Ever since Captain James Cook evaded British instructions to take possession of the continent now known as Australia “with the consent of the natives”, the interests of settlers have dominated media reporting on Aboriginal people.
Our new research analysing 45 years of print media reporting of Aboriginal initiatives for self-determination has found that media have systematically and substantially failed – if not undermined and denied – Aboriginal aspirations for self-determination and for enduring political settlements.
With a majority Aboriginal research team, we examined print coverage of 11 landmark political moments. We asked: how did the press frame their stories, and how have they reported the actions of Aboriginal activists, advocates and communities?
The media, after all, explain day-to-day events to their audiences, so the way they report over time can influence the way issues are seen and understood. We sought to find patterns in the coverage through recent history, and to see how the media could provide more responsive coverage today.
The Larrakia petition of 1972, our first study and a founding document for the national land rights movement, demonstrates how Aboriginal aspirations can be thwarted by media accounts when some media labelled it a “failure”. Yet our project unveils a powerful and insistent history of Aboriginal activism confounded by recurring media failure.
Policy periods in Aboriginal affairs over these 45 years ranged from assimilation, self-determination and self-management to reconciliation and mainstreaming. Despite these shifts, Aboriginal demands to government have been consistent: recognition of enduring Aboriginal society, and self-determination.
In 1972 Aboriginal activists and supporters in Darwin organised more than 1,000 signatures from across the country on a petition calling for treaties and land rights, wanting to deliver the petition to the visiting Princess Margaret.
In 1988, on the 200th anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s seizure of land, Aboriginal groups presented the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, with the Barunga statement, calling for a treaty. In 2017 hundreds gathered in the red centre to issue their now famous statement to the Australian people modestly calling for a voice to parliament, treaty and truth-telling about our history. Aboriginal calls to control Aboriginal futures demonstrate resounding persistence, patience and dignity.
Overall, the coverage of the 11 landmark events in the mainstream print media reveals three deep narratives in the treatment of Aboriginal politics.
White mastery, subordination and irreconciliation
Some media adopted a white-mastery narrative, where Aboriginal people and their demands for recognition were imagined as a thing of the past, or where the assimilation of Aboriginal people was assumed as positive. The Australian’s editorial reaction to the 1992 Redfern speech delivered by the then prime minister, Paul Keating, labels Aboriginal people as “stoneagers”, inevitably overwhelmed by white adventurers, surviving only if they suppress their Aboriginal identity.
Others contain two other dominant narratives. A subordination narrative proposes that only a restricted recognition of Aboriginal rights can be considered, with no threat made to sovereignty of the crown and the government’s control of Aboriginal people. We found this dominated in coverage of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
An irreconciliation narrative sees the Aboriginal demand for recognition as an ongoing and unresolvable problem. This narrative sometimes recognises the longevity of Aboriginal activism and peoples, but tends to put it in a tragic light, stressing the impossibility of change.
The press tended to treat proposals from white-dominated groups far more seriously than demands voiced by Aboriginal groups. In 1979 the advocacy of a non-Aboriginal Aboriginal Treaty Committee was reported clearly and with seriousness in the Canberra Times. Yet we found that where Aboriginal groups were at the forefront of the action, they were reported in more condescending and disempowering language – or, such as in the case of the Barunga statement and the Native Title Act in 1993, all but forgotten as political melees in Canberra took centre stage.
Our research into 45 years of repeated attempts to shift governments suggests press reactions follow predictable paths, rarely presenting Aboriginal perspectives as legitimate or authoritative. We followed debates about land rights, sovereignty, justice for the stolen generations and constitutional recognition. This momentous history of Indigenous agency, however, was discoverable because it was recorded outside the mainstream media – it remains accessible in archived leaflets, petitions, newsletters, magazines and Aboriginal independent media.
The politics of procrastination
A politics of procrastination emerges from our reading of reporting in mainstream press on self-determination, treaties and Aboriginal political recognition. A frequent refrain that change must “wait” is evident in coverage of a government report in 1983 called the Two Hundred Years Later … , through to the Uluru statement more than three decades later.
While over that time Aboriginal political organisation has grown and flourished, the mainstream political debate has stagnated and remains unprepared to facilitate genuine change.
To push back against the imposition of self-serving narratives in the mainstream media, those advocating for Aboriginal rights can strategise ways to both influence and critique media. Aboriginal campaigns have recognised the critical role of the media. Aboriginal media such as IndigenousX are growing their audience and influence and using the tools that the digital era has to offer. They’ve intuitively recognised what our study shows.
Our research should encourage the mainstream media and their contributors to reflect on the way they have closed off debate about Aboriginal aspirations and failed to represent the breadth and depth of Aboriginal political life.
We were troubled to find that of the 90 news reports we studied over this time period, none were, to our knowledge, written by Aboriginal journalists, although Aboriginal Australians authored several opinion pieces. By incorporating Aboriginal journalists, and giving editorial and decision-making roles to Aboriginal media makers, the industry can shift its standpoint away from one that assumes a white audience afraid of change.
The Australian mainstream media has too often demonstrated that it cannot shake itself free of its historic role in protecting the interests of the settler communities. Rationales that promote the supposed incapacity of Aboriginal people, or the lack of readiness of the non-Aboriginal community, are part of the problem.
Even the more sympathetic media have demonstrated an approach which sees the continuing denial of self-determination as an unending and unreconcilable reality. Worse, sometimes coverage has advocated for Aboriginal subordination to white interests, or in the extreme, the eradication of Aboriginal identity.
The sustained attempt by Aboriginal groups to assert their agency and control their futures requires sensible, aware and intelligent engagement from the mainstream media. Our research discovered many such cases of independent Aboriginal journalism, unrecognised by the mainstream press.
As the anniversary of Cook’s visit to Australia in 1770 is set to be celebrated with the replica Endeavour circumnavigation this month, we should also mark the anniversary of the failure to formalise any relationship with Aboriginal peoples and the failure to sign treaties and agreements or negotiate national compensation for land. The media, if it wishes to do more than sustain the settlers’ interests, must start from a basic recognition of this injustice, and in doing so, take seriously the Aboriginal desire for enduring political solutions.
Amy Thomas is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney and a researcher in applied linguistics, education, Australian history and cultural studies
Prof Heidi Norman is chair of Aboriginal politics and history at UTS. She is a descendant of the Gomeroi nation
Andrew Jakubowicz is emeritus professor of sociology at UTS