Violence against Aboriginal women in the media: Does Warren Mundine have a point?

By Loni Cooper
Thu 13 October 09:28 AEDT
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This article contains references to violence against women. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.

Debate is continuing around a column penned by Warren Mundine in The Australian last week, where the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council condemned what he called a  ‘disgraceful silence’ on violence against Aboriginal women and children.

Warren Mundine's column in The Australian last week.
Warren Mundine's column in The Australian last week.

Mundine laid the blame for this supposed silence squarely at the feet of four groups:

“Indigenous people, progressives, feminists and the media don’t want to talk about indigenous abuse.”

In the days since, he’s been roundly criticised by politicians, activists and journalists for failing to notice that Aboriginal community leaders and feminists have been speaking out about this for years.

“The truth is that for a very long time, progressive Aboriginal women and feminists have been speaking out on family and domestic violence,” Celeste Liddle retorted.

“That no one - including Warren Mundine - listens to us, is a reflection on the sexism and racism inherent within Australian society; not on our efforts to bring this issue to the attention of the public.”

Labor MP Linda Burney and journalists Amy McQuire and Michael Gordon also weighed in to challenge Mundine’s accusations re the ‘silence’ of Aboriginal people and feminists.

But what of his theory that the mainstream media has ignored violence in Indigenous communities and violence against Aboriginal women? Does Mundine have a point?

Has there been radio silence on this issue? Do journalists take it seriously? Have they been reporting on it as well as they could have? And if not, why not?

Arguably, there’s been some excellent reporting in the mainstream media on individual cases of violence against Aboriginal women recently, which has resulted in significant outcomes for the families of victims. Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners investigation into the violent death of Aboriginal woman Lynette Daley prompted an immediate government investigation, and two men have since been charged with manslaughter.

On the other hand, the reporting on the death of Aboriginal woman Adeline Yvette Rigney-Wilson included some of the most egregious examples of victim blaming I’ve seen since working in this role. After her death, the media reduced her to a drug addict unable to care for her children – despite the fact that her partner Steven Peet has been charged with murdering them, and her.

Coverage of Ms Rigney-Wilson's murder in the Daily Mail.
Coverage of Ms Rigney-Wilson's murder in the Daily Mail.

And what about in places where rates of family violence in Indigenous communities are particularly high? In places like Alice Springs where, after a recent inquest into the deaths of two women living in town camps, coroner Greg Cavanagh labelled domestic violence rates ‘out of control’ – is the issue getting the media attention it deserves? There has been media coverage of the inquest itself, but what about the crimes that sparked it, or the system that is clearly failing victims?

There are no doubt impediments to journalists reporting on family violence in places like Alice Springs and in the many surrounding Indigenous communities. There are issues with identifying both perpetrators and victims. There are ethical codes that discourage making identifications based on race. There are significant resourcing issues for journalists in remote areas - Alice Springs has a population of just under 30,000 people and only a handful of media outlets and journalists, but has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. However, it also seems that there’s not a great deal of interest from journalists in exploring why and how family violence occurs in these communities. According to workers in the justice system in Alice Springs, reporters rarely attend domestic violence hearings, and don’t often interview Aboriginal women who’ve survived violence. Says one, “white people here talk about Aboriginal people, not to them – and the journalists don’t have the bollocks or the interest to unwrap what is really going on.”

If this is the case, it is concerning.

“The media do not show enough interest in stories that focus on what communities are doing in terms of addressing the issue, and not nearly enough coverage on community organisations that are actively working to support Aboriginal women,” according to Yuin woman and Indigenous violence researcher Marlene Longbottom.

“Much reporting focuses on the rates and prevalence of violence, often pathologising Aboriginal women, demonising Indigenous men, thus depicting a dysfunctional and chaotic representation of a highly complex issue.”

Ms Longbottom is one of many voices calling on journalists to make sure we’re not misrepresenting how and why this violence occurs – or conversely, ignoring the issue altogether.

So, what can reporters do to get it right?

We could start by considering that violence in Aboriginal communities is impacted by factors like racism and colonisation. To understand that violence against Aboriginal women is not just perpetrated by Aboriginal men. To acknowledge that there are hundreds of people doing significant work in communities around the country to address the issue.

But most of all, we need to listen, and tell the stories that we hear. To show that there isn’t a silence on Indigenous violence. We can amplify the voices that aren’t quite as loud as Warren Mundine’s, and make sure that they’re heard.