The under-representation of Aboriginal people in the Media

The under-representation of Aboriginal people in the Media.

By Paul O'Hanlon

As someone who has taken a keen interest in Australian films and TV series over the years I feel that Aborigines are under-represented in Australian media as they are in so many other aspects of Australian life. One 2006 study found that while no newspaper managers interviewed believed their papers were racist most Aboriginal interviewees believed that mainstream newspapers “failed Aborigines dismally” .

I was in part moved to write this having watched John Pilger’s moving documentary `Utopia` which was shown on network British TV in December 2013 and was being shown across Australia in January and February 2014. The film was shown on network British ITV shortly before Christmas 2013 and had its Australian premiere in Redfern, Sydney on Friday January 17th which was attended by some 4,000 people with John Pilger there in person. It was shown in Melbourne at the Cinema Nova. It will be shown on Australian SBS in April. You can read about it on the website

Is it not incredible that Australia which has one of the highest standards of living in the world has treated its indigenous people so badly? The life expectancy of an Aboriginal Australian is around 17 years less than that of a white Australian. (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). While the native Aboriginal people constitute some 3% of Australia’s population they make up around 25% of the prison population in Australia. (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics) The documentary revealed that some prisons are to be EXCLUSIVELY for Aborigines. This is quite incredible and reminiscent of the old Apartheid system in South Africa.

I’m writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland where we see many Australian soaps such as `Home and Away`, `Neighbours`,` Sons and Daughters`, `Flying Doctors`, `The Young Doctors` and `Prisoner Cell Block H` etc. Aboriginal characters are notable by their absence. `Prisoner` (called Prisoner Cell Block H in Britain) ran for 692 episodes from 1979-1986 yet only featured Aboriginal characters for 15 episodes out of the 692 – about 2% of the whole series. Given that Aboriginals make up 25% of the prison population they should have featured in over 170 episodes. `Prisoner` proved to be a very popular programme with British audiences and has had numerous complete runs on assorted channels along with successful stage versions featuring various original cast members such as Fiona Spence, Maggie Kirkpatrick, Jane Clifton etc.

The late Justine Saunders played the part of social worker Pamela Madigan for 15 episodes and these largely dealt with her attempts to rehabilitate young tearaway Sarah West (played by Kylie Belling). While the inclusion of the Aboriginal story lines was creditable it was surely little more than tokenism given the enormous run of the series.

Interestingly Justine was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), for her services to the performing arts. She returned the award in protest at the emotional turmoil her mother was suffering over the Howard government's denial of the term "stolen generation".

In the mid 1970’s British Television showed the Australian Detective series `Boney` based on the books by Arthur Upfield. "Boney" was a half-Aboriginal detective who tracked murderers by spotting an overturned twig or a crushed ant on the sand. While the series did tend to show Aboriginal characters in a sympathetic light, incredibly the lead player was a white New Zealand actor called James Laurenson who played the part of `Boney` in black face.

In the 1970’s we didn’t have many Australian programmes on British TV. I can only remember `Boney` and `The Outsiders`. The Outsiders starred Scottish actor Andrew Keir and German actor Sascha Hehn. Remarkably for a series that was set in the Australian outback an Aboriginal actor (David Gulpilil) featured in just one of the 13 episodes while a German actor was the lead role in all 13 episodes and because of his poor English he had to be dubbed by Aussie actor Andrew Harwood.

In Ramsey Street where “everybody needs good neighbours” the under representation of Aborigines has been incredible – as at December 2013 there have been 6,790 episodes only 3 (!!) of which featured an Aboriginal character (Sally Pritchard) played by Brenda Webb way back in 1994. Hardly `the perfect blend`. It might also be noted that for a series set in Melbourne the large Greek community of that city rarely gets a look in either.

Long running series like the `Young Doctors and `A Country Practice` both ran for over a thousand episodes. I cannot recall any of the dishy young doctors or the nurses in their pink pinnies at the Albert Memorial Hospital being Aboriginal. `A Country Practice` did feature Aboriginal character Brenda Dwyer (played by Justine Saunders) for the grand total of two episodes (out of 1,088).

The 1978 film `The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith` starred Tom E. Lewis and was directed by Fred Schepisi, it was well received and won a number of awards. The 1986 film `The Fringe Dwellers` directed by Bruce Beresford was acclaimed as being the first Australian film featuring indigenous actors in all the major roles though the film did not do well at the Australian box office.

Notable activist films like `The Killing of Angel Street` made in 1981 and directed by Donald Crombie merely had a few token black extras in the crowd scenes. This was one of two films (the other being `Heatwave` produced independently in the same year and directed by Phillip Noyce) made about the Juanita Nielsen affair. Juanita who you may remember was a green activist whose activities so displeased many powerful people (including a charming gentleman called `Mr Sin`) that she was disappeared and presumably murdered in 1975.

`Rabbit Proof Fence` (2002) also directed by Phillip Noyce dealt with the case of A. O. Neville who had the Orwellian job description of `Chief Protector of Aborigines` . He presided over the controversial policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents, children who were later termed the Stolen Generation. More than 25% of Noongah were confiscated in this way and sent to "concentration-like camps" at Mogumber at Moore River and Carrolup near Katanning in Western Australia.

The film won many awards including best director at the Film Critics Circle of Australia in 2002.
However Melbourne Herald Sun columnist and conservative Andrew Bolt was most displeased by the film arguing `Rabbit-proof myths`

By: Andrew Bolt

`Phillip Noyce claims his new film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is a true story.
The Hollywood director’s publicity blurb repeats the boast: “A true story.’’
Even the first spoken words in the hyped film, which opens next week, are: “This is a true story.’’

