Closing the communication gap: a journalist’s time in Arnhem Land

When Toni Hassan volunteered to help out an Arnhem Land community on a media campaign, the results were not as she’d expected. This article appeared in The Walkley Magazine in October 2010 with the above cartoon by Fiona Katauskas.

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 recent trip from Canberra to Arnhem Land as a volunteer journalist I was struck by a glaring and fundamental gap that is little talked about — the communication gap.

Advocacy is about creating openings — doors or platforms for the marginalised to have their voices heard.

My experience working in radio and television for the ABC and managing public affairs for a welfare organisation did not really prepare me for an excursion to remote Australia with the community development charity Indigenous Community Volunteers.

I had been 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.

Often, 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 is about creating openings — doors or platforms for the marginalised to have their voices heard.

The traditional owners were upset that they had not been 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 Maningrida, on the north-central Arnhem Land coast. The community thought the politicians came to consult. The Chief Minister came to outline 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.

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

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

We travelled on corrugated terracotta-dirt roads to see a homeland firsthand and hear from residents about the benefits of living there. One conversation with 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 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, at the time, obviously pregnant with my third child, which helped place me as a person with family and connections as well. It put me in a social context and carried the chat along. I took some bush medicine that made me sick just to smell. Everyone laughed. I was as much a novelty to them as they were to me.

That night I drafted a media release and an opinion piece. I canvassed them 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. Yet I had been called to help out the community in Arnhem precisely because of my experiences and an understanding of the demands of newsrooms. There were unspoken tensions. Whose words? Whose message? Would the media material be a tool to empower the locals or would it make them 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 the locals about the process. They seemed reluctant to be publicly critical. The little feedback I did get came as a question: “Would it be on that night’s TV news?” The question suggested they knew what success would be.

I flew to Darwin and reworked the material to send back via email. Jimmy did not use the internet. It took a while to get to him. I had to send final drafts from Darwin to a “Balanda” (the word used by Aboriginal people in the Arnhem Land to refer to non-Aboriginal people), the general manager of Bawininga. The Balanda was another gatekeeper 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”, to engage with systems of power, then it had to be homegrown and realistic.

The articles we prepared did attract some media interest, but mostly from Indigenous media outlets and not the target audiences for which we were aiming. Jimmy did a phone interview for NITV’s evening bulletin.

I was left wondering, ‘Did I assume too much?’

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

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

Black politics are complicated. I was left wondering, ‘Did I assume too much?’ Journalists often assume that one leader’s opinion represents the views of other traditional owners across a district. Jimmy was a legitimate leader — a traditional owner and chairman of the organisation set up to support the 30-odd homelands surrounding Maningrida. But there are different clans. Had he been 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 ambiguous. I know that now. I probably should have spent more time establishing who in the community would be most comfortable talking about homelands on a national stage. Leadership rights do not extend beyond a leader’s country. Did the news release push the boundaries and generalise concerns that should not have been generalised?

I don’t know. The answers are hard to glean from a distance. Communication is aided when it’s face to face and without an eye on the clock. There is an art to listening to people and being with them in their own landscape. Reporters instinctively know that, yet so few mainstream media outlets employ reporters to do that.

Formal feedback from Jimmy, given to colleagues, suggested that while I had provided a service for the community, media hits were not what they valued most 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.

Toni Hassan (@tonihassan) travelled to Arnhem Land at the invitation of traditional owners based in Maningrida. She is a freelance writer and an adjunct research scholar at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, CSU.