What role does the media play in perpetuating social and economic disadvantage among Indigenous peoples in Australia? Michael Dillon reviews Amy Thomas, Andrew Jakubowicz & Heidi Norman’s survey of media reporting of key political moments, Does the media fail Aboriginal political aspirations? While Dillon agrees with the authors’ conclusions about the inadequacy of media coverage, he questions whether these practices are the primary reason for policy outcomes that are not aligned with Indigenous aspirations.
By Michael Dillon
It is indisputable that the media plays a role in shaping political outcomes and public policy in liberal democracies such as Australia. Given the broad consensus in Australia that Indigenous policy outcomes are sub-optimal, the role of the media in contributing to that result is a subject worthy of research and analysis. Or to adopt an alternative frame, given the gap between First Nations’ political and social aspirations and the political barriers erected by the wider society, the role of the media in creating, supporting and sustaining those gaps is worthy of research and analysis.
Does the media fail Aboriginal political aspirations? is an unusual amalgam: it is simultaneously a commissioned report, an initiative designed to contribute to the NSW Government’s community focused plan for Aboriginal affairs known as OCHRE; an academic research project; and arguably a sophisticated normative argument for more inclusive and nuanced media coverage of Indigenous issues. The report is in three parts. The three authors provide a brief contextual introduction in part 1 and lay out their findings in part 3. The bulk of the book is a series of eleven case studies, four written by Thomas, one by Jakubowicz, and two by Norman. Additionally, Lorena Allam, Alison Whittaker, Anne-Maree Payne, and Amy McQuire each contribute a case study.
The case studies focus on a series of chronologically ordered policy initiatives, described by the authors as ‘eleven Aboriginal initiatives’. While selective, and in some cases unexpectedly narrow in scope, they provide a surprisingly useful foundation for examining the arc of Indigenous public policy over the last fifty years, the role of Indigenous interests in shaping outcomes, and the role of the media in depicting and framing those policy initiatives. Beginning with the 1972 Larrakia Petition, the case studies traverse the work of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee in the late seventies; the 1982 Parliamentary Report Two Hundred Years Later; and the 1988 Barunga Statement. Shifting to more recent developments, the case studies examine Paul Keating’s Redfern Statement; the passage of the Native Title Bill; John Howard’s calls for Practical Reconciliation; Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology and his Closing the Gap policy; the 2012 Expert Panel Report on Constitutional Recognition; and the 2017 Uluru Statement.
At the core of this volume is the issue of how First Nations are framed by the dominant society via the media and in particular the print media. Key theoretical concepts leveraged to unpack the contents of that framing include notions of unrecognised or unacknowledged Indigenous agency and Indigenous standpoints. The authors make a compelling case, both in their introductory analysis and in the 11 case studies, for the argument that mainstream media stories on issues related to First Nations reflect discourses and deeper narrative structures that erase or make invisible Indigenous political aspirations. In turn, this diminishes the likelihood of agreement making between Indigenous interests and governments that the authors see as necessary to accept Indigenous aspirations as legitimate and to give effect to them.
The overarching hypothesis of the volume is conceptually ambitious and ultimately problematic. Insofar as it attempts to theorise the implications of the inadequate and one-eyed framing of Indigenous agency by the media, it tries to do too much. It is simultaneously an extended and largely persuasive public policy argument, a perceptive exploration of the way the media portrayed developments in Indigenous and mainstream relations over time through the illumination of key moments within different Indigenous policy eras, and an only partially successful attempt to clothe the analysis in a more rigorous and replicable format. Underpinning each of these perspectives is a set of assumptions about Indigenous interests and the media that are intuitively reasonable, but are stated and not argued,. So for example, the existence of an Aboriginal polity is asserted:
Thus agreement making must start from the proposition that there exists a diverse, complex and powerful Aboriginal polity which has a bona fide claim to self-governance and self-determination.
Yet the implicit caveats inherent in adjectives such as ‘diverse’ and ‘complex’, and the undiscussed meaning of ‘powerful’ undermine the conceptual clarity of the notion of polity. Moreover, one might argue that there exist numerous Indigenous polities, and these often complicate and perhaps even threaten the possibility of effective agreement making on scales that extend beyond the polities involved in particular issues.
Similarly, particularly in the analytic sections of the volume, the media are largely described in monolithic and corporate terms, and the possibilities for individual editorial agency are under-emphasised or not explored. The authors’ overarching analysis tends to leave unexplored the relationship between the media and governments. While there is an implicit assumption that media discourse and deeper narratives are influential in shaping mainstream voters’ views, it is increasingly apparent that media interests and governments have complex and largely informal symbiotic relationships, albeit along a qualitative spectrum from mutual dependence to deep sycophancy. To the extent that such government/media symbiosis is a reality, the authors’ argument that the media has failed Indigenous interests due to the media’s refusal to reflect and report Indigenous standpoints and agency requires significant revision.
