Here is the news … in Warlpiri

July 19th, 2014 by admin

As the ABC begins broadcasting the news in Aboriginal languages, it can take heart from those who went before them.

A report this week that the ABC in the Northern Territory is trialling a news service in two Aboriginal languages took me back to a newsroom in a shack in Alice Springs more than 30 years ago.

It was there in the makeshift studio of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association that the first indigenous language news service in the country originated in the early 1980s. It was my job to get the news program up and running. I worked with a team of highly skilled interpreters in Arrernte, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara.

CAAMA went on to spawn the nation’s first Aboriginal radio station, 8-KIN FM, and the indigenous TV network Imparja but in the early 80s, we were a modestly funded and humble outfit. Putting together the news was unlike anything I’d ever been involved in before or since. It was an exercise in journalism that required a creative approach to language and some unique cross-cultural considerations.

To start with, there were some big leaps between the understanding of the world of a journalist from “down south” and an audience that was unlikely to have travelled beyond the Territory borders.

My newspeak was filled with the usual shorthand: “the minister declined to comment”; “the young man died as a result of his injuries”; “the Government cut the funding of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs but defence spending rose by $400 million”.

As noted in Richard Aedy’s story in Radio National’s Media Report, interpreting these nuances is not straightforward. We needed a middle path. Just like today’s producers on the ABC, I would first script our regular English-language news service in Aboriginal English.

I picked up the appropriate phraseology from my bosses, Freda Glynn and Philip Batty, and other colleagues. “Died” was better rendered as “finished up”. “Declined to comment” was a little more tricky. We would say something like “The government man said nothing”. The Aboriginal English scripts would be instantly interpreted, live to air, by our bilingual (and often trilingual) broadcasters.

As for cutting Aboriginal affairs spending while boosting defence, this was not a story I had to write myself. Fraser’s razor gang had done most of its slashing when I was at CAAMA. However, a friend was once required to tell a group of Aboriginal women from remote communities that defence spending had gone up, while funding for community-based projects had taken a cut.

“No more money for women,” she told the women. “It’s being spent on bombs.” Her interpretation of the federal budget made it back to the regional director of the department. A few days later she was asked whether this was the best workplace for her. She soon left and took up a job with the women’s council she had been reporting to.

We weren’t the first generation to struggle with translating complexities into Aboriginal languages but we were the first to do so on equal terms. There was a strong sense of walking together to discover new ways of doing things.

It was rewarding and challenging and frustrating all at the same time. We sometimes had to fish our interpreters out of the pub to get them to work. On other occasions, we helped look after our workers’ kids while their mothers did their shifts on air.

We often felt under siege. The graphic description formed by the words “red” and “neck” captured the dominant cultural hue in Alice during that period. The undeniable troubles with drinking and with violence in the Aboriginal community were everywhere around us. Our despair fuelled initiatives such as Beat the Grog and Rock Without Grog. As well as CAAMA’s broadcasts in several languages, there were many public health messages and airplay for local musicians. CAAMA played a big part in promoting the work of outfits such as the Warumpi Band and Coloured Stone.

Above all, we were acutely aware that our efforts were, for the first time, providing a media voice for Aboriginal people. An outlet for the indigenous townsfolk who were being asked to live somewhere between a pre-contact black life and a modern white one with no role models or certainty. CAAMA was a touchpoint for town campers – fringe dwellers who were either ignored or pilloried by civic leaders. We were buoyed too by the support of a growing number of people from all walks of life who refused to accept the status quo.

It’s heartening to see the pioneering work of indigenous broadcasters being taken up by the national broadcaster a generation later. The ABC was not equipped – either culturally or in terms of resources – to provide Aboriginal language services in the 1980s. That’s why Aboriginal people did it themselves

Now the national broadcaster employs a fair number of indigenous announcers, journalists, producers and interpreters, people are looking on with great interest. The indigenous language news service is a small step, and it has the potential to grow. Just as CAAMA did from that tiny studio in Gap Rd in Alice Springs 32 years ago.

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