Diversity and News in Australia

“Diversity and News in Australia”
Andrew Jakubowicz
Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre University of Technology Sydney, &
Institute for Cultural Diversity CulturalDiversity News
Presentation to
Symposium on News and Inclusion: Journalism and the Politics of Diversity
Stanford University
Thursday 4 March 2010


Australia is one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world, with over 25% of the population born “overseas”, and over 20% of the population identifying a parent born outside the English-speaking world. Unlike the USA with its significant minorities of long-established Afro-American and rapidly growing Hispanic communities, Australia has no communities of such significant size, resulting in a much more polyglot pattern of settlement and the lack of any major ethno-political lobbies. Unlike the UK and Europe, Australia shares with the USA and Canada a history as a colonial settler society, with unresolved issues affecting the original peoples.

After three generations of “White Australia”, the national government in the 1970s adopted a policy of “non-racial immigration” and “multiculturalism” in settlement and integration strategies. The Immigration Restriction Act (1901) had been designed to exclude non-European immigrants, but had come under critique from both within Australia, and internationally. A range of policy reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s re-positioned Australia. These changes included political recognition and enfranchisement of the indigenous peoples, and the removal of “race” as a distinguishing category in approving immigration. Over the next generation this had a major impact on the cultural makeup of the Australian population so that the 2006 Australian Census reported over 200 birth countries, with representation from every continent. Unlike the USA, and the UK Australia does not use a “racial/color” categorization of its population, preferring to use three different parameters – country of birth, ethnic heritage, and languages spoken. Multiculturalism in Australia refers to national and state policies which recognize the cultural differences among the population as legitimate, within a broad commitment to the nation. While it remains controversial among those who supported White Australia, or still desire a unitary “national character”, everyday multiculturalism has become an omnipresent characteristic of daily life, especially in the major cities.

Australia has one of the most concentrated patterns of media ownership in the advanced capitalist world, with a national government broadcast/e-media sector comprising the “mainstream” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the “multicultural” Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and a community broadcasting segment (CBAA) with an active ethnic and multicultural broadcasting involvement. The commercial sector encompasses the press (state and local) and broadcasting outlets of News Corporation and its effective monopoly cable service Foxtel, the Fairfax media group including press (state and local), online and radio, and the Stokes stake in press and television. There is also a vibrant “ethnic” media sector, especially in the press and online media, through the state-funded SBS, and through community and commercial offerings. With the globalisation of digital media, many media sources consumed in Australia are based outside the country.

The creation and gathering of news is thus an industrial process occurring within a fluid cultural context. While cultural diversity marks the society at large, the media for the most part reflect the interests, perspectives and responses of the cultural elites and the older established core culture. The news media then do not reflect the diversity of the society, though they often deal with issues in which cultural differences play a key role. Recently for example the Australian and Indian media have entered an internet war over how the bashing and murders of Indian students and immigrants in Australia should be interpreted (http://tinyurl.com/CDNmediawar).

It is therefore helpful to explore Mark Deuze’s (2005) argument that the tensions between professional journalism as an ideology and the realities of multiculturalism present acute challenges for the organization and practice of newsrooms, not only in terms of the makeup of the news-gathers, but also in terms of the weltanschauung of the stories they tell. Deuze addresses key factors such the diversity of cultural makeup of the newsrooms, the news gatherers’ understandings and perceptions of the news values of the newsroom and how these might be modified by their cultural perspectives, and the sorts of stories that are foregrounded and the form these stories take when the internationalization of the world intrudes into the local space of the news. Australian news media typically have Anglo-Australian editors and senior staff, directing more junior staff (who may be from non-Anglo backgrounds) in the framing of news stories, choice of sources and journalistic perspectives.

Since the first major scholarly engagement with the issue of journalism and diversity in Australia (Jakubowicz et al. 1994), there has been a sustained interest in the role of the journalism practice in mediating inter-communal relations and contributing to social cohesion. That is the news media are understood to have role not only as the voice of “everyman”, but as a specifically culturally-inflected reflection of Anglo-Australian views and values.

Unlike the USA with its highly segmented major ethno-cultural media markets (especially Black and Hispanic), Australian media newsrooms are not so ethnically demarcated because their audiences are more heterogeneous, and class rather than ethnically framed. While there is a diversity of media available to ethnically-differentiated audiences, the greater concern for scholarly critics has been the “white-bread” nature of most mainstream newsrooms and their tendency to address audiences from positions of authority that assume them to ethnically homogenous and racially undifferentiated. Over the past decade the Reporting Diversity project, linking a dozen university journalism schools, has explored the problems that can be identified with the way journalism operates in relation to cultural diversity (Possetti and McCallum, 2008).

