the fourth estate. Its independent
function was recognised as vital and its role as fourth estate placed
it outside the government, the judiciary, and the executive. Its pivotal
role was seen as the essential feedback mechanism of a democratic system.

world view of the pioneer democrat theorists was essentially utopian,
optimistic and assumed that at core there was a commonality, rather than
a contest of interests, that there was a consensual public interest able
to be uncovered then embraced through the free market of ideas.

aspirations for freedom of the press and for democratic choice and accountability
continue to be the foundation of thinking about the social role the media
should assume. However in places like contemporary Australia there is
a huge gap between the grand rhetorical claims about the role of the media
and the everyday reality. The public, which the media alleges to represent,
has grown cynical. When asked for their opinions regarding the media,
most Australians quickly articulate feelings of discontent and scepticism.

people recognise that the prototype of media freedom is inadequate for
various reasons.

independent function of the media was and is largely compromised. Newspapers,
for example, were organs of politics before they were organs of news.
From individual pamphleteering to the development of party newspapers,
opinion took precedence over reporting. The history of the press is chequered
with political patronage, official subservience and convenient compromises.
Independent journalistic functions emerged uncertainly and inconsistently
within what are primarily political instruments.

liberal prototype of press freedom was also limited even in its original
conception because it compared political freedom with property rights.
As one critic wrote, 'freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those
who own one'. Although the function of the press in society is to inform,
its role is to make money. The obligation of journalism is to the public,
but the public is not the journalist's employer.

the past decade the media in my country, as in much of the world, has
undergone central changes. Media companies are now significant economic
players with diversified commercial interests. What is now taking place
is the concentration of telecommunications, computing, entertainment,
information and education. Contemporary media conglomerates which have
diverse commercial empires are able to trade with governments over a whole
range of policy interests. for example, within Australia, the sheer concentration
of power held by these oligopolies threatens to manipulate the few remaining
channels for political communication.

We are
at a crossroads when this tradition of liberal ideals and theories about
society still serves as the basis of thinking but in reality has lost
much of its vitality.

than making redundant the underpinning democratic principles of freedom
of expression, equality and order, we have to find new ways to give them
life. Uplifting the media to a central role in the discussion of what
it means to be a citizen in a democracy is not to deny the underlying
commercial imperative, but to restate the importance of its social role
and seek a way of skilfully blending them both. As the prominent Irish
jurist Sean Macbride wrote:

freedom of a citizen or social group to have access to communication
both as recipients and contributors, cannot be compared to the freedom
of an investor to derive profit from the media. One protects a fundamental
human right, the other permits the commercialisation of a social need.

and human rights

Richard Goldstone who is currently conducting the war crimes tribunal
in the Hague said, 'Show me a country without a free press, and I will
show you a country where human rights are trampled upon'.

my sober views of the changes that have occurred and are occurring within
Australia's media, it is true that the media continues to have a huge
impact in shaping, influencing and changing public opinion. It remains
a primary source of information for many. For those of us working in the
field of human rights it is a crucial instrument to master. An ability
to access the media is critical because, at best, the media:

  • reflects the views
    of society and influences the shaping of those views
  • it can influence
    the outcome and direction of debates
  • it can influence
    government policy through editorial comment and by generating response
    from readers, viewers and listeners
  • it can inform
    its audience about developments within government policy, and
  • it assists, through
    responsible reporting and analysis, the setting of acceptable standards
    of human rights practices within which our society endeavours to operate.

and coverage of Aboriginal issues

challenge for many human rights offices - whether they be in Australia
or the Phillippines or elsewhere - is to get media coverage that educates
the community and catalyses social change.

I believe
that it is important that we access the media strategically. We have to
know how the media works in order to exploit it. What hierarchy of values
exist within a media organisation? What are the issues that obtain news
coverage priority? How do journalists, producers and editors choose which
topics will get exposure and which don't?

In addressing
these questions I want to specifically discuss how the media in Australia
covers human rights issues involving Indigenous peoples.

