Justice through journalism: Q&A with Amy McQuire

Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander, and one of Australia’s foremost Indigenous journalists. Here, she speaks to Xiaoran Shi.

What was it like growing up as a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman in Rockhampton and how has that influenced your work as a respected Indigenous affairs journalist?

I grew up not really understanding the true history of this country and of my own hometown, which was one of the most heavily massacred places in Australia, and also a centre of the blackbirding trade. I didn’t learn about Queensland’s sordid history of stolen land, stolen wages, stolen children and stolen remains. I didn’t know my own history and I couldn’t identify racism in my own hometown because it is hidden within our institutions and colonial structures. It wasn’t until I left home and went to Canberra to work as a cadet at the National Indigenous Times, in the city where the policies affecting the rest of Aboriginal Australia are made, that I received any schooling about the true history of the country and I think that’s what really inspired me to work in Indigenous media – we need to ensure that history is dealt with first in order to truly understand current events.

You have a formidable resume of having worked with many of the peak Indigenous publications Australia, from the National Indigenous Times to Tracker magazine. Can you tell me about your time at each publication?

NIT was a really important publication – completely independent, and it began out of [journalist] Chris Graham’s basement. It ran on a shoestring but punched well above its weight. It broke really important stories, and it helped me develop my politics. It was a good training ground for solid, independent journalism. I then went to National Indigenous Television (NITV) and worked out of the press gallery for a few months where I learnt the definition of “churnalism”. It was based at Sky News and, coming from NIT, I really felt starved of the kind of analysis and context we used to provide to our stories. NITV has changed a lot since it moved into SBS, but there is still a need for an independent voice away from the editorial oversight of SBS. Tracker was a really important publication because of the reach and the resources, although it was still under-funded. We were able to publish really important stories on underreported and misreported NSW communities like Toomelah, Bourke and Bowraville, but we were always hindered. The sad demise of Tracker taught me that you can’t depend on any other organisation to fund independent media – it has to be totally independent and should be completely free of editorial control.

How does your previous work in Indigenous media inform your current work for more mainstream publications, such as New Matilda and the Guardian?

I’ve really liked concentrating on other issues for New Matilda but they are actually issues that end up affecting Aboriginal people as well. I’m very concerned about climate change, and that will ultimately impact on Aboriginal communities more harshly. I still find I write stories with an Aboriginal audience in mind, which is probably why I get so many negative reactions in our commentary section! But first and foremost, I write for Aboriginal people and I think that’s more than fair given most of the media is intent on demonising us.

What do you envisage as the role of media in pushing for sociopolitical change? Can journalism be effectively ‘activist’ without compromising traditional values of ‘integrity’ and ‘objectivity’?

I truly believe media has to push for socio-political change. It amazes me how “balance” can overshadow “truth”. Every journalist is biased – the way you present your story is based on your or your paper’s judgement on which opinion or fact is most important. Today, to be an informed citizen, you have to read a wide variety of sources because of the deep penetration of public relations (which is basically just a nice word for “propaganda”). “Straight, factual reportage” can also disguise the real picture of what is happening in a country because bare facts do not provide context or analysis about the true history of a situation or conflict. We do need stronger editorial voices because then you aren’t just reading an anonymous byline – you begin reading journalists you trust because they have a direct accountability to you, and you can immediately call them out on their work through social media and the like.

You have previously spoken about the need to establish and support independent media for marginalised and disadvantaged peoples, arguing it is simply not enough for a few representative individuals to penetrate mainstream media discourse. What do you think would be the best way to work towards this?

I think it’s critically important for Indigenous media to have our own outlets to counteract a lot of the mainstream media’s negativity and straight out lies. But how you fund that is a different matter. The Indigenous broadcasting sector, for example, has always been deeply reliant on government funds, to the extent that they have been unable to foster solid journalism that could really threaten government. I just believe the non-white journalists who end up in mainstream media outlets unfortunately have to compromise the reason they are there in the first place: to provide a voice to their communities, because they are working within a structure that disempowers them.

How have your experiences been working as a woman, especially a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman, in the media?

I can’t understand why there is still a gender imbalance in the media, given most of my journalism classes at university were filled with women. I truly believe there has to be a turnaround really soon. I believe sexism is a problem across every part of our society and maybe we just don’t want to confront it. Maybe we want to keep getting caught on silly debates when we should be challenging power structures that continue to oppress women – one of those structures is the mainstream media. Although misogyny is rampant everywhere,
I actually find Aboriginal communities are better on sexism. Women are often the heads and strongholds of the family and I’ve never felt spoken down to or patronised due to my gender in the way I have when in white institutions.

Can you tell me about your working relationship with Chris Graham, with whom you co-edited Tracker and with whom currently you work at New Matilda?

Chris is probably one of the best journalists in Australia because he actually has a conscience, he is fearless and he lives for his job. He also is deeply invested in Aboriginal communities and he’s one of those whitefellas who isn’t working in the Aboriginal industry, making money off black poverty. He’s not a fly-in and fly-out journalist and has a huge contact book in Aboriginal Australia. He is working, often at personal detriment, to uncover the truth and fight for the rights of Aboriginal people. I’ve followed him around from NIT to Tracker to New Matilda, and we share a deepening sense of the Aboriginal press as an advocacy press, one that can’t afford not to be biased. The original slogan for NIT was something about building bridges between black and white, but I guess now it would be about actually providing justice for Aboriginal people, not trying to simply ease white guilt.