By Osman Faruqi and Max Walden
Journalists say the ABC has been too slow to drive cultural change.
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Betrayed. That’s how Wiradjuri journalist and broadcaster Stan Grant said he felt watching his employer’s coverage of the Queen’s funeral in September last year.
“I felt in my own organisation … a sense of betrayal,” he explained in an interview on ABC RN last month. “Because the ABC, everyone donned black suits, everyone took on a reverential tone … [everyone from] the prime minister on down were saying, ‘This is not the time to talk about empire and colonisation, this is not the time to talk about the republic’.”
It was that criticism, according to multiple sources at the ABC with knowledge of the matter, that encouraged the organisation to change tack when it came to its coverage of the coronation of King Charles III. Grant was so widely respected, and his criticism so direct, that senior executives decided to accommodate his views by airing a panel discussion in the lead-up to the ceremony that included Indigenous and republican perspectives on the crown and the legacy of the British Empire, including Grant’s.
Stan Grant’s departure from Q+A helped to expose an undercurrent of racism at the ABC. Credit: Chris Hopkins
While ABC producers, and its senior leadership, were braced for the criticism that would follow, they did not expect the show’s aftermath to include Grant stepping away from journalism and the organisation’s biggest public reckoning on race. It has sent shockwaves through the media industry, reverberated in the halls of parliament, been covered by international outlets including the BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and sparked soul-searching at the highest levels of the ABC.
But nowhere has Grant’s decision to take indefinite leave, and the reasons behind it, been more keenly felt than among former and current ABC staff. The latter walked off the job on Monday to rally in support of Grant.
Interviews with more than 20 current and former Indigenous and non-white ABC journalists reveal that Grant’s explosive column, published on the ABC’s website, rather than being a response to a one-off incident reflected a deep cultural problem at the organisation where journalists from culturally diverse backgrounds overwhelmingly feel they are treated differently to their white colleagues because of the colour of their skin. Staff are also furious that management has known about the issues for years but has been slow to drive cultural change.
Most of those who agreed to be interviewed for this story did so on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned about their careers at the ABC if they identified themselves, and due to fear over disciplinary action. All former ABC staff quoted in this story worked at the organisation within the past five years, unless otherwise specified.
One ABC journalist said they had never seen this level of anger inside the organisation from staff who were Indigenous or from culturally diverse backgrounds. Another said Grant’s powerful column explaining his decision to step back from journalism had unleashed a “very intense dialogue” inside the ABC about the experiences of non-white staff.
“For many Indigenous journalists, the racism, bias and prejudice we’ve faced inside the ABC has been far more damaging than any abuse we’ve received online,” one current ABC journalist said.
Another Indigenous journalist working at the ABC described a culture where stories pitched by First Nations journalists were less likely to be taken seriously and pursued.
“I was exhausted after my stories were published because it took so much to get them across the line … it started to chip away at my confidence and self-worth,” they said. “How are you supposed to perform at the best of your ability when so much of your time is consumed by jumping extra hurdles?”
The ABC acknowledged to this masthead that this issue had been raised in diversity forums held across the organisation, and it was developing an “inclusive teams project” to improve problems that had been identified.
But the journalist also said the organisation was also selective at times about who it embraced among diverse staff. “Sometimes management pick and choose who they want to celebrate, and it creates this kind of unspoken awkwardness between colleagues and a perception you have to live up to the exceptional achievements of other diverse reporters in order to be simply respected and valued.”
One former Indigenous journalist at the ABC said of their experience: “They wanted to use my face and my skin [for their benefit], but they didn’t want to give me the same opportunities as my white colleagues.”
Another former ABC journalist, who worked at the broadcaster for more than five years in a number of different departments, said that it took them years to fully unpack the impact working at the ABC as a non-white person had on their emotional wellbeing.
“It was such a traumatic work experience for me,” they said. “It’s taken the entire second half of my career to unpack what happened.
“There is so much virtue signalling over diversity. They will say ‘we have hired a couple of non-white presenters’, but there’s this really pervasive and deep racist undercurrent,” they said, pointing to numerous instances of racist language used by colleagues in front of them.
In speaking to ABC staff about their experiences of racism while working at the broadcaster, four different kinds of examples came up time and time again: direct racist interactions with colleagues (including the use of racially offensive language, and comments like “you only got this job to fill a quota”), racist abuse from audience members on text-lines, on air, via email and on social media, disproportionate criticism from hostile media outlets, particularly News Corp outlets, and a widespread perception that management fails to take complaints about the above seriously.
Grant spoke powerfully about his experience of being publicly denigrated and abused, as well as the failure of management to stand up for him, but it’s a problem spoken about across the organisation. A former Indigenous ABC journalist said they had noticed how quickly the ABC publicly defended its high-profile white staff, and contrasted that with the lack of a full-throated public defence of Grant.
