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Writers’ Week discussions share pleas for diversity and local voices in Australia’s media

Introduction by Croakey: Significant power imbalances, media concentration and lack of resources are some of the barriers to the media sector fulfilling its public interest roles, according to multiple discussions at last week’s Writers’ Week on Kaurna Country.

Below, Croakey editor Alison Barrett reports from Adelaide Writers’ Week discussions on climate action, media moguls, conflict and the 2023 referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Many sessions emphasised the need for local and community voices to be represented and heard in Australia’s media, and the importance of continuing advocacy for important issues such as climate action.

The discussions are timely with submissions closing this Friday on the Australian Media and Communications Authority’s development of a new framework for measuring media diversity.

Adelaide Writers’ Week on Kaurna Country. Photo by author

Alison Barrett writes:

Open your hearts

A panel of Indigenous journalists ­– Jack Latimore, Aboriginal Affairs journalist at The Age, Natalie Ahmat, National Indigenous Television News presenter, and Jodan Perry, Head of Digital at NITV – shared with the audience how they are covering this year’s referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

All acknowledged that in some ways they have been reporting on the issue of Indigenous representation for many years, but Ahmat said this year “is going to be a lot more intense”.

Latimore noted the media discussion about the referendum so far has been very focused on Canberra and the politicians. “As the referendum issue develops,” he sees his role moving to “bring a few more of those community voices into mainstream coverage”.

Similarly, Perry and Ahmat said NITV plan to get out and talk to people in community to find out what people think of the Voice, emphasising the importance of acknowledging and reporting on the vast diversity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views and opinions.

Latimore also said he’s been “aware from very early on there was a diversity of opinions” on the issue and that he feels he has a responsibility to elevate and amplify all positions.

All the panellists highlighted commitment to enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to engage and comment with the discussion in a safe way.

Perry told the audience that NITV codes and guidelines are aimed at “prioritising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices from now until the referendum”.

Ahmat and Perry also commented on the immense responsibility of covering the Voice referendum, while also maintaining their coverage of other stories of interest for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, under constrained resources.

“As with anything in the shrinking media industry, you can only do so much with the resources that you have,” Ahmat said.

“Everyone wants to be heard. We want everyone to be heard. So, we need to do the best with the resources we have and try and make sure that we get a good spread of opinion and how everyone feels about the upcoming referendum,” Perry said.

Ahmat told the audience:

It’s so important because it’s one of the biggest stories I’m sure any of us will cover in our career and we know that Australia is looking to national Indigenous television and other Indigenous writers, to be informed.”

Key takeaways and tips for media coverage of the Voice:

  • prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ voices
  • listen to and amplify local, community voices
  • diversity matters
  • acknowledge resource pressures.
Open your hearts session at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2023. Photo by author

Moguls and the media

Chaired by Australian journalist Jim Middleton, another session included a discussion about media diversity and concentration, focusing on the huge political influence of News Corp and Fox Corporation on government’s actions on important issues such as climate change.

Panellist Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told the audience, “the huge holding back of climate action is overwhelmingly one of the things that they [News Corp/Fox] have done over the last few decades”.

Hanson-Young, who chaired the 2021 Senate Inquiry into media diversity, told the audience that during the Inquiry they found that News Corp journalists were advised not to report any suggestion that the 2019-20 bushfires might be linked to climate change. “They were told to emphasise firebug awareness instead,” Hanson-Young said.

Journalists were “horrified at how the reporting was happening and whether this was in fact undermining the public interest” but also feared they would lose their job, “professional reputation” and not be able to work in media again, according to Hanson-Young.

She emphasised the critical importance of local, and diverse, media.

“What we’ve got is a media landscape in Australia that is not taking the opportunity to diversify at a time when people want that. They’re desperate for local news, but they also want to know what’s going on nationally and globally. We saw that during COVID,” Hanson-Young said.

She told the audience the current media landscape is “bad for democracy”, referring to evidence from the US where removing local reporting outlets resulted in education standards going down and corruption increasing.

Chair: Jim Middleton. Panellists: Paddy Manning, Sarah Hanson-Young. Photo by author

Planet’s clock is ticking

Panellists and climate advocates Emeritus Professor Ross Garnaut and Simon Holmes à Court took to the stage with award-winning journalist Marian Wilkinson to discuss Australia’s climate wars and transition to renewable energy.

