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Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism
Protecting and strengthening Australia's multiculturalism and social inclusion

LO, Ms Isabel, Founder, Media Diversity Australia

Evidence taken via teleconference

CHAIR: Thank you for joining us today for the hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism. I welcome Ms Lo, from Media Diversity Australia, via teleconference. Would you like to make an opening statement, Ms Lo?

Ms Lo : No; I think we can go straight into questioning.

CHAIR: One of the issues that has come up time and time again during this inquiry is the representation of people from migrant and refugee backgrounds and how they are represented in the media. I will start with a very open question. Can you give me your thoughts on whether you think that people from migrant and refugee backgrounds are represented fairly in the media? If not, why not and what needs to change?

Ms Lo : Our organisation came into existence because of what we thought was the lack of adequate media representation in mainstream media. By mainstream media we mean the three big commercial broadcasters, Seven, Nine and Ten, the ABC and the leading corporations owned by News Corp, Fairfax and so forth. More broadly, we are looking at not just migrants but also culturally diverse backgrounds. We are finding that those voices are not adequately represented in mainstream media, because there is not an opportunity for people from these backgrounds to enter the industry. We have been pursuing a lot of stakeholders within the industry to try to find out what the root cause of this is. So we are trying to find out the root cause of why people from culturally diverse backgrounds, including migrant communities, are not coming through the pipeline through journalism. A lot of this has to do with access to the industry.

We have also looked at other industries, such as the legal profession or the medical profession. If you want to be a lawyer you can go to a law school and if you want to be a doctor you would study medicine. Whereas, you find that the pathways to journalism are a lot more informal and, as a result, based on a variety of factors, including accents.

CHAIR: Sorry, Ms Lo, but we are having trouble hearing you. You are fading in and out a little bit. If you are on a mobile, would you be able to move to somewhere you think the reception might be a little better?

Ms Lo : Sure. Is that better?

CHAIR: Yes. It sounds good; so let's see how we go.

Ms Lo : Could you please repeat the original question?

CHAIR: It was a very general question about how do we get better at ensuring that the representation of the people from migrant, CALD and refugee backgrounds, that people from those communities are more faithfully represented in the media? We heard a lot of concern today that when people from those various backgrounds are represented in the media, it is often a very negative representation. What is it that we need to do to change that?

Ms Lo : Sure. I have mentioned before that, because of the informal pathways into the industry, we find that a lot of journalists do not come from a communications background or a journalism background. I have met senior journalists who have had degrees in theatre or puppetry or medicine. Those informal pathways mean that a lot of entry points into the industry rely on strong networks and who you know.

What can we do to shift the balance of representation? Media Diversity Australia are looking at specific tools to do that, to increase access from these communities into the industry. For example, we have got a tool we are trying to implement called the talent hub. If you are a person from a migrant background or a non-Indigenous-speaking background and you want to have an increased media profile or do more commentary, you can go theoretically go onto this website and nominate yourself as someone with expertise in that area and opt to have media training—we will have to try to push that from our end. You would go into that database, which would then be available to the big news rooms of the country. So if there is a journalist who is looking for comments about North Korea, for example, who is looking to get a comment from a North Korean expert from North Korea, which the average journalist, under time pressure, would find difficult to find, then they could go into this database and search under those parameters and actually find this person. That would formalise the informal pathways into the industry a bit and give more access to these underrepresented communities. This is just one of the initiatives that we are trying to enact.

CHAIR: Just to be clear: what you are saying is that one of the problems is that there simply is not enough representation of people from CALD, migrant and refugee backgrounds working in journalism; also for those journalists who are currently practising as journalists, who might not come from that background, there are not enough connections between them and the CALD and migrant communities. Is that what you are saying?

Ms Lo : Yes, that is what I am saying. It is to do the composition of the media itself, in terms of the staff. The lack of diversity there translates into the lack of diversity of voices commenting in the content of Australian media as well.

CHAIR: Understood.

Ms Lo : There is no definitive research that exists on the actual composition of this, and that is something that we want to go into as well.

