Are we there yet? Multicultural media at a crossroads

Panel L > R: Prof Andrew Jakubowicz, Gary Paramanathan,  Pino Migliorino, Helen Vatsikopoulos.
Panel discussion at the Multicultural Media at a Crossroads Conference: (L-R) Prof Andrew Jakubowicz, Gary Paramanathan, Pino Migliorino, Helen Vatsikopoulos. (Photo: Xavier Mayes)

I had the opportunity to speak at the first ever multicultural media forum at NSW Parliament last week. The Multicultural Media At A Crossroads conference was jointly organised by the Multicultural Media Awards, the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre.  It was a whole day event, and as far as forums go it was well organised with a fair balance of speakers, a broad coverage of topics and ample question time to make it an active experience for those involved. I spoke and sat on a panel with Helen Vatsikopoulos and Pino Miglorino, both veterans of multicultural media. It was quite a humbling experience. Helen spoke about her experiences with SBS and ABC, where she was the first journalist with an ‘unpronounceable’ last name.  Pino put it brilliantly when he said it was the market demand that led to such strong multicultural media outlets, not the efforts of the government. Inadvertently, they both reminded me how long this fight has been waged for.

I was invited to speak most likely because of an opinion piece I published on Arts Hub last year. Slyly timed with the launch of Parramasala 2012, it was intended to be a slap in the face. I had worked with the festival in its first year, in the second year I was abroad, and returning in time for it’s third incarnation I was shocked at how little the festival had progressed in representing local South Asian artists and arts workers. In the article I also covered the flawed logic of the Asian Century White Paper. In my presentation at the forum, I left Parramasala aside due to time constraints and out of acknowledgement that they are working on these issues. I got straight to The Asian Century White Paper. The paper is obviously a great initiative, albeit a bit slow to appear (12 years after the century began) and disappointingly insular in its imagination. The paper recognise the diversity in our midst; almost 1 in 10 Australians are of Asian descent, in 2010-11 China was the biggest contributor of migrants and in 2011-12 India took the baton. The disappointing thing about the paper is its inability to transfer such statistics into valuable components of policy. There is no mention of the Asian-Australian community in the recommendations and policy sections.

In fact all reference to Asia in the policy sections refer to it as a region; essentially an external beauty (and beast) that must be tamed. The idea that Asians who call themselves Australians can have a competitive advantage in this century, via language, cultural and social capital is not mentioned in the paper at all. I don’t think the intention here was racial, I just think when you have no Asians on the panel, and very little engagement with the Asian Australian community what you are going to get is a very ‘white’ vision. If any of us were on the panel, I’m sure we would have pointed out that it makes sense to identify and incorporate Asian Australians in the policy outcomes. We have so much capacity to bridge gaps, and transition Australia to be more reflective of its population.

I showed the audience the ABC 2013 showreel. The complete lack of diversity is devastating to say the least. We are the invisible identity in Australia’s imagining of this century. We are identified and profiled when it comes to crime, migration, border security issues, and when we speak too loud on the train but when it comes to our ability to contribute our personal stories, our culture and diasporic identities, we are completely invisible. The irony is, the government frequently encourages migrants to assimilate into the Australian cultural landscape, but when you have no visible marker, no reference point to aspire in the culture how do you even begin to construct this identity. To put it simply, we need more diverse stories and diverse faces that reflect the reality of our country.

So if it is not blatant racism on the part of broadcasters and policy makers, then why the lack of representation? Simple, Asian (and culturally diverse) Australians are an endangered species in decision making roles within the media jungle. Take a scroll through the ABC and SBS board and senior staff positions and it’ll be spelt out for you. While I was researching for the presentation I came across the staff page for Asialink, with no disrespect to the work that Asialink does; we scrolled and scrolled looking for an Asian face. With the odd stand out we got to the greatest cluster of Asian staff; The Executive Assistant, The Financial Officer and The Receptionist. All senior staff were non-Asian. I pointed out to the crowd “if this is not cultural imperialism, then I don’t know what is?”. I wasn’t sure how the audience would receive this. They applauded, I was glad to be amongst like minded people.

Kate Larsen, the former CEO of Arts Access Australia, bravely resigned sighting that the organisation should be led by someone with a disability. I would recommend reading the article just to get your head around her brilliant rationale. I think we need to push for similar progress within CALD serving organisations. I’m not suggesting every CEO resign and appoint a person of colour, not at all. What I am suggesting is for us to develop systems that allow for people of colour to have the opportunity and capacity to take on such roles in the future. This was my greatest critique towards Parramasala. If our stories are still being OKed by people from outside of our communities, then quite simply it is cultural imperialism.

You may have read about the controversy over a recent Australian feature film starring Ewan McGregor. Stereotyping along racial lines is quite common, unfortunately when it comes to casting leads, writers and directors seem to only dream up ‘white’ characters. People of colour in Australian films are almost always in the background. They are barely visible to the white imagination, and in the case of Son of a Gun, there is no lead Aboriginal, Islander or Middle Eastern character to ever offset the ‘bad guys’ in the background. What this creates in the long term is a fracture in Australian culture, many migrant communities sighting a lack of visibility have and will continue to turn to cable TV and online consumption of media, their identity will be constructed entirely independent of Australia, and what that breeds is a dysfunctional and dystopic society. This is a collective issue that concerns the entire nation.

During a coffee break, I met a fellow Sri Lankan man at the conference. He had studied in Sydney and was one of the people to theorise and speak about diverse media in the early 90s. He kept reminding me that he spoke about everything I spoke about 20 years ago. I was quite unnerved by what felt like incessant narcissism, then I realised how betrayed he was by his experience. He had spoken so passionately about these issues 20 years ago and with little progress made since then he was disheartened and felt just as invisible. I’ll always remember the last thing he said to me. I was rattling on about the lack of press freedom in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, exemplifying Australia as the best place to practice media. Then he pointed out, that little do we consider the cultural censorship. If you are a person of colour and you want to tell a story from your perspective you are rarely going to find an editor, a publisher or an advertiser who will give you that opportunity.  Your story remains censored through the filter of whiteness. This is called cultural censorship. I had just learnt a new word, and a new way to conceptualise my lack of belongingness.

Author: Gary Paramanathan

Gary Paramanathan is an arts and cultural worker based in Western Sydney. Gary has worked for Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) and collaborated with other arts and diversity related organisations. He currently manages the Colourfest Film Festival (; Australia's multicultural film festival

3 thoughts on “Are we there yet? Multicultural media at a crossroads”

  1. The Sri Lankan man’s words are likely to be spoken by you in 20 years time. I tend to agree with him. And I’ve been published in just about every newspaper in Australia and New Zealand as well as appearing on radio and TV and securing a major literary award.

    I know that someone with my name is only ever expected to comment on certain issues relating to South Asia and/or Islam. The fact that I am a lawyer with some 20 years experience and who has practised in 4 different states is of little relevance to editors.

    On the other hand, if I lived in the UK or Canada, I could write and be published on a host of issues in which I held genuine expertise.

    And having my complexion wouldn’t stop me from appearing in TV advertising.

    Australia is an extremely parochial nation.

Your thoughts?