Diversity… it’s a word gaining extra weight right now.
And after 20 years in the media industry, I’m being asked, what does it mean to me?
My first visceral experience of coming face to face (well, face to television) with the very notion of Aboriginal representation on Australian screens came with the landmark show Blackout on the ABC, hosted by Aaron Pedersen and Michelle Tuahine.
Not actors, or silent images painting stories of struggle and disadvantage.
Presenters… who talked about the issues of the day, with a focus on Indigenous affairs.
We were real, we had voices, and we were in control of telling the stories.
It was incredibly powerful and it was the moment when I, as a 14-15-year-old girl, then going on to complete my senior years of high school, thought ‘maybe I can do that too?’
Fast forward 30 years, Australia, and the world at large, is awash with demands for recognition, justice, and representation.
Black Lives Matter is a movement storming the streets.
The idea of ‘unconscious bias’ has people asking themselves whether the way they perceive the world around them is making a difference between who gets ahead in life and who is left behind.
And Media Diversity Australia’s report ‘Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories?’ offers a snapshot of the way the Australian media ‘tells, frames and produces’ stories in TV news and current affairs.
I am currently part of the 2.1 per cent of presenters, commentators and reporters identified as Indigenous in the report’s tally.*
This translates to six people out of a total of 270 who appeared on camera on free-to-air television during a two-week study period.
We are still so few.
The ABC is doing better.
I’m one of five per cent of on-air talent who are Indigenous.
And we’ve made some recent inroads with programs like Insiders to address imbalance.
But numbers aren’t everything.
Experience also counts, and after lasting some two decades in this business, I’m hoping any insights and lessons I’ve learned along the way will help to keep more Indigenous and linguistically, culturally, ability and gender-diverse storytellers joining the fray.
Blackout sparked my curiosity in media as a career option
I tried several stints at work experience in the industry.
My first in Year 11 with the local ABC radio station in Lismore, NSW, 2NR (now ABC North Coast).
Then, when I finished uni in 1998, and with no real plan in mind, I spent a couple more brief periods at SBS in 1999 and again in 2000.
The third time was the charm.
I tagged along for two weeks with the team at ICAM (Indigenous Current Affairs Magazine, which was a precursor to Living Black) who were in the thick of pre-Olympics coverage.
It was a dream come true.
With their production assistant on maternity leave, I was encouraged to apply for the role and, sure enough, made the grade.
From there, I took on any task that came to hand, from basic admin to research and then producing a 15-minute feature on renowned activist and musician, the late Bobby McLeod.
I was lucky to be working in a culturally-safe environment.
Having fellow staff, producers, researchers, and managers who were all Indigenous meant I could focus on the storytelling, and not have to repeatedly justify the ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘how’.
And yes, I do recall being at the table when discussions regarding other tiers of programming grappled with arguments that anything Indigenous immediately lost viewers and was to be avoided.
Emboldened, I submitted my application for SBS World News’ TV reporter cadetship in 2002.
I didn’t make the cut, but I did get a chance to prove myself by spending time in the newsroom writing weekend weather reports for the one and only, Lee Lin Chin.
Second time around I got in.
And so started my foray into the demanding and exacting arena that is broadcast news.
I was grateful for the chance to step outside the Indigenous media niche.
A legacy of being the only Aboriginal child to attend the pre-school in the town I grew up in.
And at SBS I was allowed to become what I thought I needed to be.
But it was still a very lonely experience in some ways.
I carried so much baggage (and honestly, I still do) from a lifetime of constantly proving I was just as good, if not better, than the next person.
At times, I felt it best to avoid making my Indigenous identity immediately obvious.
Not exactly hiding who I am, but certainly wanting to be anything but the ‘token black fella’.
That kind of pressure built up and without anyone to talk to, someone trusted to understand and maybe have some advice of their own, it took a toll.
This was a problem I couldn’t quite make sense of while dealing with the cut and thrust of a daily deadline.
I didn’t think to ask for help.
I ended up resigning and left without any clear idea of ‘what next’.
If it wasn’t for a former SBS colleague reaching out, I probably would have called time on my media career 14 years ago.
Instead, I started producing documentaries for the ABC’s Message Stick show.
Eight-and-a-half years into my switch back to news broadcasting with the ABC’s News Channel, and a multitude of steady hands to help me steer my course, I might just be ready to accept my place here is no accident or ‘box ticking’ exercise.
These days, I wholeheartedly support the ABC’s efforts at building and strengthening its mentoring programs.
And I try to do my bit, ‘paying it forward’, so to speak.
I know for myself how much difference can be made by having someone help you find your feet in this industry.
It’s important to have clear goals, guidelines, targets and measures.
To be accountable.
But equally, it is those things that can’t be quantified — those chance encounters and conversations in corridors, a random moment in the field when you can connect with someone who trusts you to tell their story meaningfully, or being in the newsroom when a story breaks to add an extra layer of depth and nuance in editorial discussions.
When we have diversity threaded through the entire fabric of an organisation like the ABC, and not just pieces stitched together like a patchwork quilt, then we will have arrived at another landmark moment.
I wonder now, what would it look like to have a Director of News, Analysis and Investigations, or indeed a Managing Director, who is Bundjalung, Yolngu, Noongar or Gunditjmara?
And how long will it be before I (hopefully) see that happen?
*As of the latest Census, the proportion of the Australian population identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander is 3 per cent.