Wrong. Crucial parts of this “true story’’ about a “stolen generations’’ child called Molly Craig are false or misleading. And shamefully so. `

He ends his article with:
`The Aboriginal leaders who falsely claim they were “stolen’’, the writers who exaggerate the number of children removed, the silly compensation cases that collapse and the slick claims of genocide all risk making every claim of black suffering seem a cynical try-on.
The truth of our past is hard enough to face. Untruths and exaggerations now will only divide us.

Your film shames not us, Phillip Noyce, but you. `

To read the full article:

Australian actor John Howard star of many Australian soaps such as medical drama `All Saints` of course shares the name of the Australian Prime Minister of 1996 – 2007. He actually issued an apology to the Aboriginal people in the year of the 2000 Olympics, something his political namesake would not. The text of his apology is here:

Home and Away actor Jay Laga'aia, of Samoan descent, once accused the show of being racist in a bitter Twitter rant.
"As someone who lost his job on H&A because they couldn't write two ethnics that weren't together, I'd like the chance to ply my trade," Laga'aia tweeted.

Home and Away strongly denied Jay's allegations. (Although Jay’s name was constantly credited from 2010 – 2012 he only actually appeared in a small minority of those episodes listed.)

Joanna Garretto who is a recent Graduate of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, with a Bachelor of Communication (Media Studies) wrote in `The Larrikin Post`:
`The next Aboriginal person you see on TV will likely be presented as part of this stereotypical idea of "Aboriginalism" we currently use to overlook indigenous Australians. By Aboriginalism I mean displaying Aboriginal cultures as being primitive and exotic and having little to do with the modern world. This idea, quite derogatory in nature, is the reason that many Australians perceive Aboriginal people. In combination with the media within Australia, it has shaped the view of Aboriginal people within our society.

One can look anywhere on popular national TV, there are no Aboriginal people that read the news, there are no Aboriginal people in popular Australian soap shows such as Home and Away or Neighbours and there are no Aboriginal music videos on Video Hits or Rage. In another survey conducted by Lester Bostock on behalf of the ABA titled From the Dark Side, it was confirmed that there "were very few, if any Aborigines being portrayed on the dramas and soapies on commercial television".`
The full text of Joanna’s article:

John Pilger’s documentary `Utopia` showed a 27 year old man called Mr Briscoe who died an agonizing death in police custody having committed no crime. The Australian newspaper reported that:
`NORTHERN Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh has slammed police and called for a shake-up of how they treat people in watch-houses, after the death in custody of an Aboriginal man earlier this year.
The man, known since his death as Kwementyaye Briscoe, died at the Alice Springs watch-house hours after being arrested on January 4 for being excessively drunk.
"I find that the care, supervision and treatment of the deceased while being held in custody by the Northern Territory police was completely inadequate and unsatisfactory, and not sufficient to meet his medical needs," Mr Cavanagh said on Monday. `

Kwementyaye Briscoe is one of many Aborigines who have died in police custody – another famous case is that of Eddie Murray who died in police custody in 1981 at the age of just 21.

John Pilger made a documentary about the ill treatment of Aboriginals in Australia in 1986 and sadly in the intervening 28 years little or nothing has changed.
Rhetoric and empty promises are simply not enough, something must be done to improve the standard of living of a people who have lived in Australia for tens of thousands of years longer than anyone else.

A few Aboriginal Australians have done well in life and become household names such as actor David Gulpilil (who appeared in the films Walkabout and Crocodile Dundee) and tennis player Evonne Goolagong Cawley (who won the Australian Open four times and Wimbledon twice and was ranked number one in the world in 1976) and sprinter Cathy Freeman who won the gold medal for the 400 metres in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Sadly these are exceptions and the vast majority of the first people of Australia are likely to lead short, unhealthy, unhappy and underprivileged lives.

Then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a half-hearted apology in 2008 for the practices of the past re the `stolen generation` but it went nowhere near far enough. In fact the practice of stealing Aboriginal babies for adoption by white couples is still going on today.

I wrote to the Honourable Warren Snowdon MP, a Labour politician who was Minister for Indigenous Health from 2009–2013.

He was interviewed in the documentary and I e-mailed him expressing my concerns about the poor standard of living for Aborigines. In his reply he said that: “In terms of material and measurable progress we are on track to meet agreed targets for child mortality by 2018” - but that is still four years in the future. Is 2018 simply going to be a year where some glossy PR brochure is supposed to tell us that everything is just fine? Why have the Aboriginal people had to wait so long (and are still waiting and dying) to have basic services which even poor white Australians take for granted – such as electricity, running water, access to medical care etc.?

John Pilger made the point that wealthy Australian enterprises such as the Australian mining sector make profits of around a billion dollars a week on land that it does not own yet incredibly pays virtually no tax. If these excessive profits were even moderately taxed then the money could be used to eradicate Aboriginal poverty.

In 2010 the mining industry spent Aus$22 million on a giant PR campaign to stop a proposed attack on their super profits, Gina Rinehart who is the richest person in Australia famously said “Axe that tax!” and she was listened to and the government of Julia Gillard caved in. If only the government listened to the genuine grievances of the native people of Australia.
For details of other screenings of Utopia in Australia, visit the official Utopia website

I have written to Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion – seven times in all but he has not seen fit to reply. Amy McQuire, editor of the Aboriginal magazine `Tracker` has had the same silence from Mr Scullion. It seems the current Australian Government don’t see Aboriginal affairs as much of a priority.

I think Australians would enjoy watching the documentary `Utopia` if you haven’t already seen it. It will be screened on Australian SBS in April 2014.

Paul O'Hanlon