The Aboriginal Media Sector: A question of nationalism, or lack thereof
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The Aboriginal Media Sector: A question of nationalism, or lack thereof

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Land Rights. Black Power. Black control of Black affairs. Rejecting the dogma of an older generation influenced by mainstream institutions and the church, a new breed of Aboriginal activism surfaced in the late 1960s. Discourse shifted from civil rights to distinct rights, a revived Aboriginal nationalism.

The time had come to discard the White ‘goodwill’ that had infiltrated Aboriginal affairs for so long. Noonuccal woman Kath Walker, an Executive member of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), believed White ‘goodwill’ was “a shaky foundation on which to build”. The year was 1970, and the 13th annual FCAATSI conference was to be held in Canberra. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness and conservatism of FCAATSI’s multi-racial membership, a splinter group emerged – the National Tribal Council (NTC). With its exclusively Black membership, the NTC hoped to do away with the burden of White paternalism and interference.

Fast forward four decades. Enter the Aboriginal affairs industry. The Black bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding Black bureaucracy. And this is taking place with the help of countless well intentioned Whites as well as those whose vested interests are more sinister. Aboriginal media is no exception.

Our print sector is currently dominated by the Koori Mail, National Indigenous Times (NIT) and Tracker Magazine. The Koori Mail claims to be 100% Aboriginal owned, but its current Editor is White. The NIT was founded by a White man, and its two main reporters are also not Aboriginal. Of the three publications, Tracker is the only one where editorial control does not rest in the hands of someone who is not Aboriginal. This is not to say the work of Gerry Geogatos or Chris Graham is not of a high standard. Nor does it mean their efforts have been fruitless in terms of aiding the struggles of Aboriginal people.

The fundamental issue lies with Aboriginal nationalism, or the lack thereof. In the eyes of White Australia, we’re not a political problem, we’re just a problem. As it stands, we pose no real threat to the White establishment. Having Whites at the helm of Black media only serves to perpetuate this position of weakness.

The core tenet of Black power is Black control. Without Blacks leading the charge, gone will be the days when the Aboriginal movement seeks to challenge the power and legitimacy of the colonial state. Malcolm X claimed the very presence of Whites “suddenly renders the Black organization automatically less effective”.

Even the best White members will slow the Black man’s discovery of what they need to do, and particularly of what they can do for themselves, working by themselves among their own kind in their own communities.
Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

But White goodwill is far from our greatest drawback. A Black media sector confused about its purpose is far more dangerous.

Aboriginal community radio pioneer Tiga Bayles claims Black media should be an “essential service” alongside medical and legal aid. If so, what is the purpose of Black media as an essential service? I posed this question on social media and received a response [below] from lawyer and longtime Aboriginal rights advocate Heather Sculthorpe.

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If the premise is that Black media should play a role in effecting social and political change, does this imply the need for agenda driven journalism? Yuwallarai woman Kirstie Parker was Editor of the Koori Mail from 2006 to 2013. Ms Parker urged Black media to steer away from the “tendency to be a cheer squad for our communities” and advocated “balance and objectivity” when it came to reporting on Indigenous affairs.

Now in my third year of a journalism degree at Bond University, I know all too well the importance placed on “balance and objectivity” by the academy, a norm set by Australian society within the context of a dominant culture. This standard is also linked to the notion of the fourth estate, a concept referring to journalists having the task of keeping check of society’s powerful institutions – government, church and corporation. These very institutions are agents of colonialism, responsible for the ongoing oppression and dispossession of Aboriginal people. Instead of simply functioning in the limited capacity of watchdog, there is a need for Black media to challenge the power and legitimacy of the colonial regime. Many within the dominant culture are quick to preach markedly liberal ideals, overlooking those subjugated in the process of Whites reaching their position of power and privilege. It is folly to expect Black media to mimic mainstream media values founded in a world blinded by White normativity.

Darumbal woman and Editor of Tracker Magazine, Amy McQuire, says Black journalists “shouldn’t have to play by the rules of White media”.

Aboriginal media has to be fair, but I don’t think we should strive to be objective. Being biased isn’t a bad thing, because we’re being biased in favour of a people who have been continually dispossessed and disadvantaged.
Interview with AMY MCQUIRE (2014)

This is not a question about media representations of the truth. It is a question of power relations. The only truth Black media should be concerned with is the unyielding assault on our lands, lives and liberties.

Would you expect Palestinian media to be impartial when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, or West Papuans to give Indonesian authorities a voice whilst they massacre them in the streets?

It may be decades since the last massacre in this country, but we linger in a state of fourth worldness – a third world people living within the borders of a first world nation, a nation that continues to deny us the right to determine our own futures in our own lands.

Aborigines are incarcerated at five times the rate of Blacks in apartheid South Africa, Australia leads the world in linguicide, and our life expectancy is still more than 10 years below that of Australians. The mining industry wreaks havoc on our lands and waters under the guise of “economic development” while John Howard’s racially discriminatory intervention into the Northern Territory has been extended for another ten years. We have no genuine representation inside or external to the powerful institutions of the Australian State, and still no treaty.

