Sunday, January 16, 2011

Closing the communication gap

Who would argue with the need to 'close the gap' between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians?

There are unacceptable gaps in services, health and economic outcomes.

But on a trip from Canberra to Arnhem Land as a volunteer journalist I was struck by a glaring and fundamental gap little talked about - the communication gap.

I was little prepared for an exursion to remote Australia with the charity, Indigenous Community Volunteers...

I was invited to help a group of traditional owners write a media release and an article that could generate coverage of their concerns about government plans they thought would hurt their 'homelands' or outstations.

Typically, homelands are many kilometres from even small towns, in the most isolated parts of Australia. I had not formed a view of the policy and believed I would act in a supporting role as an advocate and conduit to promote issues of concern as they identified them. Advocacy for me is about creating openings; doors or platforms for the marginalised to have their voices heard.

The traditional owners were upset that were not consulted about a Northern Territory policy to support so-called 'growth towns' at the apparent expense of homelands. Weeks before, senior members of government had visited the town of Manigrida in . The community thought the politicians came to consult. The Chief Minister came to outline l the policy. Each expected different things.

What I did know about homelands was that their history and success was patchy and the rationale for them, to allow a greater degree of self-reliance and buffer traditional people from the pressures of contemporary life in bigger centres, had become more complex.

In the Arnhem Land I stayed with the local manager of the controversial NT Emergency Response, a genuinely engaging young man who unlike many other NTER managers, is Indigenous and had established relationships with stakeholders. (Accommodation in Maningrida is hard to get at the best of times, but the Commonwealth's measures had filled local hostels with contractors employed by government.) I was grateful for a bed and conversation that filled in blanks about local politics and culture.

More directly for the volunteer project, I took my cues from my cultural mentor, Jimmy, the chair of a resource agency called Bawininga Aboriginal Corporation. Jimmy was a gentleman, fluent in several local languages, but not in English. He and his group seemed happy for him to become the media spokesman, although there were others who seemed as passionate and more articulate in English.

We traveled terracotta-dirt, corrugated roads to see a homeland first hand and hear from residents about the benefits of living there. Our conversation with basket and fishing-net weavers was like no other. There seemed to be no beginning, middle or end. We sat in a clearing surrounding by dry scrub, in the shade of a large tree, shooing dogs away and sharing untidy yarns. I quickly realised how easy it was to let my own prejudices shape the conversation. So, I tried to ask questions that were not too direct or loaded and gleaned what I could about the benefits of spending time 'on country'. There were long pauses. I was obviously pregnant with my third child which helped place me as a person with family and connections too; put me in a social context, and carried the the chat along. I ate some bush medicine that made me sick just to smell. Everyone laughed. I was a novelty to them as much as they were to me.

That night I drafted a media release and opinion piece. I canvassed it with a group of traditional owners the next day. Was I on the right track? I needed to be sure the articles were in their voice, not mine; that it was authentic. Nonetheless, I was called to help out the community in Arnhem precisely because of my experiences and an understanding of the demands of newsrooms and its peculiar culture, the language of politics and how to shape news items so that the message is more likely to be picked up. But there were unspoken tensions. Whose words? Whose message? Would the media material be a tool that would empower locals or make them more reliant on a well-intentioned outsider? Building capacity is about teaching people to do things for themselves rather than providing the service for them.

I didn’t get much feedback from locals about the process. True to cultural analysis, an Indigenous Australian is reluctant to publically disagree with you compared to a white-fellah. The little feedback I did get came in a question: ‘Would it be on that night’s TV news?’ Not easy to answer. I had not unpacked the factors that determine what ends up in the news or how the media works. But the question suggested they knew what success looked like.

I flew back to Darwin and reworked the material to relay by email. Jimmy did not use the Internet. The technology was available but unfamiliar. I had to sent final drafts from Darwin to a 'Balanda' (the word used by Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to refer to non-Aboriginal people), the general manager of Bawininga. The Balanda was another gate keeper or intermediary who printed the material for Jimmy to check. It was slow going and a reminder that remote Indigenous people have barriers, both imposed and voluntary, that prevent them from being timely and responsive to media requests. If this project was about enabling traditional owners or 'TOs' engage with systems of power, then it had to be home-grown and realistic.

The articles we prepared did attract some media interest, mostly from Indigenous media outlets and not target audiences who may have been less sympathetic, notably the NT News which struck me as not having the resources or will to reflect the views of Indigenous people outside Darwin. Jimmy did a phone interview for NITV's evening bulletin.

He was asked to appear on SBS Radio. The program producer rang him six times and left six messages on his mobile, but to no avail, despite my gentle plea to Jimmy that he answer his phone and ensure it was on and charged: “It’s all about being available, responding to a call.”

Did his baptismal TV interview give Jimmy cold feet? English was not his first language and journalists spoke to him in English without any hesitation.

Black politics is complicated and I was left wondering, ‘Did I assume too much?’ Media often assume that one leader's opinion represents the views of other traditional owners across a district. For the most part, Aboriginal leadership is endorsed at a community level, drawing on people’s skin and cultural identity. Jimmy was a legitimate leader; a traditional owner and chairman of Bawininga set up to support the 30-odd homelands surrounding Maningrida. But there are many different clans. Was he nervous about being picked out as the spokesperson? Or did a more common concern, about appearing to stand out, force Jimmy's apparent retreat?

Patterns of power in Indigenous communities can be very ambiguous. I know that now. I probably should have spent more time establishing who in the community was most comfortable taking about homelands on a national stage. Leadership rights do not extend beyond a leader’s own country. Did the news release push the boundaries and generalize concerns across too big an area of the NT with its diverse clans?

I’m still left wondering. The answers are hard to glean from a distance. Communication is aided when it's face to face and without a eye on the clock. There is an art to listening to people and being with them in their own landscape. Reporters instinctively know that. And yet, so few mainstream media outlets employ reporters to do that.

Formal feedback from Jimmy, given to colleagues about the advocacy project more broadly, indicated that while I provided a service for the community, media hits were not what they most valued after all. To my surprise, the traditional owners ticked 'reconciliation' as the greatest and clearest benefit. My visit was an opportunity for me to learn from them and far outweighed any transfer of skills or outcome in media terms.

I can only hope that the yawning communication and information gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is inching closed with or without the media's help.

First published in the The Walkley Magazine, October 2010.