In the MEAA Centenary Lecture 2014, Malarndirri McCarthy spoke about storytelling and the effect of being a journalist on her cultural identity as a Yanyuwa person. Illustration by Sam Wallman.
Malarndirri McCarthy

10 Apr 2015 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2015 - 4:49 PM

In Yanyuwa way, the art of storytelling is more than just art, it is our life. It is equally important to the three other clan groups in the Borroloola region – the Garrawa, Mara and Kudanji peoples. We have a word for it in Yanyuwa called Kujika. The Kujika can be loosely translated as 'mapping of songlines’. The Yanyuwa would walk on country and paddle in canoes across the seas and rivers singing the Kujika of the country – singing the map of country – which would describe the terrain and the history of the area. It would assist in knowing where to travel for food and shelter, and where to stay away if near sacred areas. Kujikas are intrinsic to our culture because in the singing of the stories our culture is being passed on, and has been for thousands of years, so the Yanyuwa would and will not forget country and the many stories attached to it. My Kujika starts in Borroloola and weaves its way to the desert country of the Aranda people in Alice Springs. I completed my primary school education then went to Gadigal country, where I completed my secondary education.

In 1989 I began my journalism career with the ABC at Gore Hill in Sydney on Cameraygal country. I was able to learn about other stories, and more importantly the modern methods of storytelling in broadcast television, gaining insight into the wider issues that impacted on all people, not just the First Peoples of this country.

As an Aboriginal cadet news journalist with the ABC, my world expanded greatly beyond my Yanyuwa cultural understanding.

The key, however, was not to lose my own cultural integrity and sense of self within this fast-paced and very competitive world.

The first real test was reporting on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). It is tragic to note that the numbers of Aboriginal deaths in custody has not reduced since RCIADIC. One cannot help but reflect and ask, “Just how far have we really come in Australia?” Especially when a young Indigenous person like Ms Dhu in Western Australia can be jailed for not paying a parking fine, and then die a painful death in custody. Almost 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding answers over her death. WA Premier Colin Barnett has made a personal commitment to do more to stop tragic deaths like Ms Dhu’s. But the promise rings hollow and too late to the Dhu family and other families. The high incarceration rate and the deaths in custody are incredibly important issues to the First Nations peoples in this country. But I want to give you another perspective to consider in the lives of First Nations’ journalists and the experiences we have in covering these stories.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established by the Hawke government in 1987, and over the next four years the Commission would travel the country investigating deaths that had occurred between January 1, 1980 and May 31, 1989, and the actions taken in each case. In all, the Commission investigated 99 deaths and made 339 recommendations. In 1991 I was working as a journalist in the ABC Sydney newsroom and my assignment was to prepare for the Commission handing down its recommendations. I spent a few weeks preparing for it by speaking to Indigenous families across Australia who had gone through the painful process of giving evidence about their loved ones.

It was important to me as a Yanyuwa person that I did not fail the expectations of those families who put their trust in me to cover their stories properly. But something else happened that day.

Many were very reluctant to speak to the media, for various reasons, including fear of being misrepresented, particularly in a cultural context. I had set the interviews in place around various parts of the country and coordinated the logistics for camera operators to meet with the families while I would do the interviews by phone, and then have the vision sent as soon as possible to Sydney.

This was a huge story.

Both in terms of the public and media expectations, but more importantly to First Nations peoples who were hoping this country would provide justice in the deaths of their family members. I arrived at the newsroom keen to get started with the Commission and interviewing the families. A schedule of the day’s rundown and logistics were in place. But an editorial decision had been made to remove me from the story and put a more senior journalist on the story, and my world as a journalist and my cultural identity as a Yanyuwa person hit head-on in a mighty way. I felt totally used and betrayed by those beside whom I worked closely. In Yanyuwa way, such behaviour would result in an open forum amongst the clans where the aggrieved person could express their suffering to all present, whilst the aggressor would be made to speak their reasons for their actions.

The very public debate would go back and forth until the aggrieved person felt he or she could move on and all poisonous feelings were ejected from within. It is important to the Yanyuwa that in order for right spiritual growth we must not cradle such bitterness. This teaching is integral to our need to live harmoniously with country and with kin. Mind you, it does take great effort and a great deal of vigilance, but there is always a process within the kinship structure that allows for this teaching to become a valued way of life. In the ABC newsroom I couldn’t do any of that – it was not Yanyuwa country and it was not a Yanyuwa kinship conflict.