It was a timely discussion during the fortnight’s discussions in Canberra over the Safeguard Mechanism, as Wilkinson told the audience.

While acknowledging progress has been slow and that not all Australian political parties have been supportive of progressive climate policies, in particular the Federal Coalition and National Party, both Garnaut and Holmes à Court expressed some optimism that renewable targets could be reached in time.

“I’m actually not pessimistic about the developed countries getting to zero by 2045, China by 2055, India and other developing countries by 2065. So, put me down as someone who still thinks it can happen,” Garnaut said, commenting that Australia even has the “potential to go from a climate change laggard to a leader in the post carbon world.”

Holmes à Court told the audience:

People often talk about saving the planet or the planet’s clock is ticking and I like to think that the planet will do just fine without us. It’s not the planet, it’s our clock that’s ticking. And Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, puts it really well when he says that winning slowly is losing. A bit depressing. We have been winning slowly but we have been accelerating. We’ve made more progress in the last few years than we made in the decade before that.”

They put this down to improving technology and knowledge and increasing political commitment, particularly from state and territory governments, and in the Federal Government with the rise of the elected Independents and Labor Party last year.

“We’re starting to see people understand their power and re-engage with democracy. I think that’s the most important action we can take, not the recycling of our soft plastics, but getting the right people around the table in all of our decision making,” Holmes à Court said.

Echoing similar sentiments made in the media moguls discussion, Holmes à Court acknowledged the media has played a role in delaying action on climate, but given the results of last year’s Federal election, he said that influence appears to be changing.

Chair: Marian Wilkinson. Panellists: Ross Garnaut, Simon Holmes à Court. Photo by author

Author’s take sides

A session chaired by Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill, and included panellists: Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ramzy Baroud, Mohammed El-Kurd and Peter Singer, discussed the role of politically engaged writers.

Below are some key quotes from the session.

“I want to argue that many of us Palestinians and otherwise [who] decide to stand up and have a pro-Palestinian sentiment do so because we align ourselves with justice and we align ourselves with equity and historical accuracy. It’s not necessarily because we’re Palestinian, it’s not necessarily an identitarian battle. Rather, it’s about morality and justice,” award-winning writer from Jerusalem Mohammed El-Kurd said.

“The question of taking sides is not even a question. In fact, I would contend that the question itself reeks of privilege…For us, Palestinians, our very survival is dependent on this question, so there can never be any room or space to even consider any other alternatives but to take sides,” US-Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, told the audience.

“I understand that I too am a settler here on stolen land and that means that I take sides on the side of justice. We are involved in an invisible anti-colonial struggle as Palestinians in solidarity with Indigenous people everywhere, and that’s the side all of us should be choosing and we should be questioning if we are not choosing that side, who are we aligning ourselves with?” Palestinian Egyptian Muslim multi-award-winning author Randa Abdel-Fattah said, whose father is not permitted to freely enter his birthplace in Palestine.

“I’d like to simply raise one more issue that I think we’re all involved in and that is the issue of climate change. Because it’s definitely time for us to take sides. Are we complicit in the destruction of the planet for future generations for our children and grandchildren and for centuries to come? Or are we prepared to take sides on that issue too?” Australian Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer asked the audience.

“The idea again, that we have to be civil and polite…you know, there’s both sides of an argument and balance and so-called neutrality. And all of that is quite frankly bullshit when you are part of the colonised people, part of the people who are suffering, who are living under brutal military occupation, and I reject all that unequivocally,” Abdel-Fattah said.

“We know fairness in journalism means listening to different perspectives and opinions but does not always require giving equal weight or time to those different sites. However, reporting on Israel and Palestine is often plagued with this scourge of false equivalence,” Sophie McNeill said.

“I think certainly the idea that climate deniers deserve equal time with the scientists who are reporting on climate change is absurd,” Singer said. “I think there is an objective way of deciding and, of course science can be wrong I’m not saying that, but where the evidence lies, where the case is, is that we are doing damage to the climate which will last for centuries.”

“And here we are. We made it and we are at the centre of this conversation. And we are tak