The Kerobokan paradox

Media Diversity Australia launched in October this year. This is a transcript of the speech Waleed Aly gave at MDA’s “The Changing Face of News” launch event.

Waleed Aly (right) with fellow MDA advisory board member Monica Attard

I’ve been trying to think of just little instances where the intersections between media and diversity suggest themselves in your daily work.The first thing that came to mind — and this is not a devastating example, I’m not trying to guilt you into adopting some victim of a grand human rights abuse or something like that — was just trivial example but it was indicative to me.

What is the name of the most famous prison — to Australian ears — in Indonesia? It’s Kerobokan. But how do you pronounce it? One day, long ago, I found myself having to say this on air. I thought “Ker-ROB-o-kan” was the thing to go with, but something about it just didn’t feel right. So I rang a friend of mine who is Indonesian speaking — and this isn’t just anyone, this is a person who specialises in Indonesian — who explained to me in Indonesian you emphasise the second-last syllable. So Ker-ROB-o-kan isn’t quite right, because “rob” is the second syllable. So what it should be is kero-BEK-an.

So I charge into the voiceover booth, very proud of myself at this point, casually punch out a kero-BEK-han and then just drop the mic and walk out. Let’s just say I was very swiftly called back. Whoever it was I was talking to told me that I’d mispronounced the name. Naturally, I said, “No, no I’ve actually researched this, and this is how this is pronounced,’ and the response was “Yeah, but all the news services are saying Ke-ROB-o-kan, and everyone’s hearing Ke-ROB-o-kan and if you say Kero-BEK-an, they’ll have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about anymore.”

And I thought to myself, This is actually an extraordinary moment. I am being forced to get something wrong because that is the established house style — even though our established house style is getting something wrong. Now, I get these things wrong all the time. When I was at the ABC working in radio there was an old joke that went, “What’s the definition of a bad day at work? A cabinet reshuffle in Thailand.” So I get that pronunciations are going to be difficult. I’m not saying I’m George Donikian here, (though let’s be honest George Donikian made up half of them as well, it was just that nobody could tell the difference because he was ethnic). Nonetheless, the Kero-BEK-an probably wouldn’t have occurred had there been a whole lot of Indonesian speakers in the newsrooms that were constantly reporting on Indonesia. Even just this miniature example captures the problems with narrowcasting your newsroom. And it goes not just to the heart of what we produce or the quality of what we pronounce, but the legitimacy of what it is that we do.

Journalists tend to have the ability to be good at talking about the importance of a free media in a functioning democracy. What we tend not to do is pay much heed to the philosophical or theoretical basis on which those ideas rest. The idea of a public sphere for example, which we as the media colonise, doesn’t exist in pre-modern thought. It emerges from about the 18th Century. The thing that’s interesting about that idea of a public sphere is that it’s seen as the connective tissue between the state — those things that were inherently public by their existence, the king or the pope or whatever — and people who go about their lives privately.

But if that public sphere is exclusive — if people can’t get into the public sphere, if the private selves of people cannot become public entities through entrance into the public sphere, then they don’t exist.

That public sphere was where private people suddenly became public through discourse or discussion, and as such could be accessed by those who were in power. It brought power closer to people and meant there was a way those in power could keep in touch with the needs of private people. If you think about that and follow that idea through to its logical conclusion, this is the foundation of participatory democracy. We don’t have participatory democracy if we don’t have some kind of public sphere that stands in as a proxy for powerful identities to engage with the people.

It’s a really powerful idea and media is really crucial in supporting it. It relies on an assumption that part of the public sphere is in some meaningful way reflective of the private actors that it embodies. But if that public sphere is exclusive — if people can’t get into the public sphere, if the private selves of people cannot become public entities through entrance into the public sphere, then they don’t exist. They don’t have any civic meaning, they don’t have any civic existence and the model of participatory democracy kind of breaks down.

Now I don’t mean to get heavy with everybody, but that’s a big deal. That’s a big deal for a media that likes to talk about the indispensability of its function within a democracy. And that’s to say nothing of all the commercial arguments that other people will put forward.