CHAIR: You mean to actually get a clear understanding about people who are practising in journalism and their backgrounds?

Ms Lo : We are talking about representation. Census stats were released today, and I saw that something like 16 per cent of Australian residents come from an Indian and Chinese background. If you were to take those hard statistics, are they adequately represented in Australian media? I know that is hard when you are looking at content, but let us look at composition. So is 16 per cent of Australian media staff from that background? No-one can say anything definitive because none of that research currently exists. There is no standard metric to hold ourselves to. That is lacking currently, and that is something we are hoping to embark on as well—that is, to create this research, this body of work, that we can hold as a standard and say: 'Okay, we're not doing well enough. This is the target that we are holding ourselves to.'

CHAIR: On that, are you saying that is one of the roles that you will play, that you intend to get a representative sample of people within journalism and the media community and find out what it actually looks like?

Ms Lo : That is right. We are currently in talks—we are partnering up two universities at the moment, so Western Sydney University and Macquarie University—to apply for an ERC grant to basically, and specifically, trawl the cultural composition of Australian media.

CHAIR: Very good. If you were to describe how people from CALD, migrant and refugee backgrounds are depicted in the media, how would you describe that?

Ms Lo : I would probably have to think of a specific example. Let us look at the issue of housing affordability in Sydney, for example. If you are looking at the public debate on this particular issue, which is quite a hot button issue at the moment, a lot of the focus about the main causes of rising house prices in Sydney is on foreign investors, mainly from China. Certainly that is what is filling the opinion pages of the mainstream publishers. Numerous opinion pieces have been written about encroaching foreign ownership. For example, there was a Fairfax headline quoting that Chinese foreign buyers were responsible for 80 per cent of properties sold to foreign buyers, ignoring the fact it is all new properties. I cannot remember the exact title of that article. There was another Telegraph article with the headline 'Foreign property buyers pricing locals out of the market'. Certainly there is a very distinct voice there when it comes to housing affordability—that is, foreign finders and investors are pricing Australian residents out of the market.

Now if we drill down and have a look at the numbers, Chinese foreign owners account for just one per cent of the entire market. That is not really what is causing sky-high prices; it is local investors. That kind of dominant voice, without the other side arguing for the alternative look, means there is a social impact. It trickles down to the average buyer. I am of a Chinese Australian background, and that kind of rhetoric has had an impact on me. When I turn up to a house auction, for example, I get the sense that there are a lot of negative views towards me. I walk in and they think: 'Oh, no; it's a foreign buyer. There's no way we're going to be able to afford this house now.' There is a very negative view of every Asian person who is looking to buy a house. It is feeding the hysteria of frustrated buyers—and I understand that there is true frustration there—by assuming that every Asian person at an auction of an established home is a foreign investor. They are not; they are most likely to be Australian citizens or permanent residents with Asian ancestry. That is the social impact that that kind of rhetoric has on just one issue in Australia. And that is just one example.

CHAIR: Thank you, that is great.

Senator DUNIAM: Ms Lo, I want to go back to the first part of Senator Di Natale's questions around the make-up of the media fraternity and the ethnic background of journalists. I may have missed it in your earlier answers, but I just wonder—I accept that you have not done the full research, but going on the anecdotal evidence we have—what you think the barriers are for people from ethnically diverse backgrounds to participate, in an employed sense, in the media world? What do you think it is that prohibits them? Does it start with a lack of interest in pursuing that career? If so, is that where the incentivisation needs to start? Or is it an employment related matter, where news agencies are just not looking to these people as employees?

Ms Lo : I think it is a combination of factors. Certainly news organisations would say, 'Well, they're just not coming to us in the pipeline.' This is just anecdotal. We have had a lot of conversations with industry people. They would say: 'Well, people are not applying from a culturally diverse background. We can only hire with what we've got, right?' But, if we actually looked at the breakdown of the kind of people who are studying these sorts of degrees in universities—communications degrees and journalism degrees—we have gotten anecdotal evidence back to say that actually the composition of the student body is pretty diverse. This research is yet to be conducted in detail, as I mentioned, but there seems to a bit of a pipeline drop-off there from university to entry level, and those students may be going to other, related industries like PR and corporate communications, for example, and not journalism. That is kind of a hunch, but we have yet to determine whether that is the case.

