• Noel Pearson characterised the ABC a racist broadcaster that is 'willing the wretched to fail'. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Noel Pearson made a comment the other day at a book launch that probably should have never left the audience it was said to, except perhaps for a tweet or two going “Oooooh, oh no he didn’t!”. The most reported on element of what he said are that the ABC are racist. However, since it was Noel Pearson who said it and it was the ABC he said it about, various right wing media outlets were very quick to pounce on it with taglines like: ‘Aussie Obama’ savages ‘miserable, perverse and racist’ broadcaster’, and ABC, SBS, Guardian and Fairfax racist, says Maurice Newman'. Since the australian and other right wing outlets are currently trying to justify the watering down of racial discrimination legislation, and are going hard on the attack to show how super non-racist they are, it should be no real surprise to anyone that they pounced on these comments quicker than a non-Indigenous organisation on an Indigenous funding grant.
Luke Pearson

23 Nov 2016 - 5:36 PM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2016 - 5:43 PM

It is reasonable to say that you should take such headlines with a grain of salt, and that such organisations probably shouldn’t be so quick to throw stones from such racist houses, but it would also be foolish not to look beyond the motivations of Noel Pearson’s comments and explore their merit. The ideological reasons given are obviously a stretch. The idea that left wing journalists want to keep Aboriginal people poor so that they have stories to write is pretty ludicrous, just as it is to suggest that the aggressive demonisation of Aboriginal people by right wing journalists is a form of ‘tough love’ aimed at promoting concepts of personal responsibility. However, it is fair to say that both left and right have well-trodden narratives that say more about their own political ideologies and cultural assumptions than they do about the issues at hand, and that neither the left or the right do as much as they should to actually help address the issues they report on. 

“I wouldn't describe the ABC as racist, it just doesn't do Indigenous reporting very well"

The word ‘racist’ sets off white people on the left just as quickly as it does white people on the right, and I think Jack Latimore addressed this well when he appeared on The Drum last night saying “I wouldn't describe the ABC as racist, it just doesn't do Indigenous reporting very well".

When Noel Pearson called the ABC racist it set off many white journos on the left like firecrackers who quickly jumped to the defense of the ABC while simultaneously mocking and ridiculing Noel for his comments. Many Indigenous people however simply responded with a bit of a shrug and a ‘Yeah, pretty much… but all media in Australia is racist, just in different ways and to different degrees’.

That's not to say that the ABC haven't done some great things in their Indigenous affairs reporting over the years, or to say that they don't have numerous Indigenous staffers working their guts out to ensure adequate coverage of Indigenous issues - they do. That concession doesn't also mean they don't have room for improvement. I have interacted with various producers and journalists from the ABC who have spoken about their own desire to improve on their reporting, and any organisation who isn't willing to acknowledge they could do better when it comes to reporting on Indigenous issues would instantly be suspect in my eyes. That goes for myself and people I work with too, we are all constantly reflecting and exploring ways we can do better, which is exactly how it should be.

Earlier today I wrote a short post online saying “I think that it's entirely fair to suggest that 'left' leaning media too often play to the racism of low expectations and fall into set narratives that content themselves with highlighting negative statistics that affect Indigenous peoples instead of challenging those narratives and providing context for better understanding and supporting those striving to find solutions, often in the face of incompetent and unresponsive government policies and frameworks, but it's also fair to point out that 'right' leaning media too often play to the racism of disrespectful, genocidal, hate filled, wilfully ignorant, arrogant, misinformed, white saviour loving, victim blaming, eugenics based, government propaganda spreading, demonisation of Indigenous people and culture... so it's fair to say that there is room for improvement on both sides is all I'm saying.” – A bit harsh perhaps, but only just.

This is the point that will probably get overlooked in the inevitable slinging match that will now ensue in the latest round of Australia’s favourite political game, ‘We’re not racist, you are!’.

Acts of racism, and those affected by them, are treated as pawns in this endless game of ‘I’m not racist, you are!’ that is played among white people while racism itself continues unfettered.”

I wrote about this phenomenon once before, just after bill leak drew his latest racist cartoon, saying that:

“As public conversations on specific acts of racism are reduced to morality pissing contests between ‘left’ and ‘right’ it is understandable to see people rally the troops and prepare for battle rather than have honest and open discussions and reflections, show humility and humanity, offer real apologises instead of fauxpologies, or demonstrate any empathy for the perspective of those who experience racism and are adversely impacted by it.

In this space, no one really exists other than white people within the left and the right, and everyone else just become shields or ammunition. We are the cannon fodder of Australian politics – useful only for feel good photo ops or political scapegoats, our issues are measured on their ability to help score points against the other side and/or score brownie points by stirring emotions of pity or hatred as the situation dictates, sometimes both at the same time.

White Australia is far more concerned about being called racist than it is about actually being racist. Far more interested in being able to claim the moral high ground of being able to call other people racist than about reducing the racism that exists on institutional and personal levels.

Acts of racism, and those affected by them, are treated as pawns in this endless game of ‘I’m not racist, you are!’ that is played among white people while racism itself continues unfettered.”

This is what upsets me most about the comments Noel Pearson made, not the comments themselves, but the inevitable response to them. It is so formulaic that I could have written the script for how it would play out before he even made the comments, in fact, I pretty much just did.

I am always a bit more upset with the journalists on the left than I am with those on the right when these conversations play out, and I will tell you why. I don’t expect people like andrew bolt or newspapers like the australian to reflect upon their own racism and try to address it. I do, however, expect those who wave the flag of solidarity to be able to have enough humility, introspection, and human decency to reflect on their own practices, acknowledge that they have huge scope for improvement, and reflect upon why they measure their success in Indigenous affairs reporting in column inches and awards won rather than in improved outcomes for the people, issues and communities they cover.

It has been an interesting personal journey for me this past year, making the transition from an independent commentator to a cog in the machinery of the national Indigenous broadcaster, NITV. I have had to move beyond considering my own individual voice and my own personal sensibilities to consider the role of NITV in the broader media landscape and within both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. I have strived to try to have a positive impact in my role; look for voices that are not being heard, look for perspectives that I feel need light shed on them, try to provide a balance in the type of stories we cover online and how we cover them. It is a much more challenging role than only having to think about my own voice. It is a role I am sure I do not always fulfil perfectly, and that I could do better in, and I try to challenge myself and keep myself open to others who would challenge me on the best way to report on complex and sensitive topics. At the same time though, I try not to carry the weight of the world solely on my own shoulders.

I don’t believe in saviours, and that goes for black saviours as equally as it does for white saviours. I believe in collective action and systemic changes, and I don’t think one journalist or even one media outlet can ‘close the gap’ all on their own, or that one commentator can provide all of the solutions to the myriad of issues that we face as a nation. I similarly don’t expect the left or the right of media to ever agree on how we need to close the gap, or who we should blame for it not closing. I think an important factor though is that if both sides are going to claim ideological righteousness without being willing to have some level of introspection into the fact that the gap is widening in far too many crucial areas, then we can all expect that this trend will continue. We must at some point accept that the impact of media in Indigenous affairs cannot be judged in terms of ‘who cares the most?’, and definitely not by ‘how much more racist the other side are than us’.

We need to be better than this debate.


(Also, before you ask: No, I’m not related to Noel... not that there's anything wrong with that.)