The first time that I really thought about diversity in media was probably about a decade ago, when I was speaking on panel at a conference on the topic. I started looking around and monitoring the way media worked, and I noticed that if you looked at TV, it was incredibly narrowcast. It was what what some TV people in America refer to as “a snowfield”.

If you looked at radio, you started to get a little bit more diversity, and if you looked at print, you started to find occasionally people with scandalously long names like Megalogenis and so on.

I had an interesting conversation with George Megalogenis about this. I said that there was more diversity in print — but then it’s a bit complicated because he’s Greek and we both agreed that the Greeks are now white anyway. That puts him a bit of a weird position. So I asked him, “Well, when did the Greeks become white?” I think his answer was, “When you lot showed up”.

What was interesting was that you could interpret these different levels of diversity as meaning that the less visual the medium, the more comfortable with diversity we became. In radio you could look different, so long as you didn’t sound too different, and in print — it might be a bit different now because we have a lot of photos come up in by-lines — but really, we were much more comfortable with it.

If I was to say there are still no non-white people on television, someone would stand up and say “What about this person?” and another person would say, “What about that person?” and then someone would say, “What about you?” My response is: You can name all of them, right? Even if I multiply it by three because you’ve confused three of us as the same person, you can still name them.

There were two exceptions. The first was SBS, which is the holding pen for diverse people — a place where they can be hidden from public view. I love SBS and I’ve worked on shows with SBS and I’ve worked there, and I’d happily work there again, and I think it serves a really important function, but what I’m worried about is that I think that it serves as an excuse.

The other place where diverse faces showed up really tellingly was on Australia Network. So this was the ABC’s international arm broadcasting into the region, principally Asia. At which point we were quite keen to reflect the diversity of australia, telling our story to an asian audience. But once we were telling it to ourselves, we seemed a lot less comfortable.

So how much has changed in the decade since I cobbled these thoughts together? If I was to say there are still no non-white people on television, someone would stand up and say “What about this person?” and another person would say, “What about that person?” and then someone would say, “What about you?” My response is: You can name all of them, right? Even if I multiply it by three because you’ve confused three of us as the same person, you can still name them. (I should use that more for getting annual leave without people noticing. I could have done that tonight, I could have just got Nazeem here, it would’ve been great).

We’re starting to see a little bit more in print, starting to hear accents on radio, but how I feel about this — particularly since I’ve started working in media in earnest — is there’s no real reason for that.

Where does diversity turn up on our screens? Reality TV mostly, right? Because you can’t stop brown people cooking — they’re going to be really good at it. And they’re going to compete. You have this diversity, and then audiences bond with them. The point I was trying to make at the Logies was precisely this — the point isn’t that Australia doesn’t accept diverse faces, the point was Australia does, clearly.

Outside of that, what we tend to do is package our diversity into the role of guests. We have diverse voices because we have this person who comes on regularly to talk about whatever. This is not the kind of solution I’m talking about. That is someone being packaged in a category and told to come and perform that category for our amusement at periodic intervals, then going away so that the real people can get on with the conversation.

What I’m talking about is the kero-BEK-han example. I’m talking about the infusion of newsrooms, of talent that is on air, the infusion of processes that produce this culture, that create this public sphere that is the basis of participatory democracy. I just don’t think that there is anything particularly that stands in the way of that. And I gather, although I’m just here in an advisory capacity, that is the point of Media Diversity Australia.

It’s not about trying to create some kind of revolution, it’s about trying to give some kind of room to the organic growth that is more or less inevitable, so that the public sphere has the diversity — and therefore the integrity — necessary for a real democracy.


Waleed Aly is one of Australia’s most prominent media commentators. The multi Logie and Walkley award winner presents ‘The Project’ on Network Ten, writes a regular column for Fairfax Media, co-hosts ‘The Minefield’ on ABC Radio National and lectures at Monash University. He also plays a pretty mean lead guitar for the Melbourne band Robot Child.

Learn more about Media Diversity Australia’s work here. Watch a recording of Aly’s speech on the night here.

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