Chapter 9

An Aboriginal Television Culture:
Issues, strategies, politics

Tom O'Regan, with Philip Batty

From Tom O'Regan. Australian Television Culture
St Leonards, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, pp. 169-92.
Republished here with the permission of Allen & Unwin.
Copies of Australian Television Culture can be purchased by writing to Allen & Unwin marketing or the book can be ordered through bookshops.

A family of issues

With Aboriginal television we are dealing with a family of issues, sites and institutions [1]. There is an Aboriginal-controlled television station: from 1985 the Remote Commercial Television Service (RCTS) serving the Central Australian footprint of AUSSAT (remote South Australian audiences and Northern Territory audiences outside of Darwin) was in the control of an Aboriginal organisation, Imparja. Low-powered Aboriginal community television stations operate in Yuendumu and Ernabella. The Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) enables Aboriginal communities to intercept incoming satellite signals from the ABC and substitute locally produced programming [Venner 1988, pp 37-43]. On mainstream television, Aboriginal windows provide limited episode current affairs programming for Aboriginal audiences. Nationally, there is the Black Out series (1989-) on the ABC, and various initiatives beginning with the current affairs series First in Line (1989) on SBS-TV; regionally, there is Milbindi on GWN (WA's regional broadcaster and RCTS provider), Nganampa Anwernerkenhe on Imparja, and the National Aboriginal Video Magazine series developed at the behest of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) for tape distribution to communities and for broadcast on regional commercial television. There is Aboriginal programming for general (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) audiences on the ABC with its documentary series The First Australians, various one-off documentaries on SBS-TV and the commercial networks, and Aboriginal issues are centred from time to timed on arts programs. Television drama output centres Aboriginal issues and lives in mini-series, Rose against the Odds (1991) and Women of the Sun (1982); and feature films screened on television such as Backlash (1986) and Tudawalli (1988). Characteristically, this range of 'one-off' film and television projects---usually documentary projects---involves Aboriginal subjects to the extent that those subjects influence the filming and production processes. There is also non-broadcast television, in formal and informal video and film exchanges which create audio-visual networks at local community, regional and national levels; and in the video teleconferencing of the Tanami Network operating amongst the Warlpiri in Central Australia. The Tanami Network permits community interchange, programming exchanges, and community news and information. It blurs the traditional separation between telecommunications and broadcasting [see Yuendumu Community Education Centre 1990a, 1990b].

This mix of initiatives is an impressive achievement. A decade ago Aborigines had virtually no control over programming [see Michaels 1987c]. Aboriginal filmmaking talent was not explicitly developed at Film Australia. Aboriginal programming produced in consultation with the Aboriginal community did not occupy a regular programming slot on the ABC. Aborigines had a limited capacity to affect and control the form of their representation in a way available to larger ethnic groups [Mickler 1992a, pp 43-44]. They had to piggy-back on initiatives such as multiculturalism (designed for ethnic immigrants) or rely upon the feedback loop that sometimes developed with news and current affairs reporters, and one-off ethnographic and documentary filmmakers who actively sought Aboriginal cooperation and acknowledged their duties and obligations to Aboriginal communities.

Now, film and television, together with their cultural counterparts in painting, ritual performance, radio, music, and theatre, occupy a key place in indigenous self-affirmation and political development. Aborigines and their representatives are not only negotiating the form of their representation but are also increasingly shaping the structures and practices through which Aboriginal representation is secured. As Michael Leigh observed Aborigines are 'no longer aliens in an industry which for a century has used them for its own ends' [1988, p 88].

These Aboriginal initiatives are not only the consequence of Aboriginal activists battling and succeeding despite the system, but are also a consequence of their involvement in helping to shape governmental programs, policies and funding decisions. Each of the different Aboriginal television initiatives include significant non-Aboriginal involvements from the facilitating role of Neil Turner at Ernabella and Eric Michaels at Yuendumu in the early 1980s to the non-Aboriginal crews producing 'Aboriginal' documentaries for the ABC. There is also a variety of Aboriginal purpose in their television involvements. Many Aboriginal community organisations want to intervene in existing forms of television, not so much to change things radically, but simply to get the matter of representation right. Imparja board members see having a piece of commercial television through television station ownership as important in the same way as would any non-Aboriginal person who owns shares in or runs a commercial business. Both Francis Jupurrurla of the Warlpiri Media Association and those associated with EVtelevision at Ernabella want to control incoming television programming and to create appropriate forms of television that intertwine with their own traditional cultural forms [Michaels 1987b; Turner 1990]. Wayne Wharton of the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Media Association (TAIMA) wants to see the development of a regional or federal Aboriginal television network managed and staffed by Aborigines---a kind of Aboriginal SBS. The independent filmmaker, broadcaster and producer, Lester Bostock wants to see barriers removed to greater Aboriginal participation in and access to television and film production employment, funding, and scheduling [1983; personal communication 1992]. Independent filmmaker/visual artist Tracey Moffat wants to expand the ways of 'being Aboriginal' by broadening the range of projects available to her as an Aboriginal filmmaker wanting to be also known as 'Tracey Moffat, interesting filmmaker'.

Making distinctions

Ultimately, the only sure way to incorporate the Aboriginal view into broadcasting is to ensure that Aborigines produce programs [Lester Bostock, 1990, p v].

Television is a mix of interrelated activities including program scheduling, networking, production, technical operations, management, financial control, audience research, distribution, policy development and implementation. The diversity of levels and practices in television creates different possibilities for the Aboriginalisation of functions. Characteristically, one or other of these activities is Aboriginal controlled, staffed, and directed. Rarely, for example, is there the range of Aboriginal involvement from station management, separate licence and program content that is typical of Aboriginal radio operations in Central Australia through the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association's (CAAMA) 8-KIN network. Although some Aboriginal groups involved in television seek that kind of control, others do not. It is therefore important to distinguish between these activities to get a clearer indication of Aboriginal purpose and aspiration with regard to television.

At the level of control we need to distinguish between:

Community-based television developments at the Ernabella community in SA and at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory are in the terms developed above 'Aboriginal television' as are some of the successful BRACS services in North Queensland and the Northern Territory [Molnar 1990, pp 146-54]. Eric Michaels [1987b], Philip Batty [1993] and Neil Turner [1990, pp 43-45] see the Yuendumu and Ernabella television developments forging a distinctive Aboriginal television culture fashioned out of Aboriginal control over the combination of these factors and distinctive forms of programming and use. Similar functions are being served by Aboriginal video networks in both remote and urban contexts [Meadows 1992, p 6].

The ABC, SBS, and RCTS providers (and to a lesser extent Regional operators) embed their limited Aboriginal programming---like any other element---in their regular services. Embedding and limited autonomy also characterise the situation for a growing number of Aboriginal filmmakers and Aboriginal organisations involved in producing drama and documentary programming for national and international television screening. Aboriginal programming is increasingly becoming Aboriginalised in the sense of being made by Aborigines with those Aborigines shaping, selecting and controlling most aspects of production. Aboriginal units at the ABC and SBS are relatively autonomous with respect to both networks. Evidence of Aboriginal approval and involvement at all levels of production are increasingly sought and demanded by film and television funding bodies. Alongside these developments has come commitments to Aboriginal media training and employment on the part of the ABC and SBS, and film and television training organisations such as the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. These, together with Aboriginal television and individual filmmaking initiatives, are helping to develop a set of professional Aboriginal competences in television reporting and production.

Imparja Television is an Aboriginal organisation operating and owning a regional commercial television licence and CAAMA Productions in Alice Springs is an Aboriginal controlled television production company dealing with central Australian Aboriginal topics. Both are part of the CAAMA Group of Companies (see CAAMA 1989). Organisational control in Imparja's case has curtailed alcohol advertising on television, made the local news services accountable to Aboriginal concerns, and helped change non-Aboriginal perceptions of and relations with the local Aboriginal community. Nonetheless there is a fundamental tension in Imparja between expectations that it be an Aboriginal broadcaster and that it be what it had mostly become by 1991: 'a commercial station that takes account of Aboriginal views, rather than an outlet for Aboriginal broadcasting' [ATSIC and DOTAC 1991, p 51; see also Batty 1993]. Imparja is limited by the fact that it is a marginal regional commercial television operation providing the same Australian and Hollywood diet of sport, information and television programming for a population the size of an AFL Grand Final spread over nearly a third of the Australian land-mass [see DOTAC 1990, pp. 63-64]. Imparja has little if any control and influence over the programming it buys from Australian networks and overseas suppliers---its choice is between programs brought into the country by SMBA and Perth networks and those made locally at their behest. Consequently, it does not have a particularly pronounced Aboriginal focus---only some 2% of its broadcasts are Aboriginal programming---and it has not been able to achieve the kind of Aboriginalising of positions within the organisation initially envisaged for it.

CAAMA Productions produces programming with substantial non-Aboriginal involvement but---like Imparja---is directly accountable to an Aboriginal board. Thus, its important Satellite Dreaming (1991) documentary on Aboriginal television for Australian and international release had a production crew which included only one Aboriginal person, the camera operator. The director, script writer and producer were non-Aboriginal.

The emergence in the 1980s of Aboriginal television, Aboriginal programs on television, and Aboriginal organisations controlling television services has put a great deal of pressure upon programming involving Aborigines and Aboriginal subject matter. Aborigines---communities, organisations, and individuals---are demanding a say and some tangible benefit from the settler culture's interest in and appropriation of Aboriginal images and culture. This is affecting the conduct and budget of Australian television producers from news and current affairs to documentary and feature film producers to television advertisers (and causing considerable tension between Aboriginal groups and the film and television industry in the process). In response the ABC and SBS---and funding organisations such as the Australian Film Commission (AFC)---have developed Aboriginal consultative groups for programming made or funded by them and involving Aborigines. This is to ensure that programming does not offend Aboriginal cultural sensitivities and has Aboriginal cooperation. General journalist and filmmaking training programs are now required to take on board Aboriginal viewpoints. Aboriginal awareness sessions have become part of staff development in SBS-TV. Such developments are part of Aboriginal attempts to manage their own direction through separate though related television developments. They stress the need for relative autonomy within programming, separate funding agencies and television infrastructures, and changes in the style of interaction between Aborigines and non-Aboriginal media organisations.

Each of these initiatives has its limitations. Training does not always lead to employment. Producing Aboriginal programs for the ABC necessarily involves juggling the dictates of its 'house style' and the sensibilities of its non-Aboriginal audience. And as Lester Bostock observed 'programs on Aboriginal issues are still predominantly made by non-Aborigines' [1990, p v]. He went on to note that 'while most of these are made with the best of intention, they still run the risk of being inaccurate and paternalistic.' One culturally sensitive and community approved Aboriginal program is not of itself going to affect the routine conduct of Seven Nightly News, 4 Corners or A Current Affair. Programming involving Aborigines still gets broadcast without the kind of authorisation expected by the Aboriginal groups concerned. Eric Michaels' account of the ABC making a documentary in Yuendumu in 1986 which did not measure up to that community's expectations of consultation is as true in the 1990s as it was then [1987c]. Probably the most intractable area in this regard continues to be news and current affairs at regional, state and national levels; and regular Aboriginal involvement in mainstream drama programming remains less than satisfactory.

The BRACS scheme is as much a failure as a success due to inadequate resourcing (BRACS equipment consisted of a receiver dish, a VHS camera, VHS video recorders, a microphone and audio recorders with re-broadcast units enabling the transmission of satellite-delivered signals and of local programming over a 2 kilometre radius, see Maher 1990, p 7) and a lack of training and consultation. Many units simply arrived without warning in remote communities which had no preparation for them [Office of Evaluation and Audit 1992, p. 3; Meadows 1992, pp. 36-38].

The Aboriginalisation of crewing, creative direction and management in Aboriginal television is limited by the lack of appropriately qualified people. Consequently Aboriginal organisational control cannot lead to the kind of Aboriginalising of positions and function expected by those organisations and Aborigines.

Participation & self-determination

These different Aboriginal initiatives should be placed in the context of contemporary Aboriginal political and economic aspiration and stated federal government policy of Aboriginal participation and self-determination (or, in its strongest form, Aboriginal sovereignty). In practice there is a great deal of overlap between these two aspirations. We can usefully distinguish here two broad communicative, political, and cultural strategies: intra-Aboriginal and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal strategies.

Intra-Aboriginal communication is designed to facilitate self-determination. It involves the Aboriginal use of television to variously build local and regional Aboriginal communities, pan-Aboriginal political and social projects, and the linkages between communities and political structures at a local, regional, national and international level. Such strategies are concerned with communication, culture, and political development within and across Aboriginal communities. Within this context, intra-Aboriginal programming turns on:

* a 'local' Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal law directed at cultural maintenance and the integrity of the community in terms of its local culture, its lands, and its language group. This can be seen in the Ernabella and Yuendumu television developments which sit uneasily within the context of other, usually broader, Aboriginal cultures and the settler culture.

* a regional Aboriginal culture made up of a composite of groups where Aboriginal culture acquires a con-federate shape. Programming such as Milbindi, Nganampa Anwernekenhe, and the BRACS tape exchange system operated by TAIMA (which circulates tapes between Aboriginal communities in the Queensland BRACS system) serve regional Western Australia, central Australian and North Queenland Aboriginal groups.

a 'national' Aboriginal culture (sometimes called pan-Aboriginal) made up of a collection of communication systems and cultural and political elements. These can be seen in Black Out, National Aboriginal Video Magazine and The First Australians.

These different elements are consonant with broader Aboriginal political, cultural and social conditions. Here the concern is for fostering communication within Aboriginal communities, between adjacent communities, within the state, within the nation and between indigenous peoples internationally. Aboriginal communication networks are being consciously reassembled and invented anew as television and video are deployed to facilitate Aboriginal political and cultural self-management.

Within this context, there is Aboriginal television for remote communities, the development of program exchanges within Aboriginal language communities, the bicycling of programming in the informal Aboriginal video networks and in on-going BRACS tape exchanges between remote communities, and the development of networking of Aboriginal programs for Aboriginal audiences whether in the ABC Black Out series, the more informal video exchange and regional television's broadcasting of (ATSICÕs) National Aboriginal Video Magazine, or Aboriginal programming on the RCTS services of GWN, Imparja and QQQ (Queensland). Regional and national interconnections within Aboriginal communication are becoming increasingly foregrounded partly as a consequence of this mixed experience. Some envisage the BRACS stations in remote communities and, to an extent, the regional media associations---such as CAAMA and TAIMA---forming a possible embryo Aboriginal television network (acting as a production resource facility and distribution point). This would be a networked cooperative of autonomous community stations. Others envisage a more centrally originated national Aboriginal television network set up on the national scale of the mooted network in New Zealand, and modelled in part on the ABC or SBS. Those espousing such a network look to programming not only of Aboriginal Australian origin from around the country but also indigenous English-language and dubbed programming from Canada and New Zealand.

There is broad agreement among Aboriginal broadcasters that there should be a coherent national policy framework which would separately fund and administer Aboriginal broadcasting [see Meadows 1992, pp. 42-52]. Their argument is that Aboriginal broadcasting should be administered as part of the existing broadcasting system, draw its funding from the broadcast-designated dollar rather than ATSIC, and run parallel to the existing national and commercial networks. What the existing projects and these plans for new projects have in common is that they aim to develop further inter-Aboriginal communication. In this they are self-consciously directed at serving and creating anew Aboriginal communication, cultural and social spaces.

On the other hand Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal communication and political strategies turn on participation in existing mainstream television. These strategies involve Aboriginal negotiations with settler institutions over equality of Aboriginal access and outcomes with respect to existing production resources, television funding regimes, broadcasting infrastructures, and training institutions. They also involve discussions and confrontation over the form and shape of television representations of Aboriginal people. This is very much about mainstreaming Aboriginal issues, with Aborigines having a right to a say in the development of programming involving them and with ways being sought for Aborigines to ensure that their viewpoints are heard. Such Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal strategies within television are inevitably directed at the broader Australian social and political culture and, therefore, largely general audiences.

In terms of Aboriginal programming such mainstreaming entails four kinds of project:

* one which constitutes a general audience through the Aboriginal audience (ABC's Black Out). This is 'from us including them';

* one which targets the non-Aboriginal audience for education, the combatting of racism, and for Aboriginal political lobbying. This is 'from us to them' based on Aboriginal control, limited autonomy within broadcasting organisations, and benefit from the non-Aboriginal interest in Aboriginal culture;

* one which targets Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal audiences as part of a general audience aiming for an evolving and mixed development. Programming is designed to manage, 'fuse' and 'respectfully dialogue' between both sites---Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal as in Yothu Yindi music video [see Muecke 1992, p. 184]. This is 'both of us together'.

* one which 'Aboriginalises' mainstream television positions in terms of television personnel from presenters to production crews. This is 'us in the system', as with Stan Grant as anchorperson in the Seven NetworkÕs current affairs show Real Life.

These mainstreaming aspirations resemble the multicultural claims for equality of television access and treatment and some ethnic minority management over the public information about the group. Thus, as public instrumentalities, the ABC and SBS responded to political pressure for the employment of Aborigines to the extent of their presence in the general population with employment targets of 2 per cent for the ABC and 1Ñ2 per cent for SBS [ATSIC and DOTAC 1991, pp 45, 47]. In terms of film and broadcast program funding organisations such as the AFC and the FFC, Aboriginal lobbyists argue for both greater individual Aboriginal filmmaker access to funds and for greater collective funding based upon the development, extension and support for the development of Aboriginal program production and skills. For its part the AFC continually monitors and changes its policy development in this area [see Langton 1993].

Mainstreaming inevitably politicised non-Aboriginal dealings with Aborigines in television. Most immediately, it raised the issue of positive versus negative stereotypes of Aborigines in television and witnessed Aboriginal demand that the mainstream media affirm rather than denigrate Aboriginal culture and initiative. Aborigines increasingly flexed the political muscle available to them for a say in the direction, imaging and development of programs. Aboriginal political priorities here included: concern for adequate Aboriginal depiction; the existence of appropriate mechanisms and financial benefits to Aborigines stemming from the production of programming using Aboriginal people, images, designs, stories and Aboriginal political viewpoints; and concern for greater Aboriginal involvement in film and television program production. The depiction issue is a concern for on-screen protocols to do with the representation of Aboriginal subjects, issues and designs. These constitute a political demand for an Aboriginal say in the character, dimension and structure of information about them, their society and its organisation. This also extends to demands for a greater variety of fictional roles and alternatives to the 'tradition of the victim' in fiction and documentary which endows Aborigines with a limited role and diminishes their recognition as politically capable agents. These contemporary political contestations see Aboriginal rights and priorities being negotiated by Aborigines and television institutions to find ways of accommodating the Aboriginal presence.

Related to this representation demand is a demand for adequate protocols in the production process. This is seeing the evolution of continuously negotiated guidelines for the treating of Aboriginal subjects in the production process, the permission process, the appropriate stages and nature of negotiations [Mackinolty and Duffy 1987; Michaels 1987c]. Central issues here concern the fit between the routine conduct and practices of non-Aboriginal television and those of Aboriginal Australia. The onus here is placed upon this routine conduct, in that it is being asked to reconstruct itself to take account of Aboriginal cultural practices and rights. The most sensitive issues in this regard are: journalismÕs handling of Aboriginal/police relations, welfare issues, and the naming of dead Aboriginal people; the often routine inclusion of Aboriginal designs, performances and artworks in television programs; and the redisposition of archival material about Aborigines in new programs.

A final mainstreaming demand is the Aboriginalising of the shape and trajectory of Aboriginal initiatives. This means reshaping the extensive role and involvements of non-Aboriginal people in Aboriginal television and Aboriginal affairs. The general direction of political and organisational changes demanded are, on the one hand, towards non-Aborigines working for Aboriginal clients at Imparja, ATSIC, CAAMA Productions and the various Aboriginal Media Associations; and, on the other hand, towards Aborigines supplanting precisely that non-Aboriginal creative, crew, technical and managerial involvement. The character of this Aboriginalisation will depend on the community and its assessment of its needs. TAIMA and Lester Bostock see the development of a cadre of professional Aboriginal expertise as critical to the development of Aboriginal management of symbolic resources and of projects concerning them. They envisage the development of an Aboriginal career path in mainstream television and in Aboriginal media. For some remote communities the priority is rather one of managing their incorporation into and penetration by the wider non-Aboriginal (and sometimes urban Aboriginal) culture. In their case it makes sense for them to employ non-Aborigines to take care of 'whitefella business' and act as a buffer between them and the constant intrusions of film crews, photographers and the like.

In practice inter-Aboriginal and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal communication strategies are interconnected. For example, pan-Aboriginal strategies are both directed at Aboriginal and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal communication; inter-Aboriginal communication is facilitated by mainstream institutions. The dynamics operating between and conflicts arising from these two distinct strategies shape the contours of Aboriginal television.

Aboriginal cultures

This range of Aboriginal expectation and involvement, the diverse nature of Aboriginal related programming, and the distinct political and cultural purposes associated with Aboriginal television turn on the fundamentally plural character of Aboriginal Australia. Owing to location, history and varieties of settler contact, communities are necessarily in different paths of development. These produce different requirements and the need to negotiate for different sorts of conditions. Remote communities, for example, are not uniformly structured. This is mirrored in BRACS useage, where local programming has evolved for cultural maintenance in some locations, and in others is kept under the control of the local police officer or school teacher [Office of Evaluation and Audit 1992, pp 3, 24-25; Corker 1989, pp 43-44]. The political, cultural and community development issues facing urban Aborigines in Perth, Moree and Alice Springs, where Aborigines are a minority, are different from those issues facing the Aboriginal majority in Yuendumu, Ernabella or Woorabinda. Aborigines in urban centres are themselves internally differentiated by social class, educational training, and degrees of involvement---including intermarriage---with the settler culture. Different parts of Australia afford Aborigines a different political presence. In the Northern Territory, the Kimberleys in Western Australia, and in far north Queensland Aborigines make up a significant proportion of the population and so have developed a more effective political presence than is available in those parts of Australia where the Aboriginal population may be very much a minority (between 1 and 1 per cent of the population). In these---typically urban---settings, Aboriginal minority status requires a different kind of negotiation, enlisting different sorts of public support, and requiring more 'mainstreaming' solutions.

Aboriginal culture, like all other cultures is emergent, not static. It is the product of contestations, divisions and the mobilisation of resources by particular agents within the terms provided by cultural and social systems. To fail to accord it that much is to fail to recognise a culture's transformative capacity and therefore to regard any indication of cultural transformation on the part of Aboriginal communities as becoming less Aboriginal, more modernised, westernised. The contours of contemporary Aboriginal culture are also necessarily defined by what Aboriginal tradition and the set of practices associated with it permit to be transformed, what the settler culture permits Aborigines to do within it and to appropriate as their own of the settler culture.

The national and international construction of Aboriginal Australia can also be both enabling and disabling. Aborigines are valued as a primordial ethnicity for conservationists [Morton 1990, p. 48], cultural nationalists [Lattas 1990, p 52-53] and art lovers [Ryan 1989]. Conservationists lionise Aborigines as the first conservationists they 'took care of the country'; cultural nationalists value Aborigines as the original and primordial Australian, that is, the oldest living human civilisation; and Aboriginal art becomes considered as a major world art movement. These constructions present particular exploitable opportunities for Aborigines. But they also dispose Aborigines towards certain forms of self-recognition over others. These notions legitimate the congruence of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conservation values which have seen Aboriginal management and joint management of national parks, their employment as park rangers and greater Aboriginal access to those lands; and they have helped create a market for Aboriginal culture whether in tourism, music, art, theatre, design, or film. But, as Stephen Muecke (1992, p. 17) notes, these cultural definitions also impose 'unnecessary limits on being Aboriginal' [1992, p 17]. Muecke continues:

While culture is not a natural endowment, it is treated as if it is, so that the only 'respectable' ways for Aboriginal people to find identity in this society tend to be through particular forms of culture, or through sport. Becoming a novelist or a painter can be a way of gaining 'legitimate' middle-class Aboriginal identity (and in any case there seems to be a market). [1992, p 17]

More local settler constructions of the Aboriginal urban and country town ghetto may be far more damaging. The Perth 'moral panics' which envisioned lawless Aboriginal youths terrorising non-Aborigines and their vehicles [see Mickler 1992b, pp 322-36] provoked interracial tensions from which the minority Aboriginal population suffered.

The forms of non-Aboriginal Australian knowledge about Aborigines and the structures which sustain such knowledges help determine the opportunities available to Aborigines and impact upon the ways in which they fashion their identity. If these include the spectacle of an anthropologist's ethnography including films telling Aborigines how to perform their rituals [Michaels 1986a, p 6], it is also that of a cadre of non-Aboriginal expertise that exists 'on the top' of Aboriginal purpose, favouring in the process particular ways of 'performing Aboriginality' (ethnographically, realistically, in relation to culture) [Hodge 1990, p 290-91; Muecke 1992, p 17].

In this context it is worth noting that no segment of the Australian population has been more surveyed, monitored, regulated and targeted for reform. The value of knowledges about Aborigines can quickly change from being enabling to disabling of Aboriginal practice. Notions of the wealth of human civilization in Aboriginal culture that informed the pathbreaking ethnographic films of the 1960s of Cecil Holmes, Roger Sandall and Ian Dunlop (such as I the Aboriginal (Holmes, 1964) and Desert People (Dunlop, 1965) were important in establishing respect and providing a record of on-going Aboriginal cultural achievement (see Dunlop 1983, p 16; Leigh 1988, p 87). These helped make land rights claims a possibility by demonstrating the maintenance of a relationship with the land and a viable cultural practice. Today such ways of knowing Aborigines on film are not viable. As Aboriginal communities were themselves in transition, ethnographic filmmaking became concerned from the 1970s with 'societies in change' (Dunlop, 1983, p 16). Ethnographic and anthropological knowledges can be used to compromise living Aboriginal tradition, unnecessarily constraining its evolving shape by seeming to impose tests of Aboriginal cultural distinctiveness that cultures in transition---particularly urban 'fringe-dwellers'---cannot easily meet (Cowlishaw 1988, p. 89). The popularisation of anthropological conceptions can thus inhibit Aboriginal political demands for the special rights of indigenous peoples by making them turn on particular kinds of customary cultural values and practices.

Aboriginal tradition also poses its own strictures on modes and types of acceptable behaviour. Aboriginal culture is far more emergent than most. Obviously when 98 per cent of the people living on your land are foreigners, the pressure to change, adapt, adjust and 'emerge' is enormous, if not fundamental to basic survival. Aboriginal culture is under these conditions being constantly reinvented with attendant uncertainties and confusions surrounding what it is to be Aboriginal. Additionally, Aboriginal life ways and aspirations are in many cases bounded by a chronic social crisis manifested in alcoholism, violence, unemployment and homelessness, stemming from the ongoing effects of colonisation. In some contexts Aboriginal participation in bureaucracy, commerce and the wider society are seen by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike as 'selling out' their community and Aboriginality.

Prior to the settler invasion, tradition played an important role providing the terms and forms under which this culture could be transformed. After the invasion the external input of settler claims introduced an important new transformative element alongside traditionally available means for managing social and cultural change. These external, principally European elements, modified, subverted or in extreme cases wiped out traditional forms of cultural management and transformation.

Within this mix of tendencies there is no one pattern of Aboriginal life-ways or of symbolic ethnicity. Much of the Warlpiri 'Aboriginal invention of television' in Central Australia as Eric Michaels [1986b] described it is concerned with finding ways of incorporating settler Australian media and technology into the traditional Warlpiri mechanisms for constituting social and cultural reproduction. Television and telecommunication systems are being used to reaffirm Aboriginal cultural identity and life-ways. Michaels [1985, pp 505-10] argues that as traditional Aboriginal society is an information based society, television represents important means, in Francis Jupurrurla's words, to fight 'fire with fire' by reconstituting Aboriginal communication networks and promoting an expansionist Aboriginal program reclaiming land, information and dreamings [Michaels 1987b, p 74]. Television becomes opportunity, not threat. For Michaels, Aboriginal populations are predisposed to audio-visual media with its bypassing of literacy, its capacity to include an aural dimension, and its portability [1990, p 24]. The diverse Aboriginal media practice of central and northern Australia attempts to use communication technologies to maintain, transform, extend and dynamically reinvent cultural practices. These include community television and videos (as videos circulate along Aboriginal communication tracks). The use of telecommunications in the Warlpiri TANAMI network in 1992 offers Warlpiri community interaction across the Tanami desert through video teleconferencing. The reconciliation between 'traditional ways' and the 'new ways of life' comes together in remote Aboriginal communities as the problem of two laws and their reconciliation according to the terms of Aboriginal culture.

In an urban and country town context, Aboriginal television issues involve a different kind of accommodation. Here the cultural mix is neither non-Aboriginal nor 'traditional' but a mixture of both. In this case the problem is to establish for non-Aboriginal authorities the existence of any tradition and attachment to place. This was a problem for Perth fringe dwellers in their bitter dispute with the WA state Labor government over the Old Swan brewery (Goonininup) and Rottnest Island burial grounds [Mickler 1991, pp 69-88]. Part of Rottnest and the brewery site are now the subjects of mabo-style land claims. State and federal politicians often find it easier electorally to recognise some Aboriginal cultural rights in central and northern Australia while overlooking and actively opposing claims closer to home. The Alice Springs dam proposal and Coronation Hill are further away from the centres of settler culture than is Perth's Old Swan brewery site where stereotypes or tropes reducing 'real' Aboriginality to more traditional lifestyles persist in guiding both policy and thinking. The differences between remote Aborigines with secure land tenure and a Perth fringe dweller is as much a political as a cultural matter.

But too much can be made of the division between remote and urban Aboriginal communities. All support to varying degrees the 'Aboriginal as minority' imaginary sometimes called pan-Aboriginalism and its creation of national solidarities, connections and the management of potential conflict between linguistically and customarily fragmented populations. Both have in their sights a common need (although internally differentiated) to negotiate with settler culture on an on-going basis.

Whatever their situation, Aboriginal television developments are enabling Aborigines to select and transform their culture, items and practices on their terms. This transformation is based not only upon the symbols and practices of Aboriginal culture but also those of the settler Australian culture. This constitution will not only transform Aboriginal politics, culture and society over the next decade but will also transform the settler culture's understanding of and relationship to Aborigines.

An Aboriginal public sphere

These political priorities, program developments, new conditions in television, broader developments in Aboriginal communities, and more sophisticated political and administrative structures are part of a sea change in which the recognition of Aboriginal cultural, political and social rights to participation and autonomy is replacing older protectionist, paternalist and social disadvantage (therefore welfarist) agendas. If the settler culture still imagines itself as donor and therefore having certain rights over its Aboriginal recipients through that donation, these programs, strategies and Aboriginal expectation are based upon an emerging logic of Aboriginal political, cultural and social rights. Non-Aboriginal initiatives in the Aboriginal area are increasingly being queried. Previously Aboriginal negotiation in relation to welfare and cultural institutions alike was informal, only partially transparent, and relatively unavailable to public scrutiny. Typically, Aboriginal actors were forced to act at one remove through non-Aboriginal agents (usually through white cultural brokers: anthropologists, Aboriginal affairs departments, ethnographic filmmakers, current affairs and documentary producers). With the emerging ascendance of non-welfarist logics of cultural, economic and political rights by virtue of original inhabitance, Aboriginal spokespersons and representative structures have achieved a greater degree of formalisation. (Also, les univocal: with this formalisation has come a greater capacity for inter-Aboriginal differences to become publicly apparent.) In these circumstances Aboriginal voices can only be expected to become more strident and less accommodating of the existing Aboriginal social and cultural circumstances, including televisual arrangements.

Aboriginal television presents a multi-faceted and heterogeneous mix of policy issues, practices, and tactics. None of these elements are simply in the business of representing Aboriginal culture, but actively intervene in Aboriginal and settler cultures. For example, within Aboriginal television the question of the processes of production, financing and staffing has definite and specific outcomes on the form of representation. This makes it unlike the typical film policy and film production process relationship where more mediated and less direct relationships hold. Here the processes of production impact upon the organisation of production and represent a tactical intervention into Aboriginal culture and identity.

These diverse points of engagement necessarily have a mixed character in that the contemporary Aboriginal community life ways and the dominant settler culture are sometimes sharply different, at other times blurred. There is considerable tension between the different Aboriginal television projects. Should the priority be Aboriginal television? Should it be organisational control of television and program production? Should it be programs on mainstream television? Should it be the accommodation of Aboriginal concerns and priorities in mainstream news and current affairs, fiction and dramatic forms? These tensions turns on the diversity of purposes, aspirations and political priorities in Aboriginal Australia. Fuelling these tensions between projects is the issue of what is possible from government as television production facilities compete with power generators and adequate water supply within a limited funding scenario in ATSIC. As in all Aboriginal-settler negotiations, the negotiations are conducted on an unequal basis with Aborigines being the dependent party (Perkins 1990, p 10).

Television is so immediately political because Aborigines are such a dispossessed and economically and socially disadvantaged group. They are the most deprived, imprisoned, harrassed, dependent, dispossessed group in Australia; and they are also the most intractable and embarrassing 'problem' group for government. As the Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting reported in 1984 'Aborigines are the most disadvantaged major segment of Australian society with respect to access to communications and the social and economic benefits which they provide' [p 123-24]. Given this often desperate situation, there is necessarily considerable dissension within Aboriginal Australia over tactics and interventions as different groups and regions struggle for access to a limited though growing federal funding dollar [Willmot 1986, p 20]. The greater disbursement of funding to the Northern Territory and to CAAMA draws criticism from TAIMA; while the BRACS scheme covers remote rather than regional and metropolitan Aboriginal groups.

Such political tensions are taking place in the context of a more organised Aboriginal public sphere than in the immediate past. ATSIC's representative structures, the formation of a self-proclaimed Aboriginal Provisional Government as a political vehicle for making the transition to self-determination, and the land councils across Australia are increasingly taking on an agenda setting, spokesperson, and political, cultural and social development role vis-a-vis the 'mainstream'. Aboriginal affairs programs and departments are increasingly being staffed by Aborigines, individual communities are taking over their governance, and regional and state Aboriginal enterprise is developing [Bayles 1989]. This includes an emerging politics of representative governance by Aborigines themselves as the instruments of Aboriginal-state involvement shift from a relatively non-transparent welfare-based management of a subaltern and supposedly recalcitrant group in need of modernisation, towards self-management and representative governance. This makes Aboriginal television a site which is necessarily caught up in issues which are simultaneously local, regional, national and international (international in that Australia's reputation as an honest broker in international forums is at stake, as Australian diplomats and governments see themselves judged on their negotiations with Aboriginal peoples). Here are, necessarily, the same power politics, regional rivalries and competition for limited resources that makes Federal and state politics a blood sport. Here too, are politically driven decisions on infrastructures, locations and funding which sees certain Aboriginal groups miss out while others are advantaged. And just as mainstream politics is internally divided---full of back-stabbing and internecine conflicts---agreement is often as difficult to manage in Aboriginal Australia. But just as mainstream politics is itself also a composite of political coalitions of a relatively enduring nature and capable of general political coordination, so too there are relatively enduring identities and priorities in Aboriginal Australia, despite the often desperate conditions and factionalism. This public sphere has very real limits; it is profoundly affected by interventions from without by virtue of its dependence upon government funding, which is provided predominantly as a welfare service provision, and not, for example, as 'compensation payments for land lost' [Perkins 1990, p 11]. Despite this fragility, this public sphere is nonetheless increasingly shaping the direction of the $1 billion [Perkins 1990, p 11] or more spent by the Federal Government on Aboriginal affairs as ATSIC's representative structures increasingly direct this Aboriginal funding. Also, there are the practical consequences of the various Lands Rights Acts around the country, which are empowering Aboriginal communities and developing Aboriginal political, business and administrative skills [Bayles 1989, p 10]. Both are slowly replacing the top-down policy practices of the past with more bottom-up policy development.

The non-Aboriginal presence in Aboriginal television

Many non-Aborigines are involved in the production and management of Aboriginal television just as non-Aboriginal involvement in many aspects of Aboriginal affairs is the norm. Almost all published commentary on Aboriginal television is by non-Aborigines, including this chapter [but see Langton, 1993]. As in community management and ATSIC, non-Aboriginal involvement in administrative and managerial positions in television is critical. Although Aboriginal organisations are ultimately controlled by an all Aboriginal committee or board, such organisations have become centres of non-Aboriginal employment and training. Aboriginal initiatives have also become the conduit for the financing of large regional infrastructural projects---such as the delivery of a commercial television service to the Central footprint through Imparja---which is beneficial to a mainly non-Aboriginal constituency. The provision of recession proof 'Aboriginal industry' funding enables Alice Springs to enjoy the third highest per capita disposable income in Australia. These kinds of outcome lead activists such as Bryan Syron and Gary Foley to see non-Aboriginal involvement in television production as yet more non-Aborigines 'riding off the back of blacks' [Bell 1990, pp 35-39].

What is the impact of this non-Aboriginal involvement in producing Aboriginal television? Aboriginal television is not non-Aboriginal bricklayers building houses for Aboriginal people, it is non-Aborigines actively participating in the production and therefore definition of Aboriginal cultural artefacts as they are hired, in the 'interim', to direct, edit and write an 'Aboriginal' television program. To what extent is Aboriginal television a non-Aboriginal construction of what Aboriginal television should or might look like?

There are no simple solutions like: Aboriginalise everything or get non-Aborigines out of Aboriginal affairs. It is policy in Aboriginal organisations to employ Aboriginal people where possible. But the necessary expertise is not as readily available in the Aboriginal community as it is in the non-Aboriginal community. This absence of expertise raises the question of the cultural and structural inhibitions working against Aboriginal people acquiring certain kinds of skills and competences. The areas in which Aboriginal expertise is being developed are circumscribed: cultural and arts areas, welfare areas, policing and para-medical, para-legal and para-educationalist forms. The critical areas of bureaucracy, commercial and administrative competences and qualification, and the professions remain substantially off-limits. Yet these are all critical to television service delivery. Too often non-Aborigines are employed, particularly in management, with Aborigines tending not to gain the critical management and financial, administrative experience essential to running the organisation. Aboriginal organisations typically rely upon non-Aboriginal accountants, administrators, consultants, technicians, engineers and, at times, senior management personnel to keep organisations going, with an Aboriginal board and lower level and unskilled Aboriginal employment in bottom positions in the organisation. Also there are real limits to the development of 'para' expertise which provide only some of the critical professional expertise needed. Twelve week training courses and the experience of BRACS do not turn Aboriginal trainees into broadcast engineers. Training and on-the-job experience can only go so far. Non-Aboriginal involvement in Aboriginal television is not simply a black-white divide but a consequence of the particularity of the film and television industries. These industries rely on networks of contacts, access to funding sources and particular managerial and technical competences, and are characterised by intense competition for work and funding. It is difficult for an Alice Springs Aborigine or Torres Strait Islander to gain sufficient training, contacts, knowledge and competence to run production companies, organise off-shore production and co-financing and the like. It is difficult enough for non-Aborigines in the peripheral capital cities to organise their national and international contacts to good effect in the film and television industries. Not just anyone has the personality or talent to be successful with television production. Additionally, broadcasting technologies are constantly changing and interpersonal relations and competences require on-going regeneration and replacement, usually with reference to the metropolitan core.

Given these clear limits to the Aboriginalising process in television, the political issue here is the nature, direction and priorities of non-Aboriginal involvement, and the extent to which it can be realistically Aboriginalised. The answers to this will vary depending on the job being done, the expertise required, and the circumstances. As part of this assessment of Aboriginalisation it is important to assert the right of Aboriginal groups and individuals to hire non-Aboriginal expertise. Aborigines have the right to non-Aboriginal professional legal counsel, Tracey Moffat and Frances Kelly to a non-Aboriginal crew if they want one, Aborigines to work collaboratively on projects with non-Aborigines or simply to have non-Aborigines cover an Aboriginal story, Aboriginal groups to appoint non-Aboriginal administrators (without them the Aboriginal art market would collapse). Remote Aboriginal communities have a right to employ non-Aboriginal advisers to act for them, even when it is to act as a critical buffer between them and governments and, even in some cases, Aboriginal organisations. This Aboriginalisation is not only the placement of 'Aboriginal bodies' in staffing structures, it is also and importantly the right of Aborigines and their organisations to determine the most effective and appropriate mix of expertise and personnel.

