Union intervenes on Neighbours race crisis

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has now intervened on the crisis surrounding Neighbours.

ABC reports the union met with producer Fremantle insisting on new anti-racism, sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training for all staff.

“This is standard practice in the US,” MEAA director Michelle Rae said.

“The allegations over the past two weeks of racist and discriminatory behaviour on the set of Neighbours must be the catalyst for industry-wide change to make screen workplaces safer and more inclusive.”

7:30 last night interviewed actors Shareena Clanton (2021), Sachin Joab (2011- 2013), Remy Hii (2013 – 2014) and Sharon Johal (2017 – 2021).

Shareena Clanton heard the ‘N’ word on set and reported it to producers.

“I went straight to the producers,” she told 7:30, “spoke about the racist terminology and history behind it and hurt, and the individual was apparently put on a warning.”

She asked for the use of the ‘N’-word to stop, but it happened a second time, describing her experience as feeling isolated, bullied and marginalised.

Sharon Johal, a Punjabi Sikh Australian, said a cast member “referred to me as ‘the black one’ and/or ‘blackie’ behind my back in the presence of other crew members.” Johal has returned to the Neighbours set this week in a guest role.

Sachin Joab spoke about the way the Kapoor family was written out in 2013.

“If myself, the actress playing my wife [Menik Gooneratne], and the daughter, if we had the caucasian blonde hair and blue eyes, I don’t think they would have written us out,” he said.

Actor Remy Hii also spoke to a viewer backlash he experienced in 2013.

“At the time I didn’t, and I’ve questioned myself about that, and I’ve often asked myself why. And the really simple answer was at the time I didn’t want to be seen as rocking the boat,” he said.

There’s no doubt Neighbours, over its 36 year history, has decades of being the most cookie-cutter street on Australian television.

In 2009 then Executive Producer Susan Bower said in an interview, “Cultural diversity is still an issue in Neighbours. We are getting there in ‘background characters’ that is extras, but I would still like to mix it up with larger roles. What makes it difficult is that most of our families are white so if a relative comes to visit or to stay they will usually be from the same cultural background. You will soon see a delightful (and feisty) new character arrive when the Kennedy house accepts an exchange student from Korea.”

In more recent years under Executive Producer Jason Herbison the show has introduced LGBTQI+ characters, First Australian characters and other ethnicities.

But 10 Head of Drama and Executive Production Rick Maier recently said many people still thought of it as Ramsay Street of 30 years ago.

Neighbours has changed quite a lot. I think if you look at the demography of the show, and I’m not going to isolate individuals, but the storytelling is exceptionally progressive and very diverse,” he said.

“When people talk about Home & Away, if they haven’t watched it, they go ‘That’s the show with Alf.’ When they talk about Neighbours, they say, ‘That’s the show with Toadie.’”

He added, “Shows evolve over time and they progress. I think Neighbours is an incredibly diverse show.”

TV historian Andrew Mercado tells The Guardian Home & Away had a poor track record in Indigenous representation, citing just 3 actors over 32 years.

“One actor was Wes Patten, who played a student called Kevin Baker in 1993. One was a ghost that Alf imagined he was, when he was dying of a brain tumour on the operating table. Luke Carroll played Dr Lewis Rigg, for seven weeks. He is their last and most recent, in 2007.”

The Alf Stewart storyline, he says, “doesn’t even count [as representation]. He wasn’t real.”

The Seven soap currently features a Maori family, the Parata family, played by Rob Kipa-Williams, Kawakawa Fox-Reo and Ethan Browne.

Mercado added that change in Australian television starts at the top.

“Until they include more diverse decision makers, and stop second-guessing their audience, nothing will change.”

Yet despite Neighbours on-screen progress it is now investigating claims and has appointed an independent review.

Whilst it is yet to comment on specific claims the company said in a statement, “We remain committed to ensuring a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees on the set of Neighbours and take very seriously any questions about racism or any other form of discrimination.

“We are engaging an independent legal investigation to work concurrently with Campfire X’s cultural review and hope to work directly with the individuals that have raised concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps are appropriate.”

Neighbours has tried and strived for diversity in front of the camera, but that’s only the first step. You have to look at your writer’s room, directors, heads of department, executive producers, HR, PR. The more diversity you have behind the camera, the less of these incidents you have,” former cast member Menik Gooneratne told ABC.

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