The relationship between Aboriginal people and colonial society strongly resembles a war, a war of attrition. And there’s no time for objectivity or complacency in a warzone. This is the harsh reality for Indigenous peoples across the globe. We’re under constant pressure to assimilate as colonial powers seek to breed the Black out, to kill the Indian in the child, to destroy what makes us Nganyaywana, Anishinaabe or Tuhoe.

The Australian government injected millions into “Recognise”, the campaign for Constitutional reform, a furtive push for political integration. Proposed amendments include a token mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples while making English the official language of Australia. Anything but critical of this campaign, much of the Black media sector has been complicit with the propaganda arm of government. Headlines, photo spreads and stories that might as well be screaming ‘vote yes’ and ‘support the cause’ frequent the pages of the Koori Mail. It seems Black media can also have the tendency to be a cheer squad for government.

In a debate broadcast on SBS about reporting Indigenous stories, journalist for The Australian Patricia Karvelas stressed the supposed need for “mainstream media to get behind” the campaign for Constitutional reform. There’s something seriously wrong when an Aboriginal media outlet finds itself sharing the sheets with right wing conservatives.

Kooma man and veteran Aboriginal activist Wayne Wharton has been heavily involved over several decades with Indigenous media domestically and internationally. He thinks Aboriginal media in its current state is “floundering” and “has lost track”.

Many of our media organizations have pandered to the dominant society, have given up, and adopted the assimilationist policy. Aboriginal media can also be a tool to suppress us. With NITV being enshrined in the broader gambit of SBS, I think it sends a very dangerous message. Content is very lacking. Our media needs to get back to what the real issues are, no more of these goodwill magazine stories talking about shit. When is NITV going to advertise a march, a protest, a ceremony?
Interview with WAYNE WHARTON (2014)

“Living Black”, one of NITV’s flagships, is marketed as “Australia’s premier Indigenous current affairs program”. Yet they seem to be rather confused about what the role of Black media actually is, unabashedly propping up the likes of mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. Show host Karla Grant may as well have given Forrest a podium to preach his rhetoric on how the mining industry is apparently a godsend for Aboriginal communities.

Along with promoting outright assimilationist agendas, there are a variety of ways in which Aboriginal media organizations can compromise their capacity to act as a medium for Aboriginal nationalism:

Before going any deeper, let’s take a step back. We identify ourselves in a myriad of ways – by our country, our clans, our languages, as Aboriginal, Native, Indigenous, and as Black. But are we Australians? Are we just an ethnic minority content with being subsumed into the body politic of the colonial occupation?

Mainstream media giants including The Australian and ABC have taken to the term ‘Indigenous Australian’, echoing the sentiment behind John Howard insisting it would be “absurd” for a nation “to make a treaty with some of its own citizens”. It is crucial for us to act as, and be seen as a distinct political unit, a force to be reckoned with. This means avoiding and rejecting the use of terms like ‘Indigenous Australian’, which in effect dilute our unique identities.

‘Indigenous Australians’ are the original people who lost their country and consented to be citizens of Australia. Their lost rights are replaced with those of other Australians.
MICHAEL MANSELL
Citizenship, Assimilation and a Treaty (2001)

As the original peoples of this land, we have distinct rights and customary responsibilities. It is vital for us to realign the way we think about our status, and our media can aid this shift.

Simultaneously reactive and proactive, Indigenous nationalism finds its roots in two core actions – resistance and reconstruction. Black media has the potential to bolster our nationalism. But is possible if we capitulate to mainstream media values of neutrality?

We will always try to speak from within the cause and as part of the movement. For those reasons, we don’t propose to be objective when discussing Black issues.
ROSS WATSON
Black Nation – Policy of Paper (1982)

Black Nation was a broadsheet born of the Land Rights movement in Brisbane. Under the editorial leadership of Kungulu man Ross Watson, Black Nation played a key role in galvanizing Aboriginal people in the run up to the landmark 1982 Commonwealth Games protests. The stated aims of the paper included:

Five editions of Black Nation were printed, and circulated locally, nationally and across the globe between ’82 and ’85. Our media and our movement must be one and the same.

The flourishing Native uprising in Canada has generated a plethora of grassroots media ventures. A concerted social media campaign was central to the momentum of the Idle No More movement, mobilizing and uniting thousands in opposition to the Harper government’s assault on Native rights. Updates flooding Facebook and Twitter feeds helped spread word of rallies, marches and blockades taking place across the nation. What’s more, projects like Reclaim Turtle Island have served to strengthen and spread the word about the fight against resource extraction. Last year, their team produced and released a short documentary titled ‘Kahsatstenhsera: Indigenous Resistance to Tar Sands Pipelines’.

Reclaim Turtle Island is an Indigenous led multimedia project that seeks to promote and support frontline land defence, Indigenous sovereigntist and anticolonial struggles across so called North America.
AMANDA LICKERS
Reclaim Turtle Island (2014)

In wake of European invasion, we as Aboriginal people utilized a whole range of communication methods and networks to facilitate organized resistance, from smoke signals to message runners. Resistance remains just as important today, but we must also place emphasis on engaging in a process of reconstruction in consideration of all that has happened due to colonization.

