• The cast of First Contact - Series 2 (Ray Martin)Source: Ray Martin
SBS Channel Manager Ben Nguyen questions whether new series First Contact is guilty of any “bigotry of low expectations”.
Ben Nguyen

28 Nov 2016 - 11:04 AM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2016 - 11:11 AM

Last week a small storm erupted over media representation of indigenous Australia.

“ABC of Racism” read the front page of Tuesday’s The Daily Telegraph, reporting the comments made by Noel Pearson at a Paul Keating biography launch that the ABC was “miserable” and “racist”.

“[A] spittoon’s worth of perverse people willing the wretched to fail” Pearson described.

“They need blacks to remain alienated from mothers’ bosoms, incarcerated in legions, leading short lives of grief and tribulation – because if it were not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations?”

The ABC fired back.

“The ABC provides more coverage of Indigenous issues and has a broader Indigenous staffing profile than any other Australia media outlet” they said in a statement covering the role of indigenous commentators and talent at the broadcaster.

In all this I heard echoes of both the arguments made by the participants and my own thoughts while viewing the new season of First Contact.

While the program generally follows the approach of the 2014 series immersing white Australians in aboriginal communities and culture for the first time, this season exchanges ordinary Australians for those with a public profile.

It means some come with more well-rehearsed positions.

The running debate through the series finds expression through former talk-radio presenter and One Nation Party co-founder David Oldfield and former Triple J presenter and comedian Tom Ballard.

Oldfield arrives with firmly held views of the irrelevance of pre-European aboriginal culture and tradition while Ballard carries the historical burdens of dispossession and discrimination heavily.

The way in which each challenges the other in response to the people they encounter is fascinating and asks that an audience question their own preconceptions.

But Pearson’s attack on the ABC did also prompt me to ask whether First Contact was guilty of any “bigotry of low expectations”.

Throughout the series the participants hear from aboriginal people working to prevent alcohol abuse, violence and poverty, setting up businesses and creating job opportunities – voices we can only hear more of.

The group emerge from the experience better informed but with no big solutions to indigenous disadvantage.

If anything, the series did make me come to doubt that the answers lie with our political leaders.

Instead, change seems most effective at an individual and grassroots level.

So let me leave you with two small thoughts that occurred to me while viewing the program.

When I look at my local volunteer-run community groups, just take sporting and surf clubs as an example, I’m constantly impressed at how successful they are at bringing people together.

I think there is room for something similar that connects people to indigenous people and culture in their local area; that takes the conversation out of the political sphere and towards the greater sense of belonging that we all strive for.

And I’d also like to offer a plug to our sister channel NITV – National Indigenous TV (if you haven’t discovered it, it’s on digital channel 34, Foxtel 144, and SBSOnDemand).

My NITV colleagues work hard to deliver programming every day that speaks with a unique voice – one filled with humour and passion and that sees learning from the past as a tool to build a better future.

First Contact airs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 8:30pm followed by a reunion special Thursday 9:30pm on both SBS and NITV.

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