It has
been said of the news, 'the worse it is, the better it is'. The journalist
always 'prefers a murder to a suicide, and both to a wedding'.

media thrives on conflict. Conflict is what inspires the daily production
of thousands of words, images and sound grabs across Australia every day.
Consistently, predictably, we the audience, consume and we, as Aboriginal
people, participate in a media agenda ruled by conflict.

media, undeniably, has a crucial role in Aboriginal affairs. Non Indigenous
peoples most often form their opinions of us by what they read, see and
hear. How journalists, broadcasters, columnists and others report race
issues shapes and changes public opinion and policy.

any seasoned journalist will tell you that the media feel little obligation
or duty to be a provider of public education. Most forms of media are
run as a commercial business. It is useless to pretend otherwise. In an
increasingly competitive mass media environment, each media outlet will
be jostling and vying with its competitors for a 'scoop'. 'Scoops'increase
and maintain sales and audience. Conflict - lurid, sensationalistic, vulgar,
and voyeuristic is what is traded and sold.

So how
do we as Aboriginal people participate? How can we strive to be heard?
How can we be vigilant and guard against being misrepresented? And how
can we compete?

years ago our presence in the media was characterised by invisibility.
We didn't have a presence. In the 1960s the headlines of a national current
affairs magazine blurted 'Australia for the white man'. At that time,
we were only in the nation's shadow, there but not seen, speaking but
not heard. As the Australian academic Manning Clarke said, black fellas
were 'the whispering in our hearts', the white fella's heart.

years on and you'll often see us on TV, read about us in the papers and
hear our voices on radio. Not as journalists, reporters or broadcasters
but as images, interviewees, sound bites. On the surface, this is encouraging.
But the media's hunger, its obsession with 'news values' rooted in conflict
has pushed us into the limelight. In this nation's 'quality broadsheets',
we have, over the past five years, jumped from the peripheral back pages
to the front.

many Australians our presence in the media has become synonymous with

I would
even suggest that for a lot of non Aboriginal people, who only know a
blackfella from what they see in the media, have been exposed to so much
bad news, that they are now suffering from 'compassion fatigue'. The more
politicised our issues have become, the more conflict is exacerbated by
the media, the faster many non Aboriginal people, some deeply uncomfortable
and confronted with what they see, are shutting down.

it is true that media coverage of conflicts involving Aboriginal people
is as diverse as the peoples within our own community. And it would be
inaccurate and facile to suggest that the media's treatment of our people
is characterised by outright hostility.

diversity of this coverage is frequently the result of editorial discretion,
personal biases and each media practitioner's understanding of our culture
and history. We are frequently interpreted by this fickle, subjective
code. Some journalists and a few mainstream publications will cover stories
involving racial conflict or Aboriginal issues with professionalism, skill
and integrity. These writers, broadcasters and reporters are hardworking,
savvy and able to be fair and accurate. Their coverage is grounded in
facts and perceptive analysis. I wouldn't say they're all simply 'on side'
as say that they work damn hard to present a balanced view in a competitive
work environment easily seduced by sensational stories, cliches and stereotypes.

calibre of journalism is rare and it takes courage.

of these journalists know too well what kind of sentiment is aroused by
their endeavour to present balanced coverage. I'd have my head in the
sand if I didn't acknowledge the vehement, anti Aboriginal feeling that's
alive and well in Australia today. One executive producer recently commented,
'that the reporting of race issues brings the biggest response and sometimes
the lowest ratings. People don't want to face the issues, and when they're
forced to face them they react, sometimes with great force and passion'.
Anonymous hate mail, abusive phone calls are all part of the trickle down
effect of reporting race issues.

I'm not trying to gild the lily. Some journalists do a fantastic job when
it comes to covering race issues. Most don't.

