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SBS responds to former staffers’ accounts of ‘toxic’ racism: ‘We still have a way to go’

SBS’ managing director, James Taylor, has said he is “shocked and saddened” by the experiences of racism former staff have disclosed this week.

Screenwriter and Indigenous Australian Kodie Bedford wrote a lengthy Twitter thread earlier this week about the “micro-aggressions, forms of paternalism and racism” she faced at the broadcaster 10 years ago.

Bedford said she didn’t speak of the experiences for a long time because “I still carry trauma and feel sick about it”. She was “always introduced as ‘the Indigenous cadet journalist’ while the others were just ‘the cadet journalists'”, she said. “But this was my dream job. I’ll put up with the othering.”

After two years though, “my writing was worse, my self-esteem destroyed, I had suicidal thoughts. The stress on my body meant I developed eczema, I lost my period for four months, I stopped eating; a piece of toast filled me for the day because of anxiety.

“We felt like the dopey blackfellas in the corner, ticking boxes.”

Bedford said that, during her time at SBS, white journalists won Walkley Awards “telling our stories”, and that she “overheard a conversation between two of the higher-ups and how they would enter the non-Indigenous journos into awards, but not the Indigenous journos. We just ‘didn’t have the chops'”.

In response to Bedford’s account, Allan Clarke, a Muruwari and Gomeroi journalist, said: “The racism Kodie, myself and our Aboriginal colleagues were subjected to was horrific. Those toxic years damaged us and left scars.”

Presenter of the Guardian’s Full Story podcast, Laura Murphy-Oates, added that Bedford’s experiences were “horrifying”, but “not surprising to me as a former SBS Indigenous cadet”.

“That job gave me so much, but a few toxic managers can have a big effect,” Murphy-Oates, a Ngiyampaa Wailwan woman, said. When she left, the head of every news and current affairs program except for those on NITV were white.

“Just one example- in my cadet year my voice coach told me my voice ‘still needed a lot of work’ but that it was probably fine, because I was ‘just going to work in Indigenous media anyway’. It’s a small thing, but comments like that, from across the org, eat away at you over time.”

An open letter was established following those reports, as revealed by The Guardian, demanding diversity in the leadership team. In light of news director Jim Carroll’s impending retirement, the letter says that choosing his successor “should be an opportunity and not a blind spot”. Every news director since 1978 has been an Anglo-Saxon man, except for Irene Buschtedt, who held the position between 1993 and 1995.

“We believe the next person to hold this position must be a member of Australia’s multicultural or minority community,” says the letter.

“We are in a unique moment in history where all across the world, all industries and especially so the media are facing both a choice and reckoning over the diversity of their staff.”

Taylor, the broadcaster’s managing director, commented that “representation matters, and not unlike many institutions today, we still have a way to go to reflect the diversity of the audiences we serve amongst our senior leadership team”.

SBS managing director James Taylor

“I’ve been shocked and saddened by accounts of racism experienced at SBS,” he said. “SBS stands opposed to any form of racism or exclusion. It can take many overt and less overt forms, none of which are acceptable. Racism is abhorrent and I am committed to ensuring it has no place at SBS.

“All members of the SBS team – including the Board and leadership – are deeply committed to our purpose and Charter. That is reflected in the content and services we deliver to Australians every day – and most recently in our work providing comprehensive information and updates on COVID-19 in 63 languages.

“The diversity of our people across SBS is one of our greatest strengths. I stand by the valuable contributions every one of them makes, and the programming, news coverage and radio services they provide which reflect and explore modern Australia, unlike any other media organisation.”

Bedford said she’s “not bitter towards SBS”, but “the system is still broken”. Upon the release of Taylor’s statement, she added: “I appreciate James Taylor’s words, I believe them”.

“SBS (and ABC) are so important in Australia,” Bedford said. “It puts BIPOC actors, writers, journos, news & stories on screen/radio when commercial networks don’t. In many ways it’s ahead of the game, but it doesn’t mean we can’t improve. I’m passionate about the SBS, I want it to succeed.”

The open letter is the industry’s second of the week. More than 100 journalists have signed one addressed to the Melbourne Press Club’s CEO and chair asking for racial diversity on its all-white board. Journalists at The Age also wrote a letter to Nine executives last month after the newspaper made an unsubstantiated allegation that Black Lives Matter protesters were planning to spit on police, and an editorial incorrectly claimed that Australia does not have a history of slavery. The Age issued two separate apologies for those stories, and its editor exited soon thereafter.

Also last month, News Corp published a column by Peter Gleeson in which he said “the greatest danger to aboriginals and n*groes is themselves”.

And today’s front page of Seven West Media newspaper, The West Australian, features an apology for publishing a 1981 racist cartoon this week. Editor-in-chief Anthony De Ceglie called the “mistake” – the comics page is created automatically through a third-party company – “abhorrent”, and said the cartoon does not “reflect our company’s culture or values under my watch”. The paper will no longer publish Modesty Blaise cartoons, and both the newspaper and the third-party company have conducted reviews into the incident.

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