Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article may contain images and voices of people who have died.
Celebrated Indigenous journalist and UQ PhD student Amy McQuire has spent 14 years on the frontline of investigations into key issues involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist has often witnessed the misrepresentation, omission and silencing of events in the mainstream media.
Originally from Rockhampton before taking on prominent media roles, McQuire was a finalist in the 2019 Walkley Awards for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs, and was the 2020 winner of the Indigenous Issues Reporting category of the Queensland Clarion Awards for Excellence in Media.
McQuire has spent four years co-hosting an investigative podcast, The Curtain, which follows the case of an Aboriginal man wrongly accused of murder. She was also the researcher on John Pilger's Utopia documentary.
Her PhD focus with the UQ Poche Centre is on media representations of violence against Aboriginal women.
Her work is now being moulded into a collection of essays in a new book called Black Witness: The Power of Indigenous Media. The book is being published by University of Queensland Press (UQP) and is due to be released in 2022.
McQuire sat down with Contact to discuss her career highlights, the need for media reform, and her forthcoming book.
Q: Tell us more about your experiences working in the media?
A: I’m proud that most of my experiences have been in Aboriginal and independent media.
My entry into journalism was via a cadetship at the National Indigenous Times. From there, I worked as a political correspondent for NITV News, before becoming the editor of Tracker – an Aboriginal rights magazine published by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
I also worked for BuzzFeed Australia as their Indigenous affairs reporter. I currently do a lot of freelance work and have written for The New York Times, Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper, Meanjin, IndigenousX, Marie Claire, The Washington Post and a number of other publications. I’m now looking at working more independently while I finish my PhD, through Substack and Inkl.
Q: In your opinion, how and why has the mainstream media failed to report responsibly or comprehensively on Indigenous affairs?
A: The media is largely white and upper-middle class, and represents the interests of those who have similar lived experiences. News values are tailored to that of the majority, and those who hold similar aspirations and goals.
This means that Aboriginal people who protest for sovereignty and self-determination are overshadowed by white benchmarks for success and are pushed to the fringes.
There is also a failure to understand history and grapple with the unfinished business at the heart of the nation – the theft of Aboriginal lands and attempted genocide of Aboriginal nations. If you don’t understand history and your place in it, as well as the media’s role in reproducing damaging representations that have helped secure white possession, you begin to look at First Nations people as responsible for their own problems.
Aboriginal affairs is an incredibly complex policy space. Often, journalists do not have an in-depth knowledge of the area and are more likely to side with those in power, and fail to adequately critique it.
A woman shows her support for the Black Lives Matter movement during a rally in Brisbane in 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement was one of biggest stories of 2020, in Australia and around the world. Image: Jono Searle/Getty Images
Q: How can the media address key issues, and how can universities lead the way through education and guidance of young journalism graduates?
A: Universities should engage Aboriginal people, both inside and outside the institution, and adequately pay or resource them to do this work.
I think there needs to be an understanding of history and also an engagement with the work of Aboriginal scholars on race and racism in this country – people like Associate Professor Chelsea Watego, Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor Lester Rigney, Professor Irene Watson, Professor Larissa Behrendt, Professor Megan Davis, Dr Lilla Watson and Dr Mary Graham. They are just a few.
"You have to understand the way race and racism is operating in this country to understand the media’s role, and I think this is the foundation that many journalism graduates must have."
Aboriginal affairs is where the media can play a crucial role in holding those in power accountable. But, for far too long, it has worked to serve those in power at the expense of those who are most vulnerable.
It is also an area in which there is a lot of policy that is media driven – you only have to look at the media reports that paved the way for the Northern Territory Intervention to see how the media can play a part in implementing damaging policies.
Q: What have been some of the biggest stories you have covered?
A: The biggest story I have ever worked on is a continuing story of Goreng Goreng man Kevin Henry, who served 29 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a story I have been working on for four years with Yuin human rights lawyer Martin Hodgson.
Kevin Henry aka Curtain was 22 when he went to jail for a crime he did not commit. This is him 27 years later - he still survives! Despite the system's attempt to dehumanise him, make him less than a person, he is here... still fighting for justice. pic.twitter.com/J6epulTpwL— Amy McQuire (@amymcquire) May 14, 2018
We were able to help Kevin in the parole process. He is currently free and we are working on the next step – exoneration.
This story brought me back to my Darumbal homelands and it's a story I feel the ancestors led me to pursue. It also informed my PhD research. My research question is tailored around this story because the victim was an Aboriginal woman who never received justice.
I wanted to do my PhD to understand how I could better report on violence against Aboriginal women in ways that don’t just compound the hurt they have already experienced, that don’t simply reproduce the trauma marked on their bodies, but honour their resistance, agency and lives. I wanted to find a way for media to honour their lives and reinforce their dignity.
Absolutely every single person in Australia should know every single detail of the Bowraville case. It is a story of police brutality, about how the devaluation of Aboriginal lives led to an enduring injustice that continues to hurt and compound the pain of the families. https://t.co/YzjLu9zrfy— Amy McQuire (@amymcquire) June 21, 2020
Other stories I have worked on have been the lies that led to the Northern Territory Intervention, the Bowraville murders and the hunt for Malcolm Naden, who – at the time of his arrest – was the most-wanted person in New South Wales. Those are stories that I could just never forget and which inform my writing. They are also the stories in which I have been most challenged and inspired to do better.
Q: What have been the highlights of your time at UQ?
A: I am indebted to my supervisor Associate Professor Chelsea Bond for helping me get into UQ and for putting me on my PhD pathway. I never thought I would end up at university but Professor Bond has been instrumental in finding me, and many other Aboriginal students, a place.
The PhD journey has been really rewarding as it has already informed a lot of my writing and my work outside of university. It has also given me the space to actually read, research and think deeply about things that have troubled me for a long time.
Q: What kind of impact do you hope your book will have in terms of making a change?
A: UQP, and publisher Aviva Tuffield, have been great to work with. They have been very supportive in helping me work towards my end goal.
Black Witness: The Power of Indigenous Media is a collection of essays based on my existing work. I have come to realise that a lot of my work over the past 14 years has been centred around a theme – that of the Black Witness and the continual disregard shown towards our testimony. Through this book, I aim to re-centre the testimony of the Black Witness and hopefully give back to many of the people who have given me so much time and energy. I also hope it helps inspire other Aboriginal journalists to help build up a strong black media workforce.
Register now for our digital ChangeMakers event – Black Lives Matter: the Australian context.
Amy McQuire will join an esteemed panellists to discuss the aftermath of the public death of George Floyd in the US last May and impact of the millions of outraged citizens around the world, who took to the streets to protest a range of longstanding and systemic issues related to human rights, social justice and race relations.
This year marks 100 years since UQ first began graduating journalism students. To celebrate the milestone, Contact will be publishing regular features this year tackling the major issues facing the industry today, while celebrating the success of UQ’s journalism students, graduates and the School of Communication and Arts. Keep checking the Contact website throughout the year to view these stories.