A great
many Australians form or reinforce their opinions of Aborigines from reading
regional papers and listening to talk-back radio. The currency in these
papers and programmes are stereotypes. The feckless Aborigine who spends
his social security cheque on alcohol, deprives his kids of food, beats
his wife, runs amok in town and stops a mining project. These outlets
have worked hard for years to inflame prejudice, cement ignorance and
widen the divide between us. I am still astounded and dismayed by the
all time low standards of gutter journalism. Even the quality broadsheets
continue, in the manner to which they are accustomed, to keep their far
right wing commentators who habitually engage in verbal black-bashing.

some populist examples of the kind of 'fear and loathing' media coverage
I refer to and the mythologies they perpetrate, we can take a look at
these. As some of these issues may or may not be familiar to you, please
feel free to ask questions.

Cartoon from the Cairns post
- the caption reads 'do you feel
we should integrate into a mainstream, multi cultural Australia apropos
economic, societal and cultural opportunities and rights...or should
we just go on taking whitey's hand outs?'

- Aborigines are lazy and don't want to work.

- the Aboriginal community suffer a far higher rate of unemployment
than the non Aboriginal. On average 38% of Aborigines are unemployed
although this is higher in remote areas. 26% or 30.000 unemployed Aborigines
are working part time for the dole, their unemployment benefits. No
other Australians work for the dole.

Land grabs
- (Cairns Post) FNQ Blacks lay claim to 7000
sq. Kms

message/myth: land claims by Aborigines are illegitimate and inflated.

prior to the Mabo decision in 1992, Aboriginal people had no rights
to traditional lands except those given by government under limited
legislation. Since the Mabo decision, Aboriginal people have not been
greedily grabbing land. The Mabo decision will only benefit those Aborigines
who can prove a continual association with the land claimed. The native
title legislation protects all non Indigenous titles to land. The
land this story refers to belongs to the crown and the land grab referred
to is the traditional land of the Yindinji people.

Plight of Aborigines - worsened
(Northern Territory News) claims
that 3000 organisations claiming to represent Aboriginal interests in
Australia run at a cost which 'is anybody's guess although one thing
is certain, it runs into billions of dollars'.

Black Australia is awash with money, too much money.

in 1994, Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous health was only 1.26%
of the total expenditure even though the indigenous population comprises
1.6% of the total population.

annual Commonwealth budget for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission (ATSIC) in 1996-1997 is 959.92 million. ATSIC's funding has
been cut by $470 million over four years.

than 10% of the Commonwealth's assistance to Indigenous people is in
the form of payments to individuals.

Aboriginal policy was for their own good
(West Australian)

this shocker refers to the forced removal of Aboriginal kids from their
families by the Australian government. This policy, officially abandoned
in the late 60s, aimed to assimilate children of 'mixed' Aboriginal
blood into the white community. The goal was to segregate the full blood
Aboriginal race with the view that they would eventually die out. The
removal policies amounted to genocide of the Aboriginal race. The on-going
impact of this dark and terrible time in our history is realised by
many in our community. The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths
in custody reported that 43 of the 99 people whose deaths were investigated
had been separated from their parents as children.

from being expressions of almost pure bombastic bigotry, these examples
represent the most fetid form of journalistic endeavour. Combining stereotypes,
ignorance and prejudiced opinion, this kind of coverage serves to perpetuate
negative images and information about Indigenous peoples. It shapes conflict
by erecting 'us' and 'them' mythologies, denuded of facts, and balanced
analysis. Some critics would say that the remedy is to only have positive
stories about Aboriginal people. Well I don't think we need to be treated
with kid gloves, but I think we deserve respect and a fair go.

would consider it important to allow media practitioners the right to
say what 'the people are thinking' yet are perhaps too frightened to say
themselves. To publicly vent their bigotry is said to clear the air. Well
we've had years of this sham excuse and the air's no fresher!

how can Aboriginal peoples access the media and use it to our advantage?

to the Entertainment and Arts Alliance Union of Australia, of the 7000
journalists employed, only 20 are Aboriginal. Considering that the majority
are employed only within the government owned Australian Broadcasting
Commission, it is true that we are going to have to work a lot harder
to create the bridges required, between us and the media.

