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The Ethics of Representation

As part of Vivid Ideas we hosted The Ethics of Representation on Wednesday 8 June. Listen to highlights on ABC Radio National's big ideas program or watch the video below. You can see each individual speech on our youtube channel.

Here are some take-home points:

1. All organisations should try to be diverse and representative but publicly funded organisations are obliged to be.
When publishing executive Marina Go is facing decisions about who to feature on the covers of Bauer/Hearst brands like ElleHarper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan, she starts by thinking about diversity. But, she adds, “the ultimate decision is about what sells”.
The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor thinks that’s a fair argument to make for a commercial organisation, but says the MCA has an ethical obligation for diversity because it receives public funding. And she thinks the same is true of other publicly funded organisations like the ABC.
When an audience member asked whether the media were responsible for the rise of Donald Trump, McEvoy suggested his views were already prevalent. He argued in a such a diversified media world, we are able to consume news and opinion that reflects our beliefs – half of the US seems amazed at Donald Trump’s popularity, while the other half is saying, “You haven’t been listening to us”. With this in mind, McEvoy said, given the chance, he probably would put Trump on Q&A.

2. The media reflects social beliefs and realities – sometimes your hands are tied.
“Parliament isn’t the most diverse place!” Executive producer Peter McEvoy explains that if you want a decision-maker to answer a specific question, there’s a good chance you’ll be booking a man from an English-speaking background.
Go, whose heritage is Italian and Chinese and was frustrated as a teenager never to see people “like her” on the cover of magazines, struggles with similar issues. As an editor at Dolly, her first issue featured a Caucasian model and sold well. For her second, she pursued her values and put an Asian model on the cover – sales were poor. Commercial magazines – especially mass sellers – can’t change people’s values overnight and face commercial pressures that affect diversity.  

3. There is a business case for being a trailblazer. Sometimes.
One audience member pointed out that some bold decision-making has paid off though – Caitlin Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, for example. Isn’t there a business case for being a trailblazer?

For Macgregor, this “cuts to the core of the ethical question” – what role do the arts and media have in shaping and reshaping public attitudes rather than simply reflecting and reinforcing them? At the MCA, she’s learned that a diverse range of artists tend to produce more varied, engaging and challenging art. “Their experience is reflected in their work.”

That’s not quite the same for Go. Certain publications can be trailblazers because their audiences are ready for it – Vanity Fair is a good example. Other magazines are “stragglers” who are never going succeed by being progressive in such a bold way.
4. The ethics of representation includes thinking about those who should be censored.
Aiming to have a range of voices doesn’t mean you allow everybody to be heard. McEvoy noted their show is required to “show a range of views” and some ideas are underrepresented in the media – like “old-fashioned, values-based conservatives” who have been replaced by “neocons”. However, he added, “we would be irresponsible to put certain opinions on the show”. When asked if he’s ever knocked anyone back for what they represented, Macgregor joked, ‘He wishes he had!’

Macgregor was open about times she chose not to exhibit works of art she deemed unnecessarily provocative or overly offensive. “There’s a fine line between representation and censorship”, she explained. But it’s her job to draw that line somewhere and she accepted it’s her head on the block if she gets the balance wrong.

Even if a solution isn’t around the corner, it was refreshing to see three media leaders owning the issue and their responsibility for tackling it.


View the image gallery of the event here: