From The Project’s Mass Exodus To A New Diversity Report — This Is Aussie TV’s Moment To Change

Image courtesy of Channel 10
The Project hosts Waleed Aly and Sarah Harris
A new report examining cultural diversity in Australian news and current affairs TV shows has come at a pivotal time, as several programs like The Project and A Current Affair undergo an upheaval of on-air talent.
The Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories? 2.0 report by Media Diversity Australia (MDA) and academics from UTS and The University of Sydney was released on Tuesday, two years after the first report of this kind (that examined 2019 data) was published.
In asking the question, "Does Australian news and current affairs represent the society they serve?", the report concludes that 78% (up from 75% in 2019) of on-air talent on news and current affairs television are Anglo-Celtic. Meanwhile, only 6.1% are from a non-European background and 5.4% are Indigenous.
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These figures were based on 25,000 items broadcast on 103 news and current affairs programs between June 1 and June 14 this year. This included breakfast news, early evening news, prime time news, late night news, weekend news and news updates, and various current affairs shows.
Sydney-based Lee Martin was one of the academics involved in conducting and analysing the study's research. She believes the report's findings couldn't be more relevant as Channel 9's A Current Affair is yet to announce Tracy Grimshaw's replacement, while The Project is yet to fill Lisa Wilkinson and Peter Helliar's spots after both presenters announced this week they are leaving the Channel 10 show.
According to Martin, the report's "disappointing" numbers are a "wake-up call" to TV networks to increase cultural representation across news and current affairs coverage — and with long-standing talent leaving these shows, now is the time to act.
"It is a wake-up call. It's just the perfect time to be having these discussions and seeing if there's an opportunity for networks to really make a change and to try and address these problems with underrepresentation of certain categories or certain backgrounds of people," Martin tells Refinery29 Australia.
"They really need to take this opportunity to put someone who's Indigenous or from a culturally diverse background onto these high-profile programs."

Who Will Be The Project Hosts?

On Wednesday, long-time Studio 10 host Sarah Harris revealed she was joining Waleed Aly on The Project desk as Carrie Bickmore's replacement, as Bickmore steps down from the Channel 10 show after 13 years on the panel.
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While Harris is undeniably talented in her own right, her appointment comes after speculation of whether a woman of colour would take on the role. Lisa Wilkinson and Peter Helliar announcing this week that they're also leaving the show now marks an important moment for Channel 10, who could consider diversifying their panel to better represent Australia's multiculturalism.
"There are the people speaking out on it and putting forward recommendations on women of colour that they could choose, and they [the network] should really listen to that and think about who they could put in place," says Martin.
The Project's Waleed Aly also spoke about the need for better cultural representation on television during his 2016 Gold Logies acceptance speech.
"Someone who is in this room — and I'm not going to use the name they use in the industry — came up to me, introduced themselves and said, 'I really hope you win. My name is Mustafa. But I can't use that name because I won't get a job,'" Aly said on stage.
"He's here tonight. And it matters to people like that that I am here. I know it's not because of me. I know that. But if tonight means anything, it's that the Australian public, our audience, as far as they're concerned, there is absolutely no reason why that can't change."
In 2018, he said there hadn't been a vast improvement since his Gold Logie victory.
"I wouldn’t say that there’s been a huge change but these things are all incremental,” Aly told Yahoo Lifestyle at that year's Logie Awards. "The progress is slow, I’d love it to be quicker but I don’t have control over that. These things take time."
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Martin explained that commercial networks in particular needed to lift their game when it comes to diverse casting.
"People sort of come to expect more cultural diversity and representation of Indigenous presenters and reporters on those channels [ABC and SBS], but for the commercial networks [Channels 7, 9 and 10], they're so far behind."
The report indicated that Channel 7 had no Indigenous on-air talent across news and current affairs during the research period, and only 0.3% of presenters were non-European. Of Channel 9's on-screen presenters, 6.1% were Indigenous and 1.3% non-European. As for Channel 10, 13.6% were Indigenous and 0.4% non-European.
The ABC's Indigenous representation sat at 4.5%, while SBS was 0.2% and NITV (which stands for National Indigenous Television and is a part of SBS) had 89.7% Indigenous representation.

