Aboriginal activist, artist and academic, Professor Gary Foley, has criticised Melbourne media mogul Morry Schwartz for allowing Cape York leader Noel Pearson and “a certain small right-wing clique” to dominate mainstream media coverage of Indigenous issues.
“The Australian loves them, gives them acres of space,” Foley said. “But the perplexing thing is that even those who pretend that they are progressive segments of the media also provide vast amounts of space to the views of people like Noel.”
Prefacing his remarks at a New News journalism forum in Melbourne last week by describing Schwartz as a friend, the always outspoken Foley listed publications in Schwartz’s stable, including The Saturday Paper, the Quarterly Essay and The Monthly, as “masquerading as friends” of Indigenous Australia.
“And it’s a great pity that (these) otherwise genuinely progressive publications … when it comes to Indigenous coverage, all they’re doing is providing more of the same that (Rupert) Murdoch gives us, and in doing so it denies space for alternative Indigenous voices.
“I’ve tried to talk to Morry about this, but Morry is a mini Rupert Murdoch. He decides what goes in his publications,” Foley said. “I’m not condemning Morry … but it does create a problem in terms of having a broader Indigenous voice available to the general public.”
Contacted by The Citizen for a response, Schwartz – a property developer turned publisher who boasts a substantial slice of Australia’s media and book publishing pie – said: “Dr Foley’s allegation that I am not a friend of Indigenous Australia is clearly mischievous and untrue, and he knows that”.
Foley has been a strident critic of Pearson for years, and argues his dominant position on Indigenous issues stifles more moderate voices. He maintains a Pearson “dossier” on his Koori History Website which invites “students of history and politics to seek an understanding of the Pearson phenomenon”.
In a wide-ranging discussion with journalist and researcher Jack Latimore, at the Wheeler Centre on the rise of Indigenous voices in online media, Foley expressed optimism about the capacity of new media to erode the influence of the establishment mainstream, like the Murdoch publications. But he also noted its enlistment by right wing extremist groups, and its powerful capacity to distract people “from the real world”. He bemoaned the vanishing of the kind of radical, visible activism across a range of political and human rights issues that occurred in Australia through the ’67-’72 period which is the focus of his research.
There was “enormous support in the broader Australian community around the ’67 referendum and even the tent embassy in ’72,” he said, but that dissipated with “the great white backlash” from the ’70s through to the ’90s.
Today, Australia had “largely lost interest” in Indigenous issues. “I think the uphill battle for Indigenous media people these days is trying to recapture that audience that we had way back then. It’s a much more difficult thing to get your message across these days with much of the hostility – I mean outright hostility – that is out there in significant sections of mainstream media.”
Thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, to which Foley was a consultant, incarceration rates for Indigenous people were today higher than they had ever been, underlining what he described as structural racism within Australia’s judicial system. The Turnbull Government last month rejected the key recommendation of reconciliation attempts laid out in the historic Uluru Statement.
“A lot of the things that put fire in my belly when I was 18 or 19, in terms of Aboriginal stuff, they are still there. We’re still completely denied any meaningful self-determination, we’re still politically powerless. The health situation is shocking the social indicators are appalling, as bad as they’ve ever been.”
Foley singled out the 1967 Referendum, regarded as a turning point in relations between Indigenous and white Australians, as the standout moment in the engagement of Australian society and media with Indigenous issues. “(The referendum was) a truly honorable moment in Australian history,” he said, “when in excess of 90 percent of the Australian people voted yes to a question they understood to be ‘do you believe in justice for Aboriginal Australia or not’.”
He urged scrapping January 26 as Australia Day, nominating the anniversary of the referendum – May 27 – as an inclusive day for a national celebration, “a day when you will get no argument from me or any Aboriginal activist about whether white people should celebrate on that day, because it is a day of honor”.