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What drives Shalailah Medhora

How the Triple J Hack journalist is paving the way for diverse Australians reporting on political affairs.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

 

Whether it’s reporting on international student mental health, the financial implications of Robodebt on Australia’s young people, or the impact of COVID on the property market, Shalailah Medhora has certainly made her presence felt in the Australian media landscape. She’s a familiar name on Twitter for her insightful commentary in the #auspol arena, and for many young Australians, a byline they’ve come to trust over at Triple J Hack.

In 2020, Shalailah was notably the first person of South Asian origin to be invited on Insiders, ABC’s flagship political discussion program. It was a significant experience for thousands of Indian Australians to see that kind of recognition on their television screens.

“Journalism, to me, is making sense of the world,” Shalailah tells Indian Link with a smile. “Growing up, we lived in Fiji, then we moved to New Zealand, then settled in Australia. These experiences of moving around only made me more curious about the world, news, and current events.”

Adding that journalists are “the first documenters of history”, her career has interestingly come full circle, having begun in community radio through her university days. (“It’s ingrained in our community to get as much work experience as you can,” she chuckles.)

From there, her considerable portfolio has included writing for The Guardian Australia and SBS in the Press Gallery of the Parliament House for a decade. It’s clear she sunk her teeth into television, radio, and digital journalism in Australia with rapid strides – and was recently recognised for it in a potential shortlist of candidates published by The Sydney Morning Herald to take over Leigh Sales’ chair at 7:30. She was named alongside heavyweights like Laura Tingle, Stan Grant, Virginia Trioli, and David Speers.

“I saw the article, it was a big honour to be included,” she says. “But I’ll be candid, I haven’t gotten the tap on the shoulder yet!”

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it seemed only fitting to pick Shalailah’s brain on a wide range of topics, including women’s issues, the India-Australia relationship, and the push towards the diversification of Australian media.

shalailah medhora
Photo credit: Jacquie Manning

On #BreakingTheBias

In the last two years, there’s been a much-needed movement towards changing the country’s perception, and treatment, of women. Shalailah’s not surprised that it is advocates like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins who are leading the charge. It merges naturally into the theme of International Women’s Day 2022: #BreakTheBias.

“Ms Tame and Ms Higgins are eloquent advocates for the voiceless and importantly, they don’t play by traditional rules,” she notes. “Working in youth media myself, I see a marked difference in the new generation’s approach to women’s issues. They won’t take crap anymore. They’ve been able to leapfrog off the important work by women before them to say ‘enough is enough’.”

She’s also unsurprised by the fierce pushback this has received from some men in the country: “There’s an entire generation of men, especially white men in power, who are threatened by this refusal to play by the traditional rules. For years, there’s been an unspoken contract that the world works in a certain way and it’s suddenly changing for them.”

Still, it’s apparent that it’s the groundbreakers, especially in this age of social media, who continue to receive the most hate. Most recently, Ms Tame’s public refusal to smile in a photo with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and her revelation in the National Press Club of a threatening phone call last year from a senior member of a government-funded organisation, resulted in the resurfacing of an old photo from 2014 of a then 19-year-old Tame sitting on a couch with a bong on her lap. The purpose was likely to disparage the 2021 Australian of the Year, but dozens of people, including some in public office, came to her defence.

“These women were pushed into this public position and they’re making the most of it, but it does come at a personal cost,” observes Shalailah. “I believe they’ve made an impact because they’ve tapped into a deep sense of anger in women, and it’s not just young women.”

READ ALSO: Dhanya Mani on speaking out: “It felt like a moral imperative”

march 4 justice melbourne
A March 4 Justice Rally in Melbourne. Source: Matt Hrkac / Wikimedia Commons

On 15 March last year, she reported from Canberra on the March 4 Justice rally at which thousands of frustrated Australians called for meaningful parliamentary reform and a safer Australia for women.

