When Mark Scott, the outgoing ABC managing director, publicly canvassed a merger between the ABC and SBS earlier this year, he was probably unaware of the raw nerve he touched among many culturally and linguistically diverse members of Australia’s media community.
Scott’s declaration that SBS no longer needed to exist as a stand-alone entity threw the issue of diversity in Australian media into the spotlight and fed into a growing debate about access and representation. Australia has always grappled with the issue of culturally diverse representations in our media, from the self-deprecating tokenism of Nick Giannopoulos to … the self-deprecating tokenism of Paul Fenech. Shows such as Benjamin Law’s The Family Law are rare in the sense that despite featuring a diverse cast, the humour in them doesn’t derive from racial slapstick, but from more traditional situational comedy. The juxtaposition of The Family Law, on SBS, and the stereotype-heavy comedy of Here Come the Habibs, produced by Nine, reignited debate about Australia’s insular, white-bread media sector this year. Why are shows that accurately portray Australia’s diversity so much rarer than shows that create imaginary versions of inner-city Melbourne and Sydney where non-white people don’t exist? Why do the breakfast programs on the ABC, Seven, Nine and Ten exclusively feature white people? Why do our news journalists so rarely reflect the population they are reporting on?
There isn’t a simple answer. Australians from a migrant background face significant economic and social challenges in securing an education and breaking through in any industry, including the media. Media organisations have shown reluctance to hire, train and nurture people from diverse backgrounds. These challenges can be overcome, but a combination of factors including declining funding of our public broadcasters and the disintegration of the media industry more broadly, leading to job cuts and increased casualisation, risks stymying serious attempts to improve diversity.
The mooted merger between our two public broadcasters is a good example of this. The model proposed by Scott would have seen SBS subsumed into the ABC structure, with the current ABC board and management team taking on responsibility for fulfilling the SBS charter. Collectively the ABC board and senior executive team comprise 23 members. Not a single one of them is from a culturally diverse background. How well could an organisation with such a homogenised leadership fulfil a mandate adequately to represent a range of cultures and backgrounds, and tell diverse stories? Those of us in the industry from diverse backgrounds would probably have had a less hostile reaction to Scott’s proposal if the ABC had already shown a willingness to engage, hire and represent diverse communities. If anything it’s shown us the opposite. According to the ABC’s 2015 diversity report, only 7 per cent of content makers at the organisation are from a non-English-speaking background, compared to a figure of 15 per cent for the whole country. There is more than one factor behind these statistics, but a leadership team and board that fail miserably on the diversity benchmark surely play a role.
The domination of leadership positions in the Australian media industry by individuals overwhelmingly from Anglo backgrounds isn’t the sole cause of the diversity problem across our news and entertainment media. But it’s part of the problem and serves as a stark reminder of how little progress has been made.
Of Australia’s five free to air television networks only SBS has representatives from a non-English-speaking background on its board of directors or senior management team. Fairfax, the largest locally owned news media company in Australia, has zero people from a non-English-speaking background on its board or senior management team. It’s a fact that at the top level our media organisations are woefully out of step with the real cultural make-up of Australia. But what happens when young writers, journalists, producers and actors are getting a start? Is the system ignoring them, creating extra barriers or are there just not many in the first place?
There are overarching socioeconomic factors that hinder Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds finding work across all occupations and industries. A 2014 study found that only 56 per cent of young Australians who were born overseas were in employment compared to a figure of 72 per cent for those born in Australia. The study found that even when migrant Australians had the same qualifications and experience as those born in Australia, they still struggled to find work, demonstrating that discrimination is a real factor.
Other studies have shown that job applicants with non-Anglo names are less likely to be offered interviews, even if they are just as qualified as other applicants. These issues apply across the board, and not just to the media. One issue is the paucity of data we have in trying to understand where the root causes of the problem lie. There aren’t any reliable, consistent demographic data looking at media students and the media industry, broken down by background. That makes it hard to know whether the problem is a low number of Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds studying relevant degrees or undertaking training—or is the main barrier the difficulty of getting into the workforce?