Theorising Aboriginal television

The diverse sites of 'Aboriginal television' together make up a family of issues and sites which encompass different targets and agendas, policy issues and projects. Their diversity is a necessary consequence of the heterogeneity of television, Aboriginal aspiration and government policy. Aboriginal television initiatives are formed by a number of factors. Aboriginal television initiativescome about through Aboriginal negotiations with existing television services, structures, broadcast policy frameworks and the kind of programming expectations these negotiations create in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal audiences. These initiatives to also include Aboriginal negotiations with respect to the federal policy of self-determination with its separation of Aboriginal broadcasting policy from mainstream broadcast policy; and Aboriginal aspirations for culturally and politically appropriate television that is driven by proposals, initiatives and imaginings formed out of Aboriginal tradition, individual and collective entrepreneurial activity and political strategy.

Aboriginal television needs to be understood and placed within this context, as it simultaneously enables and circumscribes the form and direction of Aboriginal television: the actions taken, the plans developed, and the lobbying undertaken by Aborigines with respect to television. Aboriginal television is, as Michaels [1986b] suggests, a particular invention of television; but this invention is formed from the available materials, only some of which are Aboriginal and over which Aborigines have only limited control. Aboriginal television is not just the televisual expression of Aboriginal culture and aspiration. It is also shaped by Aboriginal negotiation of the existing video and television industry with its mix of local and international elements, and of the policy (broadcasting and Aboriginal)/government-funding nexus.

Most of these initiatives are wholly or partly dependent upon government funding and/or policy. This dependence has consequences for the type of programming, its self-understanding, its positioning on Aboriginal and governmental horizons, and the kind of political lobbying that takes place with regard to it. The dependence upon policy and funding ensures a 'public service', non-commercial, community development orientation to these Aboriginal initiatives. Just as dependence upon policy and funding gives a certain character to the ABC, SBS, the work of producers reliant upon AFC and FFC funding, and the arts organisations dependent upon Australia Council funding, so too dependence upon policy and funding gives a certain character to Aboriginal television. This public service character is both enabling of Aboriginal enterprise and disabling just as it is for these other organisations. Aboriginal thinking and initiative must translate itself through an existing policy framework which is developed by both Aborigines and non-Aborigines. This makes for Aboriginal expertise in political lobbying, grant and submission applications, and an entrepreneurialism defined through a capacity to extract the most concessions and money out of government bureaucracies, funding programs and politicians.

Aboriginal activity here is no different from that of other non-Aboriginal recipients of governmental cultural and broadcasting policy initiatives. But what is perhaps critical with regard to Aboriginal television initiatives is that there is not much Aboriginal television initiative outside this governmental axis, unlike the case of the commercial networks and their infotainment and on-going series programming in television, or the non-government supported ethnic press. That this is so is itself a consequence of Aboriginal social disadvantage. It means that Aboriginal thinking and purpose becomes directed at the public sector and therefore public broadcasting models: as community or public television for the Yuendumu and Ernabella 'pirate' stations or the aspirations for a kind of Aboriginal SBS or ABC touted by Wayne Wharton and inscribed in the fully 'independent indigenous media sector within the Australian media' strategy of National Indigenous Media Association of Australia (NIMAA) formed in 1992 [Office of Evaluation and Audit 1992, p 1]. The hand of government funding as the principal means of resourcing imposes itself on the form of television programming, program selection, film and television series funding, program innovation and overall policy construction. While commercial initiatives should emerge down the track, and private funding is already involved in some initiatives, public sector and community-oriented thinking and expenditure determine the shape and contours of Aboriginal television practice.

These developments and strategies of independence take place, then, within the context of public sector funding. The public and political interest of Aboriginal actors in this area is in expanding this general state provision for Aborigines and taking over responsibility for its distribution of funds. It is concentrating Aboriginal focus, skills and development in this area. But public sector funding necessarily defines and limits Aboriginal action to community interest, defined non-economically and politically. It presumes the continuation and extension of government funding, something which may prove difficult to achieve in times of economic recession and targetted spending.

This helps to give self-determination its contradictory face. There is the basic contradiction of rights of self-determination being 'granted' to a colonised people by the government of the colonisers. And there is the policy of self-determination, itself a mixture of decolonisation and a continuation of the existing welfare colonialism, albeit in a reshaped form.

In response to an earlier draft of this chapter Mudrooroo put the problem like this:

Aborigines should be aware that the issue is one of power, that to let or lease the representations of themselves to others means that they have only themselves to blame if they disagree with the representation. Then, the presentation of television images and the reading of them are part of culture. For Aborigines to be educated in this culture means that, too often, they learn how Europeans present images, and then re-present their own images according to this model.


Self-determination in Aboriginal television predominantly means a cross between an Aboriginal national broadcaster and 'public television' (as per public radio): Aboriginal programming and organisation within mainstream television networks (particularly the national networks) and the aspiration of Aboriginal mainstreaming allowing Aboriginal access to existing film and television series subsidy arrangements, and the freedom to be an Aboriginal film-maker, television producer and reporter, having the freedom to work on non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal issues alike. For many Aboriginal broadcasters, self-determination in Aboriginal television is an important component of the broader struggle for the power and right to determine Aboriginal cultural, political and economic futures.

With political and legal recognition inching towards formal recognition of the special claims of indigenous people, and with greater acceptance of Aboriginal economic and cultural self-determination amongst the broader population, the possibility of a number of kinds of Aboriginal autonomy within an overarching Australian territorial state is an increasing possibility. Aboriginal television is inevitably moving in this direction too.


1. 'Aboriginal' and 'Aborigine' are used throughout to refer to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. As this chapter was written between Alice Springs and Perth, we were aware of the south-east Australian nature of the designation Kooris, and the Queensland nature of the alternative self-descriptor Murris, for all Aborigines in Australia. For a discussion of Aboriginal television see CAAMA Production's Satellite Dreaming (1991), Meadows (1992) and Dutchak (1992); Michaels (1987a) provides a still pertinent discussion of issues for Aboriginal television and the difficulties involved in conceptualising it. Meadows and Rielander (1991) provide a comprehensive bibliography of writings on Aboriginal broadcasting.

2. With this formalisation has come a greater capacity for intra-Aboriginal differences to become publicly apparent.

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