“There was a cross-section of women at the March 4 Justice. They were of all ages and backgrounds, some came with their families while others were corporate and working women,” she describes. “Perpetrators previously counted on silence, but as the march showed, women will no longer be shamed.”

Her words echo Ms Higgins’ powerful speech outside the Parliament House, almost a year to the day: “Speak up. Share your truth and know that you have a generation of women ready, willing and able to support you.”

With over 10 years under her belt reporting on federal politics, Shalailah has personally seen a dramatic shift in the way the media now addresses women’s issues, including sexual assault and domestic violence.

“A couple of years ago, I was in conversation with the senior editor of a media organisation at the Press Gallery, discussing topics I’d like to cover. When I mentioned domestic violence, they said to me, ‘Yes, it’s an important issue, but it’s not top tier’,” she recalls. “Then Rosie Batty became Australian of the Year and everyone in the media wanted to cover the issue. She proved it was, in fact, top tier.”

Australians still shudder at the memory of that horrific case that resulted in the death of eleven-year-old Luke at the hands of his father. It spurred his mother Rosie Batty to take up advocacy in the field of domestic violence, and her work was considered so laudable that she received the national award in 2015.

Shalailah adds, “People do want to read and hear about these important issues, but it can be a tricky space to operate as a journalist. Ultimately, it is personal stories that cut through the noise and that comes with the toll of reaching out to family and friends during their difficult times. Thankfully, there’s a lot more sensitivity to the issues now. We’re becoming warier of the language we use and the way we approach these topics.”

READ ALSO: Australia’s Indian community must hold the government accountable

On political engagement

According to recent figures, Indian Australians are the second-largest migrant group in the country and are expected to outnumber Chinese-born Australians over the next 10 years. With this, they’ve come up as a real political power in Australia.

“This might be weirdly significant, but I’ve been seeing a lot of South Asian families in mainstream advertising. It’s a sign of the capital, politically and culturally, that the community now holds,” Shalailah, whose Parsi parents emigrated from India, elaborates.

shailalah medhora in a sari
Source: supplied

“It’s no accident that we see curry nights by the Prime Minister on social media. Political parties on both sides of the spectrum view the Indian diaspora as a natural voting constituency, made up of small business owners and people on working visas hoping to settle down here.”

The Australia-India relationship meanwhile is making substantial progress, with strong strides in security in the recent past following steady rise in the education sector. It’s likely one of the reasons Australia has yet to comment on India’s wishy-washy stance on the Ukraine invasion, including four abstentions at the United Nations.

“It’s quite telling that no one in the political sphere is talking about this. There are clear economic benefits to Australia-India relations, and the Prime Ministers have a close relationship, but it’s a shame that we can’t call this out, allies or not. Australia’s no stranger to its own human rights abuses either. We should be able to say, ‘we deserve better’,” Shalailah notes.

Media coverage about the Ukraine invasion has been equally divisive internationally. Last week, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata became the latest media person to draw sharp criticism for his comments, describing Ukraine as a “relatively civilized, relatively European” place, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I’m shocked at this narrative. I hope the people writing these things get called out,” Shalailah says. “I want to see pushback and it’s unfortunate that the brunt of pointing out this problematic commentary ultimately falls on diverse journalists.”

As a role model for many young people here in Australia, her impactful work continues to be watched closely by a new cohort of journo hopefuls. What’s her advice to them, for putting themselves out there?

“Early on in my work opportunities, I made it a point to introduce myself to different departments,” Shalailah explains. “In this industry, getting your foot in the door can often be the hardest part. I know there’s often a migrant mentality to avoid drawing too much attention to yourself, but in this career, you’ve got to make yourself known.”

READ ALSO: What drives Liverpool Councillor Charishma Kaliyanda

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Rhea L Nath
Rhea L Nath
Rhea L Nath is a writer, editor, and content creator based in Sydney. In 2021, she was the winner of the Alan Knight Student Award (NSW Premier's Multicultural Communications Awards)

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