It should be noted that there are two different spheres of concern in Australia – that associated with indigenous people where overt racism and exploitation have tended to be the key parameters in dispute; and that associated with non-Anglo immigrants, especially Middle East and African Muslims, where the discourses have centered on crime, social order and terrorism.

Indigenous issues remain “hot” in Australia, as Indigenous rights especially to land and cultural retention, have been overshadowed by allegations about child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and chronic ill-health. Some parts of the media have been particularly angry about Indigenous homeland autonomy, as the media have been prohibited in some cases from entering by Indigenous communities. In 2006 the national government “intervened” in the Northern Territory by occupying Indigenous communities, sending in parties of doctors and health workers to seek out evidence of neglect and abuse, and removing community control over media entry. There followed a media blitz of the communities’ shortcomings, under the rubric of the “Intervention”, against which Indigenous groups found it difficult to gain positive media traction.

While there is now an Indigenous cable tv network, and online and press news outlets generated by Indigenous communities, the mainstream media rarely employ indigenous reporters, and rarely report the news from indigenous perspectives. The most controversial recent government policy, that of the “Intervention” in federal territories to wrest control from Indigenous communities of their lands, has received fairly systematic and uncritical media support. Indeed the government rhetoric of “rescuing” indigenous people from their own purported inadequacies has been insistent in the media, with only the occasional voice of an oppositional Indigenous leader appearing. Thus the question of whether diversity across news providers or diversity within is barely the question – the critical issue remains how to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into the mainstream of news reporting.

In relation to refugee, Muslim and African communities, a recent tribunal decision awarding damages to the Lebanese Muslim community in Sydney following its vilification by a radio “talk-back” host foregrounds the broader question of systemic bias. It also opens up the issue of audience and diversity, where distorted and prejudiced reporting of Lebanese Muslims in Australia has affects on two different audiences – inflaming anti-Muslim attitudes (to the point of violence) among non-Muslims, and intimidating and insulting Muslim audiences, thereby alienating them from the wider society. While there are many Muslim news websites available to the local population, and Arabic and other relevant language newspapers, radio programs and TV channels (cable and satellite), this plethora of alternatives can further alienate local Muslims, by corralling their trusted information sources within an ethno-religious terrain if the mainstream media are distrusted. Correspondingly, non-Muslims lose the opportunity to understand the diversity of Muslim and Middle Eastern viewpoints, as part of the national conversation in which they could all otherwise share.

Writing in the recently-launched online CulturalDiversity News, Nasya Bahfen (2009) has posited that there are three potential responses to the systemic bias in reporting – refuse to have anything to do with the Western media as they are ‘inherently evil’; seek to join the media as a mainstream journalist and change attitudes through interaction; and have Muslim organizations engage with the media to enlarge their knowledge of Islam and Muslim communities.

Thus the question posed by the organizers, diversity across versus diversity within newsrooms, needs to be read within the context of national media, and the different power structures that frame the operation of the news business in cosmopolitan societies. The situation is made more complex of course through the proliferation of e-media, and the transformation in news practices generated by the multimedia environment within both traditional and emerging news media.

Where there are large “minority” blocs it is feasible to argue for the possibility of outlet diversity serving the broader public interest by providing scope for many parallel national and regional conversations. Where the blocs do not exist, or where they exist only as smaller pockets of more recently arrived diaspora communities anxious to secure their culture against erosion into the mainstream (as Wanning Sun 2006 describes for the Chinese diaspora), then the diversity must be embedded within the mainstream media if the quality of democratic debate is to be sustained. My own sense is that both approaches are necessary – different prongs of a pincer movement to reshape the hierarchies of cultural power that are given expression through media practices and the realities they create for their audiences.


Bahfen, N. 2009. “Muslims and the media: a vexed relationship?” accessed 28 December 2009 at http://www.culturaldiversity.net.au/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=muslims-and-the-media-a-vexed-relationship.html&blogger=Nasya%20Bahfen&Itemid=22
Deuze, M. 2005. “What is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered”, Journalism, 6(4): 442–464
Jakubowicz, A. et al. 1994. Racism Ethnicity and the Media, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Jakubowicz, A.H. 2009, ‘Religion, Media and Cultural Diversity’ in James Jupp (eds), The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, pp. 655-662.
Possetti, J. and McCallum, K. 2008. “The Historical and Ideological Contexts of Australian Journalism and Diversity Research” Paper delivered to IAMCR Conference, Stockholm.
Sun, W. 2006, Media and the Chinese diaspora : community, communications and commerce, Routledge, London.


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