Australian media’s racism reckoning: Indigenous journalist quits over ‘unrelenting’ abuse

It was a moment of reckoning.

Stan Grant, one of Australia’s most prominent Indigenous journalists, stared down the barrel of a live camera, stony-faced and red-eyed, to explain why he was stepping away from his role hosting a flagship program at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

It had been a little over two weeks since Grant, a Wiradjuri man, spoke about the impact of colonisation on Indigenous Australians during the ABC’s coverage of King Charles’s coronation.

The comments prompted a torrent of vitriol, much of it energised by repeated criticisms in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian outlets.

The inevitable racist abuse on social media that fell upon Grant and his family has been described as “grotesque” and “unrelenting”. It led Grant to announce his intention to step back from writing for ABC’s website and hosting its live discussion show, Q+A.

Stan Grant
Stan Grant said he had seen the media ‘lie and distort my words’ since the coronation. Photograph: Jason McCawley/Getty Images

It has also sparked renewed discussion in Australia about enduring racism, pernicious media influence, and accusations about the institutional timidity of Australia’s public broadcaster in defending its Indigenous staff.

When Grant hosted the show for the last time on Monday night, he bared his soul to the half a million watching. He was not leaving because of racist abuse that he had received, but because, as part of the media, he felt he was “part of the problem”.

“I’m not walking away for a while because of racism,” Grant said. “We get that far too often. I’m not walking away because of social media hatred.

“I need a break from the media. I feel like I’m part of the problem. And I need to ask myself how, or if, we can do it better.

“We in the media must ask if we are truly honouring a world worth living in. Too often, we are the poison in the bloodstream of our society. I fear the media does not have the love or the language to speak to the gentle spirits of our land.”

A critical choice for Australia

Grant’s hard truths come at a pivotal time in Australia’s history.

The nation, which has long struggled to comprehend the evils done to First Nations peoples, is debating a change the constitution which would enshrine a new advisory body giving voice to Indigenous Australians on matters that affect them.

The proposal, known as the voice, would act as an independent and permanent advisory body to Australia’s parliament and government on matters that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australians are expected to go to the polls in late 2023 to vote in a referendum on whether the constitution should be altered to establish such a body.

The debate has already become caustic. The conservative opposition has opted to oppose the voice, lamenting a lack of detail and what it claims would be the constitutional division of Australians on racial grounds. Opposition leader Peter Dutton went as far as claiming the referendum would wind back progress of the civil rights movement, represented “a symptom of the madness of identity politics”, and claimed it would “re-racialise our nation”.

On Monday, just hours before Grant’s live address, Australia’s minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, gave a withering response. She accused Dutton of spreading “misinformation and scare campaigns” about the Indigenous voice.

“We have just heard, in one speech, every bit of disinformation and misinformation and scare campaigns that exist in this debate,” she said.

People participate in a rally in support of Former ABC Q&A Host Stan Grant in Sydney
ABC staff across the country rally in support of Stan Grant, carrying signs reading ‘I stand with Stan’ and ‘We reject racism’. Photograph: Flavio Brancaleone/AAP

Grant on Monday offered a glimpse into the personal toll the recent media and social media barrage has taken on him.

The broadcaster said he had seen the media “lie and distort my words” since the coronation, attempting to depict him as “hate-filled” and guilty of “maligning Australia”.

He said he and his family had been directly targeted and threatened, his wife mocked for being married to a Wiradjuri man.

“To those who have abused me and my family. I would just say if your aim was to hurt me, well you’ve succeeded, and I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorry that I must have given you so much cause to hate me so much, to target me and my family and to make threats against me. I’m sorry.

“Sometimes we need to just take time out. Sometimes our souls are hurting and so it is for me. I’ve had to learn that endurance is not always strength. Sometimes strength is knowing when to say stop.”

Denis Muller, a senior research fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, says Grant’s treatment is a “case study in how content on the professional mass media can fuel social media toxicity”.

Stan Grant’s impassioned Q+A leaving speech: ‘I feel like I’m part of the problem’ – video

Grant did not accuse the mass media outlets directly of racism. He did not need to, according to Muller.

“The professional mass media’s contribution to the racism he writes about is more subtle,” Muller wrote for The Conversation. “It is to be found, first, in the singling out of Grant from the other members of the ABC panel whose discussion as part of the ABC’s coronation coverage has led to the outrage driving Grant away.”

“The professional mass media well understands the effects its work can have – for good or ill – on those engaged on social media. But it fails to give sufficient weight to this when making judgments about the portrayal of people who are vulnerable to being trolled: women, people of colour, ethnic and religious minorities.”

‘I am down right now. But I will get back up’

On the morning of Grant’s last appearance on Q+A, ABC staff rallied in support across the country.

They carried signs that read “I stand with Stan” and “We reject racism”.

The ABC’s head of news Justin Stevens spoke to the crowd of hundreds gathered outside the organisation’s headquarters in the Sydney suburb of Ultimo.

He said it was time to draw a line in the sand.

“The line in the sand is here, and we will not tolerate our staff being subjected to racial abuse, or any form of abuse. It must stop,” he said.

“I would say, other sections of the media that play a part in facilitating, encouraging, or drawing attention to this … need to take a really good hard look at themselves and the role they play.”

But ABC management have themselves faced criticism for taking too long to come to Grant’s aid. The line in the sand, critics say, should have been made clear long ago.

Grant himself took aim at ABC management in the column first announcing his decision.

“I am writing this because no one at the ABC – whose producers invited me on to their coronation coverage as a guest – has uttered one word of public support,” he said.

It’s a problem that some believe has its roots in the lack of media diversity at the ABC and many of the nation’s media outlets.

Osman Faruqi, a journalist who once worked at the ABC, wrote a scathing piece saying the public broadcaster’s failure to protect Grant reflected a “depressingly common trend non-white ABC staff have experienced for years”.

Indigenous voice to parliament: what is it and how would it work? – video explainer

“It might not be obvious to the average audience member, but there is a stark difference in how the ABC publicly defends some of its journalists compared to others, and this difference regularly cleaves on racial lines,” he wrote.

Stevens, the ABC’s news chief, says he regrets not defending Grant earlier. He also took aim at News Corp Australia for its relentless campaign against the public broadcaster.

Stevens accused News Corp of targeting the ABC because it was “trying to chip away [at] people’s sense of trust in what we do because we threaten their business model”.

Despite the ABC’s delayed decision to rally to his cause, Grant has left the door open to returning.

His message on Monday was delivered with an air of grace and optimism, despite all he has endured in recent weeks.

“Sometimes we need to just take time out. Sometimes our souls are hurting and so it is for me. I’ve had to learn that endurance is not always strength. Sometimes strength is knowing when to say stop,” he said. “I am down right now, I am. But I will get back up. And you can come at me again, and I will meet you with the love of my people.”

The Guardian