Diversity in media: all talk, no action?

Panel discussions discussing diversity shouldn’t be mistaken for actual social progress

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It’s perhaps Australia’s worst kept secret that its broadcast media landscape is not truly representative and reflective of the nation’s multicultural cross-section of society. You turn on the television or the radio and you are greeted by faces and voices that are inextricably interchangeable.

PC: Jamie Williams and Sydney Writers’ Festival

Morning television is exclusively a cesspool of whiteness. Private media channels seem to have little interest in changing this dynamic.

The burden of being ‘diverse’ – if I can use that word without rolling my eyes – has thus far fallen on the shoulders of public broadcasters such as the ABC and SBS. It is no surprise then, that two out of three guests on the panel (Media in Full Colour) discussing diversity in the Australian media landscape at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, were from the two public broadcasters – Jeremy Fernandez (from the ABC) and Marc Fennell (from SBS).

On the question of voices and accents in the media, Fennell comes out all guns blazing. He makes the point that despite coming from different backgrounds, having different skin colour and ethnicities, all news readers sound the same, or at least are expected to sound a particular way. This style of disseminating information has invariably created a class system; it’s a class system that reinforces the idea that we can only accept facts and information from a group of people if they sound a certain way.

The most seductive liberal narrative of our times is that we as a society are continuously moving towards progressive ideals. It’s a narrative that is self-perpetuating because of how much it provides a dose of comfort – yes, the rise of Donald Trump and the populist backlash against embracing progressiveness it has brought seems alarming in the short-term, but throughout history, we have continued to strive in making our world a fairer, more inclusive and a more tolerant place to live.

Except that’s not the whole story.

The problem with this nostalgic and rosy outlook where social progress is the default outcome in the long-term is that it works really well as a self-rationalisation tool. You don’t actually have to be doing anything to get to the eventual outcome because it’s understood to be almost pre-ordained. And it becomes too easy to look back a generation or two – think how much more accepting and tolerant you are than that older relative of yours who still makes casually sexist and racist remarks at dinner parties – and give yourself a pat on the back for doing such a splendid job.

Diversity has become a buzzword that has a lot of social currency. We love talking about diversity

Because the resonance of this liberal narrative is so strong, everyone is all too happy to jump on the bandwagon. Progressive ideals are intuitively attractive and marketable. Everyone wants to be ‘diverse’. Diversity has become a buzzword that has a lot of social currency. We love talking about diversity. I might be wrong, but right this minute, there must be a panel talking about diversity somewhere in the world. The Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James – and previous guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – wrote an acutely illuminating piece about why he’s done talking about diversity.

“It’s not just that diversity, like tolerance is an outcome treated as a goal. It is that we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it. This might be something we picked up from academia, the idea that discussing an issue is somehow on par with solving it, or at least beginning the process. A panel on diversity is like a panel on world peace. It should be seeking a time when we no longer need such panels. It should be a panel actively working towards its own irrelevance. The fact that we’re still having them not only means that we continue to fail, but the false sense of accomplishment in simply having one is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried.”

The problem is, of course, that there is no nuanced understanding of what diversity is or ought to look like in practice. Organisations appear to interpret diversity in ways that are most compatible with their existing ecosystems and hence, are least threatening to the existing status quo. Often this mindset leads to reductively equating diversity with skin colour. Fernandez is quick to deride this way of thinking, emphasising that diversity is “not an idea of a rainbow array of people standing beside each other holding hands”.

These kinds of panel discussions around diversity – whether they are about gender, cultural backgrounds and/or experiences in general – happen dime-a-dozen at many writers’ festivals across the globe.

It’s like preaching to the choir: most of the audience members would call themselves ‘liberal’ – basically the kind of people who want to attend a talk about ‘diversity’ in the first place. Even at this panel discussion, moderator Andrea Ho brought up this expectation that persists: that it is up to individuals from non-white backgrounds to ‘fix’ the diversity issue – somehow it’s always up to the people of colour to be the gatekeepers of teachable moments.

This way of framing the diversity issue is extremely reductive and has so far yielded no rewards. People of colour have been sharing their experiences and insights – much like this panel – on diversity in various contexts for a long time. But until the debate around diversity is framed as something that society as a whole needs to address on a structural and institutional level, there is little hope to make any meaningful progress.

At the end, the audience applauds wholeheartedly, as if they have just been injected with a shot of self-awareness into their system. Everyone silently acknowledges the need to be more diverse and goes home happy, feeling they have done their bit in adding their two-cents to the social progressiveness discourse.

And you wait for the next writers’ festival to do it all over again.