The volume’s overarching theoretical ambitions are in my view compromised by the authors’ decision not to locate their analysis within a broader conceptual context that considers the role of the media in the policy and political process more generally. The primary reason for this perhaps derives from the origins of the book as a commissioned research project for the NSW Aboriginal Affairs agency. This focused the research on the narrower policy aims embedded in the Government’s policy agenda for securing better relationships with NSW Aboriginal communities. While the authors are open in acknowledging this, they (perhaps understandably) do not attempt to analyse reflexively the reasons a government or government agency might prefer to frame past policy shortcomings as the responsibility of media failures. The volume’s status as a commissioned report also leads the authors to adopt the Agency’s policy on the use of the term ‘Aboriginal’ to refer to all First Nations citizens. While understandable in a NSW context, it jars in a work dealing with national issues.
The strongest sections of the book are the eleven chronologically organised case studies. Each is based on a key policy event in the history of Indigenous affairs, and follows a predetermined template. Each case study describes a selected event, selects a number of key print media articles for analysis, and discusses the academic literature related to the event. The corporate structure of the media — referred to as the media ecology — at the time of the event is considered. The case studies then analyse the various discourses embedded within the selected media articles, compare them to any relevant Indigenous texts, and seek to identify deeper narratives. Each of these chapters stands on its own, and they invariably represent highly useful analytic accounts of the policy events addressed. Taken together, they provide a valuable outline of the modern history of Indigenous policy in Australia, not least because the focus on interpreting these events through the prism of media coverage and the associated focus on framing and deeper discourses throws a light on the potential for new or different interpretations of these key policy events. As an admittedly selective assessment of modern Indigenous policy, the sum of the whole exceeds that of the parts.
Notwithstanding this broader value, I found myself unpersuaded by the more specific argument that the media bear responsibility for the failure of Indigenous aspirations to be realised. The failure to persuade does not derive from a disagreement on my part with the conclusions of the case studies, but emanates from the authors’ failure to theorise and document the determinative role of the media in shaping particular policy events. In each case study, the media analysed is reporting on decisions already taken by policy actors, whether governments or Indigenous. Yet there is no explicit link between the analytic conclusions drawn and the chosen policy event, nor indeed any other policy events. While I was persuaded that the media has been guilty of framing its stories in ways which erase Indigenous agency and pursue deeper narrative themes and tropes such as those identified in the case studies, there is a further step required to make a persuasive case that it is the media that is responsible for policy outcomes that do not align with indigenous aspirations. Unfortunately, the authors do not take that step.
My own experience suggests that the media is often used by governments and private interests seeking to constrain Indigenous aspirations. In serving those interests, segments of the media do promote discourses and deeper narratives that shape the wider political and policy environment. However, my reading is that the authors do not explicitly seek to make this argument, except perhaps implicitly.
Finally, while in the scheme of things mere quibbles, a close reader may note a small number of flaws that have slipped through the editing process. The reference to the late Senator Susan Ryan as ‘Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ on page 81, and indirectly on page 92, is incorrect and should have referred to her as the shadow minister. A reference to Fred Chaney, the Administrator of the Northern Territory could usefully have made clear that this is Fred Chaney (snr) (1914-2001), and not his son Fred Chaney (1941- present) who was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s.
To sum up, notwithstanding my view that the authors’ theoretical aspirations have not fully succeeded, this book is a timely reminder of the salience of the media in the Indigenous policy domain, and the importance of the academy in scrutinising the performance of one of the most important accountability institutions in liberal democracies. The authors demonstrate conclusively that the mainstream media has a propensity to frame its reporting in ways that often erase Indigenous agency and promote deeper narratives that sustain Indigenous exclusion. However, they do not persuasively establish that these practices are the primary reason for policy outcomes that are not aligned with Indigenous aspirations.
By searching out Indigenous standpoints, the case studies shed new light on a range of important political and policy moments in Indigenous affairs, and in particular, the role of those outcomes in shaping media reporting. The case studies authored by the two contributing journalists, Lorena Allam and Amy McQuire are particularly nuanced explorations of the events they examine. Given the ongoing (r)evolution in the structure of the media in Australia, particularly the ubiquity of social media, there remains a number of unanswered questions regarding the future role of the media in this policy domain. This volume has established an excellent platform from which to begin examining those issues into the future.
Were readers to apply the authors’ own analytic template to this volume, they would likely conclude that the authors have framed the volume as a demonstration that the mainstream media reporting on policy events involving First Nations is skewed against acknowledging and representing the role of Indigenous interests in shaping those policy events. Indigenous voices are routinely overlooked or silenced, particularly if they are advocating policies that challenge the status quo. The volume’s deep narrative is that governments too need to ensure Indigenous voices and interests are not erased, silenced, and excluded. The significance of this deeper narrative is to identify an ongoing and crucial societal challenge that will define the nation’s future.
The authors of this volume raise important issues that deserve ongoing scholarly attention and greater public debate.
Does the media fail Aboriginal political aspirations? 45 years of news media reporting of key political moments, Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS, Canberra, 276 pp.