Sami Shah (right) joined Jacinta Parsons (left) on the ABC Melbourne breakfast slot in 2017.
On Wednesday at a Senate estimates hearing, the experiences of former ABC radio presenter Sami Shah were raised by Liberal senator Sarah Henderson. After Grant’s announcement, Shah wrote about his time at the ABC, including an incident where he was disciplined by HR for responding to a far-right troll who had targeted him and his family. Shah described the troll as “a sad incel wank pigeon”. The ABC’s managing director said he took Shah’s comments seriously and invited him to discuss his experiences further.
In response to questions about staff being disciplined for responding to public attacks, an ABC spokesperson said there was no unwillingness from management to support any employees and that if staff felt unsupported by their boss they had the option of raising concerns with an internal Diversity Advocates Network.
Shah told this masthead that he wasn’t naive about the nature of social media, and that it was never that which bothered him. “It was the constant attacks in the rest of the media,” he said. “There wasn’t a week in two years I wasn’t being blamed for the complete collapse in local radio, but management never backed me. I felt abandoned and when you’re not allowed to respond, that takes a toll. That’s what Stan Grant was really saying.”
Shah added that he was overwhelmed with responses from current ABC journalists who read about his experiences, saying they echoed their own. Another former ABC journalist said they constantly felt like they were being held to a different standard to their white colleagues, especially when it came to what they posted on social media.
“When I started at the ABC, within three days of starting, I had someone from Twitter attack me and try to get me fired. They were a far-right troll, and it wasn’t super-serious, but when I responded the response from management wasn’t to support me for what I was going through, but to berate me.”
Six current and former ABC journalists said because non-white staff were far more likely to be the target of far-right trolls, as well as conservative media outlets like Sky News and The Australian, it made management’s unwillingness to support them, or their decisions to discipline them, one that fed the perception of racism.
For its part, the ABC says it is “constantly putting out comments and statements” defending its journalists, and denied there was a racial bias in who was defended. A spokesperson pointed to recent published statements in support of Patricia Karvelas, Lisa Millar, Louise Milligan, Tony Armstrong, Russell Jackson and Mark Willacy. But they added that the current approach, which weighed up whether issuing a statement could make the issue worse, was under “active consideration”, following recent events.
Michael Hing, the host of triple j’s popular Drive program, was on leave from the ABC this week, but he returned to reflect on-air about his experiences of racism at the ABC. He read out a selection of the racist, abusive messages he had received on the text-line and on social media, targeting him simply for being a Chinese Australian.
Hing told this masthead that while “there are places I’ve worked that have been much worse”, there were issues unique to the ABC. One, he said, was that the ABC’s charter is used against it as a weapon.
Michael Hing went on-air to read out racist abuse he’s copped as a triple j host.Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder
When Stan Grant challenged the legacy of the British Empire, he and the ABC were slammed as biased by media and political critics, creating anxiety among managers anxious about the fallout.
“The phrase is: ‘I don’t want to be dragged in front of Senate estimates’,” Hing said.
Hing also hoped that ABC management reconsidered how social media was used by the broadcaster, and what its purpose was.
“I don’t know why the ABC is on Twitter,” he said, given its tolerance of racist and sexist abuse – especially since Elon Musk’s takeover – as well as the low level of engagement ABC stories receive from the platform. (Most traffic is driven by visits to the ABC’s own website and apps, as well as search engines, rather than social media.)
Brooke Boney, a Gamilaroi woman and the entertainment and news presenter on Nine’s Today Show, is a former ABC journalist and newsreader. Like Grant and many others, she has been on the receiving end of racist abuse, especially after discussing Indigenous issues.
“When black people speak truth to power, it makes people feel uncomfortable,” Boney said. “It makes people realise that their good fortune isn’t just about how hard they work, it’s more about the oppression they’ve benefited from.
Brooke Boney was a newsreader on the ABC’s radio network triple j from 2016 to 2018.Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage
While understandably hesitant to delve into specific incidents during her time at the ABC, Boney said: “I see the pain Stan has gone through – and it’s not too far removed from how difficult it’s been for me at times.”
Many of these issues aren’t new. Indigenous Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy began her cadetship at the ABC in 1989, and worked for the organisation until 2005.
“I had my challenges, especially covering the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” she told this masthead. “Challenges not only from a journalistic perspective but also as an Aboriginal woman who needed support to discuss what I was going through. That wasn’t really there, society didn’t consider it necessary at the time.”
McCarthy added that she had supportive colleagues and learnt to roll with the punches, but believed social media had changed the landscape, and that news organisations should resist the urge to rely on social media criticism for clickbait stories.
Many, if not all, of the issues around race raised by ABC journalists have been known to management for years. In 2017, senior managers in the organisation’s news division sat through a presentation that detailed numerous instances of racism ABC staff had experienced. The presentation was based on a survey of staff who had recently left the organisation. Most cited racism and a lack of support from management as the key reason for their departure.