So I prayed that the spirits of the Cameraygal people on whose country we were on would help me find a way through this day. They did.

I made it clear to those that needed to know that their decision was wrong. And that this type of injustice towards me – no matter how small in the scheme of things – gave insight into the injustices, the unfair practices, often gift-wrapped in excuses that pacified those who inflicted such unfairness, on Indigenous people. But I concluded with the view that as devastating and humiliating as it was to have the story taken from me in such a way, it was insignificant in comparison to the deep hurt and suffering of hundreds of Indigenous families across the country.

I stayed focused on their pain. It helped me to overcome mine and get rid of the toxic feelings from within. In Yanyuwa way, I could move on. Yes, another journalist did the story. Yes, I made sure I produced it and worked with the journalist to ensure the stories of these families were told well. Yes, editorial integrity was maintained. Yes, standing strong for cultural integrity was a lesson learned. And, yes, the ABC News bulletin looked really good that night, too. A year later in 1992 at Lake Mungo on the NSW and Victorian border, I was assigned to the story of the return of the oldest cremated remains in the world, that of Mungo Lady, to the Paakantji, Mathi Mathi and Ngiyampaa people.

Like in most cultures, in Yanyuwa culture ‘Sorry Business’ is sacred business. To the Yanyuwa, ‘Sorry Business’ is known as the ceremony that occurs once a person dies. First Nations peoples each have our own definition of ‘Sorry Business’ and the way in which the deceased is mourned, remembered and spoken about, then buried. There are also different rituals in the viewing of the dead before burial. Covering this story of the 40,000 year-old cremated remains of a woman meant an even deeper awareness of the sacredness of it. I admit that as a young Yanyuwa person and journalist, I was not sure how to proceed in walking my Kujika here, by trying to meet the news-integrity requirements and maintain my own cultural integrity through it all.

In Yanyuwa way, I needed to consult my Elders, the Jungkayi and Ngimarinngki, to give me guidance. I rang them from Sydney prior to doing an interview in Canberra with Professor Alan Thorne who would show me the box in which Mungo Lady was housed in the Australian National University. “While women play an important role in Sorry Business ceremonies, in Yanyuwa Law the dealing with the bones of dead people is serious men’s business, it is not a world for women.” Jungkayi means ‘protector or policeman of your mother’s country’.

Ngimarinngki means traditional owner of country. No decisions can be made about Yanyuwa country without the two involved. In ‘Sorry Business’ the Jungkayi takes the lead in the ceremony. I needed the guidance of the Jungkayi in helping me to walk this path appropriately in the sacred ceremony of Mungo Lady, and still deliver my news story on deadline. But something went horribly wrong.

My mother, a Ngimarringki said, “Stay way from looking at the deadbulla – not your country.” In other words, I was not to go near the remains out of respect for the Paakantji, the Mathi Mathi and the Ngiyampaa peoples. Her words stayed in my heart as I flew from Sydney to Melbourne and met an ABC News crew there, then droveto Mildura and out to Lake Mungo. We followed Professor Thorne as he carried the box with the remains of Mungo Lady to the Elders sitting and waiting on the sands of Lake Mungo.

It was a deeply moving occasion as the Elders wept at her return. With the ceremony over, I began to relax and moved around to talk to people as they ate lunch.

The Yanyuwa Elders said I had “left people behind”, and that’s perhaps why we had the accident.

During this time I looked over across the sand dunes to where Professor Thorne was standing and saw my news crew filming as he opened the box. Suddenly I felt the sand sting me as the wind blew up and my spirit felt kurdardi yamalu – ‘no good’. They’d had no intention of opening the box but obviously had changed their mind and I had not instructed the camera crew not to film inside it.

We then had to leave Lake Mungo and drive to Mildura to get to the feedpoint to send our story back to Melbourne for the 7pm ABC News bulletin that night. But we never made the deadline. Along the dusty dirt road to Mildura, as I sat in the back of the car with the camera on my lap, headphones on listening to the interviews and writing my  story, the cameraman lost control of the car. I remember looking up to see the car sliding off the corrugated road. We rolled and rolled and all the while I held the camera tight, fearing it would be a loose missile in the vehicle.