Senator DUNIAM: Yes, okay. On that basis, I would look forward to hearing any advice you have about getting them to consider a career in the reporting and journalism world. That is sort of a long-term problem, though, isn't it? If we are talking about dealing with people who are doing their studies now, it is going to be a number of years before they complete their studies and then are on the front line reporting on issues. If we look at the problem tomorrow, which has been explained to us by previous witnesses—and that is that the media report things in a certain way, which may be because of the lack of diversity in the media world in terms of who makes up the reporters and journalists—how do we educate the current flock of journalists? How do we get them to be a little more diverse in their reporting and not exacerbate problems, as has been put to us by previous witnesses?

Ms Lo : Absolutely. We have had a couple of consultations with the ABC and their Diversity Action Group, and we have put forward some proposals that would help shift the dial in the short term: unconscious bias workshops and training, and cultural sensitivity in general. I am just trying to think of an example.

At the ABC, the cadetship training program worked in a way where, if you hired someone out of diversity, for the first two years of their cadetship they might be rotated through a variety of roles, but one of those roles was being sent out to a regional town to do reporting out in the country. That is a very common kind of cycle for a cadet. For someone from a culturally diverse background—let's say a Muslim background—their family might not be as comfortable with them being sent out to a country town all by themselves. If this person is female and of a certain religious extraction, they might not feel comfortable going through some of the processes that a cadet has to go through. As a result, they might end up dropping out of the cadet program because they think, 'This is not for me; I don't feel comfortable being sent out as a young person on my own to this particular beat,' and they self-select out of that program, which is a huge pity. So there are some structural and institutional barriers. It is not just attitudes and unconscious bias that companies have to look at. I am just using that cadetship program as an example.

Senator DUNIAM: That is very helpful. Thank you very much for that.

CHAIR: Can I just ask a little more about the talent hub. Can you just map that out to me: what does it look like? Are we talking just about a database, or is it something else?

Ms Lo : We have yet to receive funding on it, so it is very hard to quantify the scope of the project. We did apply for a Walkleys inniovation grant for it, but didn't make the shortlist. But essentially it would be a database, an open-ended database, where people from the community just nominate themselves into our database. In that way it is very democratic. The risk for new entrants would be that they see the, to paraphrase, talent as unvetted. But everyone who goes through the system into this database would be vetted by journalists in our executive committee, all of whom are currently working career journalists. So we would have a very good idea of what a good talent or commentator would look like. It is essentially a big list of names written down by expertise, whether it be politics, medicine, general health or the environment. A journalist looking for comments, for example, would be able to go into this database and search under expertise or also by media—if they are looking for TV talent, radio talent or opinion writers, for example, they could select that option as well. This is what we envision our product will look like.

CHAIR: I don't come from a media background and do not pretend to understand it. Isn't one of the issues that the different networks or news organisations have their own talent or experts, and are very protective them, and if you were to centralise that—

Ms Lo : Yes, it is. This would be breaking the mould.

CHAIR: Isn't that why it is going to be so difficult?

Ms Lo : It is. It is about shifting attitudes. We spoke to a couple of developers in the field and they said that the first thing obviously is to get people to adopt this tool. Journalists have to want to use it, and they are very protective of their own talent. I used to work on The Drum program at the ABC. There was a black book list of talent. But now the directive is coming from Michelle Guthrie that there needs to be better representation, I imagine that the book of contacts they had five years ago is not adequately representative of what they expected to hear. Now we are in a situation where a lot of journalists who are under time pressure are scrambling to find more unique talent that speaks to that specific experience rather than the same old talent you have relied on previously who have gotten a lot of media coverage before. So it is about finding new voices.

CHAIR: I get that. You are asking each network to effectively use the same list, but isn't one of the points of difference between each of the networks for broadcasters that they have their own people they turn to? You are asking them to adopt a completely different model, one where they are not able to compete with each other.

