“Australia’s First Nations people are the most incarcerated people on the planet,” says Living Black creator and presenter Karla Grant. “I’ve been reporting on the same issues for 30 years – it gets to me. Children are still being taken away, black deaths in custody have increased since the Royal Commission, and then you have a situation where the ‘No’ vote in the referendum was a huge slap in the face for Indigenous people.”
Grant, a proud Western Arrernte woman, wanted to be a vet before deciding she wanted to have a voice in helping stamp out the racism she had seen growing up. “It happened at my own cadet interview,” she says. “It was 1982 in Adelaide, and I was interviewed by a man and a woman. At one point the man turned to the woman and said, ‘She’s pretty enough, but do you think she can communicate?’, as if I couldn’t even hear him.”
Grant wasn’t surprised when she wasn’t accepted but, fortunately, her Aunty was living and working in Canberra. “She told me to apply to do a BA in professional writing,” she says. “I was accepted and had to ring my Mum to tell her I wasn’t going back to Adelaide. At my high school, I was teased all the time. We had extended family living with us, and the police were constantly knocking on the door looking for my Uncles. Aboriginal people were picked up just for walking down the street, and it fired my sense of social justice.”
Grant began her career in radio, working on a weekly community radio program in Canberra before moving to a production house, where she worked as a producer, director, reporter and presenter on Aboriginal Australia, a magazine-style TV program which aired on Channel 10. In 1995 she made the move to SBS.
Over her 30-year career in journalism, Grant has won numerous awards, including the First Nations Media Award for Best Interview in 2018, 2019 and 2020. In 2018, she was joint winner of the John Newfong Award for Outstanding Indigenous Affairs Reporting, and in 2020 she won again for Living Black, as well as a First Nations Media Award for Best News or Current Affairs Story for Living Black’s ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ documentary. In 2021, the Living Black team won their first Walkley Award for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs for the powerful programs, ‘Taken’, ‘Heritage Victory’ and ‘Missing Pieces’. That same year, Grant was awarded an Amnesty International Australia Media Award for ‘Taken’. Two years later her program ‘Western Australia’s “Cultural Genocide”’ won the Kennedy Award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting. Living Black, which first aired in 2003, is still going strong 20 years later.
In 2021. Grant investigated the appalling treatment of the Indigenous community at Wilcannia during COVID lockdowns. “Wilcannia had the highest rates of COVID per capita in the country,” she says. ”People were being turned away from hospital. One woman, who was extremely ill, was left outside to sit on a chair in the freezing cold. In the end, her husband came and picked her up and took her home. People came to the community to attend a funeral and then couldn’t get home.” The investigations resulted in an apology to the community from the then Health Minister, Brad Hazzard.
Throughout her career, Grant has been steadfast in her determination to mentor younger Indigenous journalists and has helped create the SBS Indigenous cadetship program.
She says: “I hope that we have moved on enough that no First Nations person will be spoken about by the media in the same way I was all those years ago.”
By Candida Baker