Major media organisations have marginalised ethnic communities — for example, the Chinese community is seen through the prism of “foreign influence”.
In recent years, Australia’s mainstream media has started to give more attention to Chinese-language media here. Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s WeChat official account was deactivated by WeChat due to the lack of management and the commercial dealings. Words such as “hijacking”, “hacking”, “political interference” were featured prominently among media outlets. So far, no evidence has been provided that Morrison’s account was hacked. Media reports such as these can be misleading and amplify anti-China sentiment.
An example is the release of the report “Translating tension” by Fan Yang, which has attracted some mainstream media coverage.
The report found that Chinese-language media tended to be politically aligned with Canberra rather than Beijing when covering the bilateral tension between Australia and China in 2020. It also found that Chinese-language media rarely produce original news reports, partly due to their lack of financial resources and access to first-hand news from public institutions such as the police, federal parliament and state governments.
However, these and many other findings in the report were not picked up by the mainstream media, which focused only the “censorship” angle.
On issues relating to Chinese-Australian communities and Chinese-language media, the current dominant narrative is “foreign influence”. This angle makes the story on Chinese-language media more newsworthy, otherwise it may not be worth reporting.
The censorship angle fulfils this criterion. This is the story of Chinese-language media being a vector of foreign influence, a willing or unwilling agent of the Chinese Communist Party shaping the narrative within Australia. In contrast, the other stories that could have been written do not fit this framework.
Why is censorship and foreign influence the overwhelming issue for media organisations when reporting on Chinese-language media? To answer this question, we need to look at the decision-making process in Australian media organisations and their target audiences.
Under-representation and marginalisation
Australia’s media is notoriously known for being “too white for too long”. According to research by Media Diversity Australia, only 6 per cent of presenters, commentators and reporters have an Indigenous or non-European background. In addition, 77 per cent of respondents with culturally diverse backgrounds believed their background was a barrier to career progression. Australia’s media structure thus marginalises the voices of ethnic communities and Indigenous people in news production, which leads to misrepresentation and under-representation of minority groups in news coverage.
While diversity at the working level is lacking, it is even worse at the decision-making level. For example, the data shows that all free-to-air television national news directors are men with Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. Of the 39 board members, only one has an Indigenous background and three a non-European background. This means that despite a recent increase in the number of journalists with ethnic backgrounds, Indigenous and ethnic employees are still mostly shut out from editorial decision-making. The editorial angle thus does not reflect the diverse communities in Australia.
As for political news, non-English media organisations do not have equal access to the federal parliamentary press gallery. This hinders these organisations, including Chinese-language media, from getting direct information from parliament, severely limiting their engagement in political discussions. As a result, Chinese-language media must rely on their English-language counterparts for content, which means they set the agenda for Chinese-language political reporting in Australia.
‘Mainstream’ and ‘special’
Despite a recent increase in the number of journalists from multicultural backgrounds at major Australian media organisations such as the ABC and SBS, these journalists are still pressured to produce content for the “mainstream readership”.
An interview conducted by Fan Yang with a former Chinese-Australian journalist revealed that in order to fit in, journalists need to report news stories of “public interest” – the type of stories that attract attention from the mainstream readership. News stories from within ethnic communities are often not seen as in the public interest as the readership is assumed to be confined within those communities.
Australian mainstream media (as distinct from “ethnic”, “migrant”, “alternative”, “diasporic” or “Indigenous” media) aims to appeal to mainstream Australians for public interest. But who represents the “mainstream” and what does “public interest” cover?
Both “mainstream” and “public interest” are concepts hinting at unattainable universality. In fact, the terms “mainstream Australians” and “ordinary Australians” have been used repetitively to legitimise the interest of white Australians and to exclude that of Indigenous people and ethnic communities. From the 1980s to the 1990s, prominent Australians such as Geoffrey Blainey, John Howard and Pauline Hanson adopted the term to exclude ethnic minorities, in particular Asians and Muslims. They used it to legitimise the interest of Anglo-Celtic Australians and emphasise national integrity rather than cultural diversity.
Likewise, the dominant definition of “public interest” implies universality and transcendence of common good regardless of one’s gender, race and ethnicity, disability or sexuality. For example, research has identified a disconnect between what is in the interests of Indigenous peoples and the popularised notion of national public interest. Similarly, the interests of the diaspora communities are usually not seen as a “public interest” but only a “special interest”, to be dealt with by the “Special” Broadcasting Service.
What to do?
With the focus on mainstream Australians as the audience and segregation of other Australians to ethnic media and the SBS, Chinese-language media is viewed from the perspective of Anglo-Celtic Australians only. And for this group of Australians, foreign influence is the dominant prism through which issues related to the Chinese diaspora are viewed.
If we want to hear diverse voices and viewpoints represented in Australian mainstream media, we need to redefine the idea of “public interest” in a more inclusive manner and to ensure that concerns of Australian ethnic communities are brought into the mainstream media. The inclusion of more people from diverse cultural backgrounds in decision-making processes in media organisations would assist this process.