Ms Lo : We would just be an added resource. We are not asking them to change their workplace practices and solely use us. We would be seen as an additional resource that would help them in their reporting. It is a little bit democratic in that everyone has access to this. But, as we know, a lot of senior media figures in Australia get cycled around to commercial and public broadcasters anyway, and it is not exclusive use. If you are looking for a particular senior figure you will find that person, regardless of what network you are working for.

Senator DODSON: What is the role of SBS in this process? How effective is it in helping to develop understanding or deal with criticisms or attacks in the way that the mainstream media seems to be unfettered about?

Ms Lo : I never worked for SBS, but we have spoken to representatives there. I believe the composition of their staff is very diverse. I believe 40 per cent of SBS staff identify themselves as CALD or NES background. So they are very representative of a culturally diverse population.

In terms of the role that SBS plays—I am sorry; you are going to have to repeat the question again.

Senator DODSON: I am wondering how they handle these popular issues that shape attitudes and promote hatred, racism or ignorance in relation to migrants and asylum seekers.

Ms Lo : Sure. I am sorry; I cannot speak to SBS, because I have never worked there and I am not sure how they would combat these views. I imagine having a more diverse staff composition allows them to be more culturally sensitive to the issues, but I cannot personally speak to their strategies on how they combat these issues.

Senator DODSON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Do you think the Press Council has got a role here when you consider the representation of some groups in the media? We have talked to a few issues. I think in your submission you talk to the case of Yassmin Abdel-Magied. There is the issue of racially motivated violence in some of the crime here in Victoria. Do you think the Press Council has got a role in upholding those standards? Is the Press Council reflective enough in terms of its composition and membership to do that?

Ms Lo : I have to be very honest. I come from a broadcasting background. In my practice as a journalist, in 10 years I have not really found the Press Council to really affect my day-to-day goings-on. I am not quite sure of the inner workings of the Press Council with the decisions they make and how that manifests itself in how we consume our media, but I certainly have to say that the current composition of the people on the board is not reflective. I am sure that those decisions being made have a trickle-down effect. I am sorry.

CHAIR: That is fine.

Ms Lo : You might have to have a more specific example for me to comment on. I am not quite sure of the inner workings of the Press Council.

CHAIR: That is fine. In one of your recommendations you talk about how we need to encourage and incentivise institutions to hire more staff from different backgrounds. One of the things that come up earlier was that corporate Australia has a role. Do you have any sense of how we can do that better? Is there a role for government there, or are we just relying on the more enlightened broadcasters and media organisations to do this?

Ms Lo : I think the difference between media and corporate culture now is that corporate culture has a lot of money to play around with and they are starting to realise the business sense in creating more diversity within their leadership, so it is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. But the media industry in Australia is a bit embattled at the moment. It is suffering a bit of a crisis of confidence, with Fairfax going down and Ten going into administration. One would hazard to say that the last thing the leadership there are thinking about is something like diversity when they are just trying to remain commercially viable. I think that to incentivise these industries we could connect the idea that diversity is a good business decision and that you will reach a wider audience if you hire more diverse staff. The issue is really about audience reach, so how do we reach more people in Australia? The content obviously is not adequate for a lot of people, as evidenced by statistics and falling readership. I feel like connecting these dots are quite obvious. If you hire more diverse people from different backgrounds with different opinions, they will produce content that will appeal to those very same people that they are trying to reach, thereby increasing audience reach.

One other recommendation that I did want to add in but only thought about later is to incentivise and make it easier for not-for-profits like Media Diversity Australia to flourish in that space. We are at this very interesting intersection between media, multiculturalism and diversity, and at the moment we do not have a clear pathway for funding. It is difficult for us to get deductible-gift-recipient status, because we do not fit into any of the categories. To revisit the parameters that go around deductible-gift-recipient status or not-for-profits like Media Diversity Australia and other not-for-profits that are looking to jog the media industry in Australia would also be very helpful in encouraging underrepresented voices.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence today. We will be reporting soon and thank you for making such a valuable contribution.

Ms Lo : Thank you for having me. I hope that was helpful.