1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody clearly stipulated
through recommendation 205(b) that all media organisations should be encouraged
to develop codes and policies relating to the presentation of Aboriginal

  • the establishment
    of monitoring bodies, and
  • the putting into
    place of training and employment programmes for Aboriginal employees
    in all classifications.

has not happened. Despite this and other specific media recommendations
put forward by the 1991 Royal Commission, Aboriginal people continue to
be fringe players, the subjects of, rather than participants in the mainstream

the few media organisations that do employ Aboriginal people, they are
predominantly concentrated in the lower echelons of administration rather
than as broadcasters, journalists and editors. And as I've already mentioned
most media organisations have no official policy on how to report Aboriginal
issues. The diversity of coverage is only the result of media practitioners
making their own case-by-case, value laden assessment of what their audience
would like to see and how we should be represented.

In our
own Aboriginal media - radio, tv and print, we have seen the re-emergence
of our own communication styles. We read our own news because a lot of
it is good news, it's about our communities' achievements as well as our
difficulties. The arts, music, sport, our elders' oral histories find
their place alongside stories about our history, culture and our
current affairs. Most non Aboriginal Australians are simply not privy
to the role that our media has in providing very entertaining, and informative
representations of Aboriginal culture and people. Good news and positive
news about us is not the one-off that it often is in the non Aboriginal
media, it's a staple. Within our own communities grass roots media production
is also seen as a positive force to reinforce cultural values and
cultural control.

engaging with the mainstream media, Aboriginal people need to be skilled
so that we have the best chance of being able to put our case across.
In this current political climate where negative myths about us have been
allowed to ferment in the public sphere, it is essential that we are able
to argue our position well. By being armed to the hilt with facts so we
can rebut the many untruths presently being propagated.

when many non Aboriginal people have formed their skewed views of us from
listening to aggressive populist talk back radio commentators, we have
to seize the challenge to respond. More now than ever before Aboriginal
people have to use the media successfully.

may be as straightforward as knowing your issue well enough to be able
to respond aptly and also knowing when not to engage by refusing to respond
if the question is irrelevant. We need to get to know how the media works.
We need to extend our contact with people that work in the media and improve
our relationships with them. We need to understand their work constraints
and how best to inform them. The media doesn't owe us anything so we need
to know how to compete along with anyone else when trying to get coverage.
It's a game, a strategy and we've got to become better players.

In this
era, one of our most significant challenges is the need for Aboriginal
leaders and community spokes people to access the media audience captured
by the conservative commentators I've referred to. We cannot ignore the
anxiety and hostility that many non Aboriginal people feel towards us.
We need to speak directly to those with the most entrenched feelings.

We need
to be able to translate our social justice agenda into language and imagery
that others can relate to. Social justice for us is grounded in the daily
lives of Indigenous Australians. It is awakening in a house with an adequate
water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. But all too often our
issues are couched in the abstract language of human rights law or submerged
within academic reports and hard statistics. When we speak to the media
we have to make our human rights issues relevant and understandable.

challenge is to translate our agenda so that others feel some connection,
some level of commonality, and be able to relate to what we're talking
about, what we experience, so that they too can imagine what it
would be like to have been removed from ones family as a child, to have
lost one's ancestral lands and language, to live in a community where
47% of your young are unemployed. To achieve this we need to extend ourselves
beyond the specialty programmes, with already converted audiences to those
whose views remain deeply antagonistic.

media is one of the most powerful forces to master. Currently we may have
no significant control of the media but we must be able to determine how,
when and why we engage with it. We must become active and strategic participants,
we must understand how it works and use this knowledge to ensure that
media coverage of us is fair and responsible, that it creates bridges
of understanding and not walls of division.


this paper was not delivered at the DTP due to the public lecture session
being cancelled

updated 1 December 2001