In April 2013 I spent a week in Aotearoa, seeking inspiration from the Māori media sector. Visiting two Māori radio stations in Wellington, I quickly learned that language was of top priority. The Māori language revival movement of the 1980s spawned a national network of iwi (tribe) based radio stations. Prior to the establishment of the first Māori radio station in 1987, the number of fluent speakers had been reduced to 8% of the Māori population. The Waitangi Tribunal found that Te Reo Māori was a taonga (treasure) protected under the Treaty. Ultimately, the New Zealand government was found to have an obligation to support Māori language. There are now 21 iwi stations across the country, funded to deliver eight hours of Māori language content each day. As a means of combating the effects of tribal diaspora, listeners can also tune into programming online. Manager of Atiawa Toa FM Cory Stickle highlighted the importance of having tribe based stations, so that each iwi “would be able to tell their own stories in their own dialects”.

There’s definitely nothing you could do on a national scale [in terms of Māori radio as a platform for revitalizing language]. It was tried at the very beginning, with just one station that was set up, and it just didn’t work. We are a people built of different tribes, and these different tribes have different words for different things. It needed to shift from that national model to a more tribal, iwi based system.
Interview with CORY STICKLE (2013)

There are two models for Māori radio, bilingual and full immersion. Atiawa Toa FM broadcasts bilingual content, with “language programs, short segments that might only be twenty seconds long, teaching words and providing examples of how to use those words in sentences”. Mr. Stickle said this kind of approach helps to “normalize” Māori words and phrases into everyday language whilst “making our Māori people proud to speak their language”. Almost three decades on from the inception of iwi radio, over 20% of Māori can now “hold a conversation about a lot of everyday things in Te Reo Māori”.

Taking heed of the Māori experience, we must think seriously about the value of localised tribal media whether it be via radio, print or online platforms. Revitalization of language and culture is vital to restoring our unique tribal identities and traditional governance structures, shaping the way we think about our rights and responsibilities as Indigenous peoples.

The last two and a half thousands words of this article have been about the media ventures of others, so you’re probably wondering whether I actually have a stake in the debate. Rewind to August 2012 – still 17, at the end of second semester at Bond University, and no real idea of where my ‘education’ was taking me. But I had a keen interest in Aboriginal politics, and my grandfather’s story as a member of the stolen generations gave me a sense of purpose. I turned up at one of the weekly meetings of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) in Musgrave Park. Among those sitting around the fire were Mr. Wharton and 29-year-old Gamilaraay man Peter Skuthorpe, both of whom were arrested a few months earlier when hundreds of police attempted to evict the Embassy.

“You’re a journalist,” they said, “and we need a newsletter, how’s about it?”

Brisbane Blacks Monthly launched on September 7, 2012. We secured support from the National Tertiary Education Union to print 200 copies per edition. Three issues were released that year, but the publication lacked direction and was disbanded. Going back to the drawing board in early 2013, we articulated a clear editorial policy and relaunched on August 22. Brisbane Blacks is “an independent non-profit Aboriginal publication with the sole purpose of awakening the Black conscience, raising Black awareness, and articulating the Black resistance”. We have now released four editions of the revamped Brisbane Blacks magazine. And with the support of four unions, we were able to print 800 copies of issue four, many of which will be distributed via the BASE Community Food Program (provides food parcels to Brisbane’s Aboriginal community). Parallels are evident in the activities of the Black Panther Party during the late 1960s, with its community food program and Black Community News Service.

Brisbane Blacks also has a presence online with almost 2000 likes on Facebook, over 8000 reads on issuu.com and more than 4000 plays on SoundCloud. But it is clear that print, as a conventional form of media alongside radio, is essential with regards to reaching the Aboriginal community.

Anishinaabe man Manuel Narbonne, a member of the Wâbak Collective, recently spent six months in Australia filming the first segment of a documentary called ‘Why We Need Warrior Societies’. This project is intended to be “an important resource for our own people about why we need to re-establish the warrior role within our communities, to promote a spirit of resistance”. Brisbane Blacks collaborated with the Wâbak Collective in this venture, showing that Indigenous media as an arm of Indigenous nationalism is far from confined to the domestic paradigm.

Piecing together the fourth issue of Brisbane Blacks over the last few months, I came to the realization that we need a way of critically evaluating whether our media is doing its job. This comes back to the fundamental questions of our status as a people, our future as a people, and our purpose as a people.

So where to from now? A reformist approach would be futile, as much of the established Aboriginal media sector is currently rooted in upholding the status quo. Instead we could look to developing a fresh raft of grassroots media projects underpinned by the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism. Our movement and media should be one and the same. We as Aboriginal people must keep the end goal in mind, and that is liberation of our lands and lives.

Callum Clayton-Dixon is the Editor of Brisbane Blacks, a researcher/producer with the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association and columnist for Tracker Magazine.

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