In 2020, a letter signed by more than 80 ABC staffers was sent to ABC management, including managing director David Anderson and chair of the board Ita Buttrose. The letter expressed concern about the organisation’s failure to build an inclusive workplace.
“Each one of us signing this letter can share with you instances and examples of how racism has manifested in the departments in which we work,” it read. “All of us have personally experienced or witnessed similar incidents at the ABC ourselves.”
ABC news director Justin Stevens (left) and ABC managing director David Anderson (right).Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
The strongly worded letter expressed frustration and confusion at the fact racism was still so rife at the ABC, despite three decades of conversations about racial equality. The letter helped initiate a review into racism at the organisation, delivered to management in 2022. In response to that review, the ABC’s director of news Justin Stevens issued an apology to staff and said: “The ABC will not allow or tolerate any racism in the workplace. Ever.”
The review was never released to ABC staff, or those who participated, but multiple sources with knowledge of its findings said it contained numerous examples of racist abuse and discriminatory language being directed at staff in the workplace. According to sources, Indigenous staff across different departments and multiple programs on TV and radio had detailed the worst experiences.
An ABC spokesperson said that more information on the outcome of the review would be released in a few weeks, and that it had fed into the organisation’s diversity plan. But they said the review had already led to some actions including the creation of internal staff forums to discuss racism and the rollout of additional training for both journalists and managers.
This week the ABC’s managing director issued another apology, this time to Grant, and committed to yet another review. A spokesperson confirmed that current and former staff would be invited to share their experiences as part of the review, and that it would make recommendations about how the ABC responds to racism experienced by staff. These reports and reviews, as well as the public comments of ABC staff including Grant, have put the focus on the ABC, but most journalists this masthead spoke to pointed out that every media organisation in Australia was due a reckoning on race.
Jennetta Quinn-Bates is a Malyangapa Barkindji journalist who worked as a trainee with the ABC’s Alice Springs bureau before becoming a news reporter. She believes the ABC’s issues are indicative of problems across the Australian media.
“It would be a failure on my behalf not to divert the attention to where it belongs … with all media institutions in this country, who continue to encourage racism, hatred, and bigotry. Whose editors nurture such behaviour, at the expense of blackfullas and the most vulnerable people in this country.
Stan Grant stepped away from his role as host of Q+A after sustaining persistent racial abuse online.Credit: ABC
“The issue of Stan Grant leaving his role was predominantly caused by non-ABC mastheads writing headline after nasty headline about Grant’s coverage of the coronation.
“ABC journalist Carly Williams received similar treatment from those corporations when she reported on racism in Mparntwe [Alice Springs]. The same organisations publish constant hate towards Senator Lidia Thorpe and are the same mastheads who endlessly attack Meghan Markle.
“The continued attacks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both personally and professionally, particularly our women, needs to stop.”
The question for the ABC is whether the latest furore will lead to significant, lasting change, or if the organisation will be issuing more apologies and committing to more reviews in 12 months.
“This is such an overdue opportunity to start to reform the ABC, to properly support people of colour and to start to fight back against the campaign that has been waged against Stan and others,” one Indigenous journalist at the ABC said.
ABC staff who spoke to this masthead had mixed views on how quickly things would change following Grant’s exit, but most said that they were encouraged by the comments made by Stevens, the organisation’s director of news. In particular, they cited his willingness to confront other media outlets who regularly criticised the ABC and its non-white staff, particularly News Corp, and his elevation of Suzanne Dredge, who became the first Indigenous journalist to sit on the ABC News executive team. Current and former Indigenous journalists at the ABC speak highly of Dredge, and the support she offers them.
But other ABC staff cited the long-term silence from the most senior members of the corporation’s leadership on the issue of racism, despite numerous reviews and appeals from staff. Another common criticism was the lack of managers and senior executives from diverse backgrounds, contributing to a lack of retention among Indigenous and non-white staff, and the scant progress that had been made in this space.
On Friday, Ita Buttrose made her first public comments on Grant’s exit in an interview on ABC Melbourne radio. After a light-hearted conversation about her time as editor of Australian Women’s Weekly, Buttrose devoted most of her remarks to criticising abuse on social media. She did not address the argument from Stevens that other media outlets play a role in fuelling that abuse, nor did she address the accusations from Grant, and others in the ABC, that they were let down by management.
There was one comment by Buttrose that raised the eyebrows of listening ABC staff, particularly given the genesis of the current uproar. When asked about her favourite cover from her stint at Women’s Weekly, the chair of the ABC said: “You’d just have to say the Queen.
“You couldn’t go wrong with the Queen.”
Osman Faruqi and Max Walden have both previously worked at the ABC. Osman Faruqi is also a regular contributor to a variety of ABC radio and TV programs.
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