Stan Grant: Aboriginal TV Host’s Exit Renews Criticism of Australian Media
Tiffanie Turnbull, BBC, May 23, 2023
After a prestigious career of more than three decades, trailblazing Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant hosted his final show on Monday and walked away from Australian TV screens indefinitely.
“Racism is a crime. Racism is violence. And I have had enough,” Grant wrote in a column last week explaining his decision.
The Wiradjuri man made history in 1992 when he became the first Aboriginal presenter on prime-time commercial TV in Australia. He went on to win a slew of awards in Australian media, and was an international correspondent for CNN and Al Jazeera before returning home to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
The ABC describes him as one of Australia’s most respected and awarded journalists.
But on Monday night he looked defeated, visibly shaking as he signed off from his political panel show Q+A.
“To those who have abused me and my family, I would just say – if your aim was to hurt me, well, you’ve succeeded,” he said.
Grant’s decision to leave has reignited fierce conversations about racism and media diversity in Australia.
“If one of the few Indigenous presenters on television with a career that took him all over the world can’t be protected from racism… what will that mean for anyone who walks down a similar path?” ABC journalist Ryma Tchier wrote on Twitter.
Australia’s Indigenous people have over 60,000 years of history, and half of Australians were either born overseas or have a parent who was.
But the media representing such a multicultural population remains disproportionately white.
A 2022 study found more than three quarters of the reporters or presenters on Australian TV were from an Anglo-Celtic cultural background. The difference was even more pronounced at the leadership and board level.
The Media Diversity Australia report prompted the five TV networks examined to acknowledge their lack of diversity. But the channels also questioned the report’s findings, criticising how it had determined cultural background, and criticising the short, two-week research window of the study.
Several pointed out they had increased diversity in other areas of their output or tried to increase representation through targeted roles and recruitment.
But the broader issue has long been a problem in Australian media, and critics cite it for contributing to high-profile controversies.
In 2019, a newspaper was widely accused of using racist tropes in a cartoon depiction of Serena Williams – the image was ultimately deemed acceptable by media regulators.
And in 2020, Australia’s most watched breakfast show, Channel Seven’s Sunrise, settled a racial discrimination case over an all-white panel where a pundit suggested Aboriginal children should be forcibly removed from their families.
The Seven Network initially defended the segment, which sparked protests outside their studio, saying “editorial opinions… are a vital part of journalism”, but later apologised for causing offence after the broadcast regulator found they had breached industry standards.
A prestigious media award – the Kennedys – was also criticised in 2021 for not having a single person of colour on the 60-person judging panel.
The cultural diversity in Australia’s media industry is shocking compared to many other Western countries, says Antoinette Lattouf, who in 2011 became one of the first Arab-Australian women to be a commercial television reporter.
As a result, she says, many Australian communities’ stories go untold and vital perspectives are missed.
“Each nation has their own challenges… [but] anybody who has… seen BBC, CNN, ITV, even broadcasters in New Zealand, will note they’re far more diverse than our screens,” says Lattouf, who co-founded the Media Diversity Australia group to improve the situation.
‘I just couldn’t go back’
Culturally diverse journalists say they face more barriers to entering the Australian media industry than their peers.
But cases like Stan Grant’s expose the problem outlets have in retaining them when they do make it.
Former ABC reporter Rhianna Patrick says the reason she joined the industry was the same reason she left it.
“I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a journalist… because I recognised that the only time I ever saw people from my community reflected in the media was in a negative way,” the Torres Strait Islander tells the BBC.
She built an impressive career over two decades – first in Indigenous radio then at the ABC, where she came to headline her own, self-titled national radio show.
But Patrick was the only Indigenous person in her unit, sometimes her entire floor.
The impact of that fact hit her all at once in 2020 as she watched the Black Lives Matter movement sweep the globe, including Australia.
“All of these things I had buried… were starting to come to the surface and I realised… I just couldn’t go back into a mainstream media space and do my job anymore,” she said.
Non-white journalists have regularly reported racial abuse from audiences. In the wake of Grant’s exit, even more disclosed experiences.
“Maybe once a week, I get called a racial slur [or] I get told I’m not Australian … I’ve also thought about leaving because of racist abuse,” said news presenter and comedian Michael Hing, who is Chinese-Australian.
He said he had also considered departing the ABC because “all-white management teams are too often incapable of understanding”.
There is racism from peers too, Lattouf and Patrick recount.
“If ever there were crimes committed by people of Middle Eastern backgrounds, people [in the newsroom] would say things like ‘oh, what did your cousins get up to?'” Lattouf says.
“I’ve been told that ‘I’m one of the good ones’ from the Lebanese community – a backhanded compliment that suggests that the rest of my community isn’t good.”
There’s also the pressure that comes with often being the sole person from their community in a newsroom, and feeling disproportionately responsible for coverage of an issue or advocating for their people.
And covering topics such as police brutality, racism and violence can be feel personal and traumatic, they say.
Patrick says she knows the work she did was important. “But you also want to be able to have times when you can do stories about Indigenous excellence, about Indigenous joy.”
Choosing to go
It all adds up. And so – like Grant – many culturally diverse journalists leave.
When Grant announced his departure, he accused the ABC of an “institutional failure” to protect or defend him.
He said racism had been “relentless” throughout his career, but it reached a new level of intensity after he covered the King’s Coronation for the ABC, when he spoke about the impact of colonisation on his people.
Grant said the ABC had invited him to be part of coverage specifically to offer that perspective, but when the backlash came, he was left to fend for himself. He also pointed out the role some conservative media outlets played in amplifying the outrage.
In the days since his decision, there have been ‘I Stand with Stan’ protests, and the ABC has apologised and pledged to do better.
“I’m incredibly sorry that he felt let down by our organisation… we will do all we can to make up for it,” ABC News director Justin Stevens told a rally.
The ABC has promised to review how it deals with racism directed at staff. It follows other reviews it has had in recent years aimed at impoving diversity.
Some commentators hope the anger over Grant’s exile could mark a turning point, but others are sceptical.
“You go through these cycles of reckoning – reforms are introduced, you have a couple of new hires – but the actual underlying structures don’t change that much,” one Aboriginal reporter who didn’t wish to be named told the BBC.
In his final speech on Monday, Grant said he had spent his career trying to represent his people with pride and love.
“I’ve just wanted to make us seen and I’m sorry that I can’t do that for a little while,” he said.
“I’ve had to learn that endurance is not always strength. Sometimes strength is knowing when to say stop.
“I am down right now. I am. But I’ll get back up and you can come at me again. And I’ll meet you with the love of my people.”