But there’s one thing we do know, and that’s that Australians from a non-English-speaking background face significant levels of disadvantage when it comes to a range of factors, including education, employment and housing. These challenges have a compounding effect for those attempting to get a leg up in an industry notoriously reliant on free labour.
Internships, freelancing and working for free on sets are all too common in an industry that pumps out far more graduates and trainees than there are jobs. And a business model that relies on free labour privileges those who have the time and money to provide it. Overwhelmingly that’s white Australians from wealthy, inner-city backgrounds, and not those from non-English-speaking or migrant backgrounds. The more the industry relies on freelance and short-term work, the more this will exacerbate the diversity gap.
Myriam Robin, a journalist with Crikey, argues that ‘It’s much easier to become a journalist if you’re middle class and have parents happy to pay for you while you work for free. That impacts all marginalised communities.’ But she thinks there are other barriers, unrelated to financial situation, impacting migrant communities. ‘I think it’s more cultural,’ she told me. ‘If there’s no culture of working in the media, it’s a very opaque industry, pathways into it are informal, and with no-one holding your hand it’s a lot harder.’
Sheree Joseph, the editor of Fairfax’s The Vocal online publication, argues that the media industry is ‘an insiders club, and you need to know enough people to be on the inside. Few people are willing to do the work to discover new voices from diverse backgrounds,’ she believes. She argues that it’s not good enough to wait for diverse voices to make their way into the media scene. She thinks editors and producers have to actively seek them out and support them.
Looking at who decides what content gets commissioned in Australia and which stories are told, it looks like she’s right. It’s not apparent that if we could somehow boost the number of people from diverse backgrounds choosing to work in the media, we’d fix the issue.
When it comes to TV drama and comedy, for example, there seems to be a reluctance to tell the real stories of multicultural Australia. Programs such as The Family Law are exceptions rather than the norm, and they still tend to be produced out of SBS rather than the commercial networks, or even the ABC. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with audience numbers. The Family Law rated well and has been given the green light for a second season, demonstrating an appetite for this kind of programming. It’s also hard to believe that there’s absolutely no-one of merit, from a non-English-speaking background, who could be fit for breakfast television in this country, for example. Even accounting for underrepresentation across the media industry, do senior producers and network directors really believe not a single non-white face is good enough to be on morning television? When it comes to news journalism, things look slightly better, but our most respected and authoritative journalists, particular across politics and business, are almost exclusively white.
‘Anyone only needs to turn on Australian TV—especially commercial TV, though public broadcasters aren’t immune either—to see a whole lot of all-white casts and all-white discussion panels. Which is weird, considering we live in one of the most multicultural nations in the world, where one in five speak languages other than English, one in four are originally migrants and nearly half of us have at least one parent born overseas,’ Benjamin Law remarked. So how do we fix it? Law pointed out that similarly diverse countries to Australia, such as Canada, Britain and the United States, all have quotas and targets to some extent:
The CBC has diversity enshrined in its charter, the BBC has a specific fund to foster diverse talent, Britain’s Channel 4 docks the pay of executives who don’t reach diversity targets in hiring practices, and throughout the United States there are diversity officers in the film and TV industry whose sole job is to ensure hiring practices are diverse.
Joseph thinks those commissioning content need to take more responsibility. ‘You set the example by publishing as many diverse voices as you can, and watch as via word of mouth, it just naturally extends to the more diverse circles. But if you restrict it to you and your white friends, you can’t expect to see that change happen mysteriously on its own.’
The challenge of reshaping Australia’s insular and homogenous media industry isn’t new or easy. In fact, with the entire industry in a state of flux, utilising a workforce that is less secure than at any time in recent history, it’s probably a harder challenge than it has ever been. But the more diverse Australia becomes, the more obviously out of step our TV programming and newspapers are in reflecting it. While broader issues of societal discrimination and disadvantage can’t be magically fixed, there is something our media organisations can do. They can decide to employ Australians from diverse backgrounds, across all levels. They can commission more diverse content. They can invest in corporate roles aimed at improving diversity. They can investigate the use of quotas and targets. At the moment, basically none of this is happening. Pursuing this path seems a better use of time and energy than calling for Australia’s most diverse media platform to be subsumed into one that is much less representative.