Audiences Want To See Diversity

With Census data last year showing that almost half of us have at least one parent born overseas (48.2%), and almost a quarter of us (24.8%) speak a language other than English at home, there is clearly an opportunity to engage multicultural audiences, and featuring diverse voices on a prime-time evening show is a sure way to do it.
"It's not surprising that we found such a big underrepresentation of people of a non-European background because I just feel that every time I turn on the TV — the lack of cultural diversity is quite exasperating and it frustrates me so much to watch the commercial channels," admits Martin, who is a Chinese Australian.
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The study also involved interviewing viewers about their thoughts on cultural diversity on TV between July 20 and July 24, 2022. There were 1,082 responses, and 62% of non-European respondents said they would like to see more cultural diversity represented among presenters and the stories told on screen.
"What we found from the survey respondents — the people coming from a non-European background — was that they're the ones who are most likely saying that they don't really trust the news media and they're turning off," says Martin.

Networks Respond To The Research

Media Diversity Australia CEO Mariam Veiszadeh says all of the Australian TV networks have signed up to varying tiers of MDA membership, which allows them to advertise available roles on MDA's exclusive TalentHub, and hire directly via MDA.
"The MDA TalentHub connects diverse journalists and communications professionals from varying levels of seniority with job opportunities at these same networks," Veiszadeh tells Refinery29 Australia.
"The membership also includes Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consulting, which will assist networks with bespoke and strategic advice about how to put the required scaffolding in place to set up their diverse talent, as well as their entire organisation, up for success. We want to see our TalentHub candidates have successful careers, not just land jobs."
The ABC, SBS, and Channels 7 and 9 have issued statements in response to the new MDA report, while Channel 10 is yet to comment.

Channel 7

Channel 7 said it would continue working with MDA to remove barriers to diversity, as well as its close collaboration with the Screen Diversity Inclusion Network to deepen representation across all its content. However, the network also noted that diverse backgrounds across the whole business were not captured in the report.
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“Unfortunately, this report does not capture the range of diversity across all of Seven’s news, current affairs, drama, reality, entertainment and sports programming we show year-round," a Seven Network spokesperson told Refinery29 Australia.
"As a new member of Media Diversity Australia, we hope to work constructively on the next report to ensure that the methodology is more robust and the analysis accurately assesses a representative data set."

Channel 9

Channel 9 acknowledged the important work of MDA and said that while they've "made significant impact within our business in relation to diversity and inclusion", they also "acknowledge that there is more work for the industry to do."
Similar to Channel 7, the network had some qualms about the way in which data was collected and reported, referring to gender representation, in particular.
"We have raised concerns on the methodology of this report that has failed to reflect significant diversity, particularly in its reporting of female representation," said a Nine spokesperson.
"The failure to include, for example, two of the 9Network's most senior news executives — the female Executive Producers of 60 Minutes and A Current Affair, who report directly to the National News Director — undermines the credibility of this report on diversity in the media.
"Nine is a member of Media Diversity Australia and we look forward to working closely with that team for future iterations of the report to ensure accuracy within their data."

SBS

“We are pleased this report highlights SBS’s clear commitment to multicultural and First Nations storytelling, both on and off the screen," an SBS spokesperson told Refinery29 Australia, but highlighted that the network's addition of news in Arabic and Mandarin were not part of the data.
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"It is disappointing these bulletins were not included in the report as they represent important additions in the Australian media landscape," they said. "We look forward to their inclusion in future reports."

ABC

Gavin Fang, who is the ABC's Acting Head of Indigenous, Diversity and Inclusion, said that while the ABC "welcomes the report and acknowledges the effort and dedication that went into it", he also believes the report "barely scratches the surface of who is telling Australian stories at the ABC".
"The report is based on an assessment of the cultural backgrounds of presenters and reporters who appeared on television during 'a two-week slice of news and current affairs programming' in June," he said in an official statement.
"That’s a very small slice. Also, telling Australian stories goes much beyond television news presenters. Focusing exclusively on television excludes the broad output of the Australian media today, across digital, social, audio/radio and video/TV platforms."

MDA Responds

Academic lead, Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis told The Guardian that these responses from the various networks were "flimsy criticisms".
"Methodologically, it’s robust and rigorous. On balance, the outcomes are robust and valid. So from that perspective, that methodological sliver is as close and valid to an outcome as possible," she told the publication.
“We use the same methodology that we used last time to benchmark the findings. There were criticisms around the methodology last time, probably because the newsrooms didn’t see or hear what they would like to see in here."
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