After the second roll, the car came upright and kept driving towards a tree, then the branch of the tree snapped onto the car, damaging the roof above the driver’s head. The car was still running and I thought it was going to explode. One crew member in the front jumped out through the passenger window. I couldn’t open my door, so I jumped across to the other back passenger door to get out. Then I tried to help the driver, who was bleeding from the head. We both got to safety under a tree with the third crew member.

We sat there, watching the car and waiting. The engine died and then there was only silence. Once back in Melbourne, I completed the story on Mungo Lady’s return to her people and it aired that same weekend. The editorial integrity was maintained. The Paakantji, the Mathi Mathi and the Ngiyampaa were pleased with the story, too. The ABC News crew were recovering well, although badly shaken with minor injuries. But there was a lesson of cultural significance for me. The Yanyuwa Elders said I had “left people behind”, and that’s perhaps why we had the accident.

The Jungkayi and Ngimarrinkgi said I should have explained to my News team about the sacredness of ‘Sorry Business’ on this journey. Inexperience as a journalist, and fear of being ridiculed and Yanyuwa ways disrespected, were the reasons for my inability to do so. It was through the coverage of Mungo Lady that I learned as a journalist that the cultural integrity of First Nations people could not be disregarded in newsgathering if black and white Australians were going to better understand one another in this country. In late 2012 I joined NITV NEWS as a senior journalist and in 2013 I returned to Lake Mungo to meet with the Paakantji, the Mathi Mathi and the Ngiyampaa people to follow up on the return of Mungo Man, whose remains still sit in a vault in the Australian National University.

His story and that of Mungo Lady hold deep significance to my Kujika and the Kujika of NITV – Australia’s National Indigenous Television Service.

NITV NEWS is part of WITBN – the World Indigenous Television Broadcasting Network. I am very proud of our small but very dedicated NITV NEWS team of 15 people who produce a nightly bulletin at 5.30pm each weeknight, which is repeated at 7pm and 11pm. We regularly take NITV NEWS-on-the-Road with TVU Backpacks and present the entire bulletin out on the road.

Presenter Nat Ahmat, chief producer Chris Roe and chief-of-staff Michael Carey join me in leading this incredible team to remote regions across Australia, as well as just across the Sydney Harbour for special ceremonies or events. Gomeroi man Danny TJ travels the length and breadth of NSW, Wiradjuri woman Tara Callinan is a tireless young VJ, and Kris Flanders is our super sports reporter, all supported by the talents of Gomeroi cameramen and editors Shayne Johnson and Steve Ellis. We have Craig Quartermaine in WA, David Liddle in Queensland and Myles Morgan in Parliament House in Canberra. Michelle Lovegrove is a senior journalist with NITV News, on secondment from her role as the executive producer of Living Black on SBS Radio.

Our technical capability and youthful exuberance in challenging everything and anything about TV broadcasting from where First Nations people are makes it an incredibly dynamic newsgathering process. Now with News online the future looks even more exciting. We are based at the SBS Headquarters in Artarmon and work with the SBS Editorial team. Given the tight fiscal times, as executive producer I have also implemented a process where we work on a daily basis with the other taxpayer-funded broadcaster, the ABC. NITV NEWS also interacts regularly with our colleagues in the Indigenous Media news services.

The NITV NEWS team maintains its own cultural integrity in the newsgathering process.

Each NITV News journalist carries their own Kujika, their own cultural story and background. Together we strive to air the voices, the issues, the highs, the lows, the impact of Government decisions, the good news, the contradictions, but most importantly the incredible resilience and endurance of First Nations peoples in Australia. And, believe me, the First Nations peoples of Australia also test and challenge the cultural integrity and editorial integrity of our NITV NEWS team.

But the task of media in a democratic society is to keep asking questions – especially of those in decision-making positions. Indigenous media in this country – be it NITV, National Indigenous Radio, or CAAMA, NIT, Koori Mail & First Nations Telegraph and other media organisations, along with the numerous First Nations journalists such as New Matilda’s Amy McQuire, ABC ‘Awaye’ host Lorena Allam, and ABC AM Reporter Lindy Kerin, ‘Living Black’ host Karla Grant, Dan Bourchier at Sky News, and NITV Awaken host Stan Grant – will all continue to ensure the voices of Australia’s First peoples are never silenced.