NEWFONG, JOHN ARCHIBALD (1943–99)
John Newfong is widely recognised as the first Aboriginal Australian to work as a mainstream journalist. While intrinsically involved with the Indigenous activist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, Newfong worked as a specialist and general reporter for the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin. He was a campaign secretary in the 1967 referendum campaign after becoming a cadet journalist in the mid-1960s. Soon after the campaign, the editor of the Australian, Adrian Deamer, hired Newfong to report on the increasingly news-worthy land rights and civil rights movements, a round Newfong covered as a general reporter for the Australian and then for the Herald. He also reported on international affairs, including the 1971 French election and the coup by General Idi Amin in Uganda.
Newfong coupled his work as a journalist with his activism in Indigenous affairs, and became heavily involved in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972. He was often seen briefing journalists in his role as media spokesperson, then shifting his focus to defend the tents against the McMahon Coalition government’s efforts to dismantle the Embassy. Newfong wrote in the Aboriginal publication Identity, which he edited in 1972–73 and 1979–80, that the Tent Embassy was ‘one of the most successful press and parliamentary lobbies in Australian political history’.
Those who knew Newfong recall his broad knowledge and his ability to captivate an audience with stories and anecdotes gathered while reporting foreign affairs. He used his encyclopaedic knowledge of international affairs to full effect in his later position as a lecturer at James Cook University.
There is acknowledgement that Newfong felt torn between his role as an Aboriginal campaigner at a time of great hostility towards this cause from the mainstream media and his career as a journalist. He was strongly connected to the Aboriginal community of North Stradbroke Island, where he was born and spent much of his childhood. He attempted to walk in both worlds, and did so successfully—as a journalist on mainstream major dailies where he tried to convince a broader (primarily white) audience of the reasons for the Aboriginal movement, and then as a media spokesperson and editor of Aboriginal publications such as Identity. Gary Foley calls Newfong an ‘unsung hero of the 60s and 70s’, saying that ‘he trod new ground for Aboriginal people’ and ‘shouldered the burden of being “the first”’.
The Centre for Aboriginal Independence and Enterprise launched the John Newfong Media Prize in 2008, to recognise outstanding journalism by an Indigenous journalist.
REFs: Australian, 15 June 1999; G. Foley, ‘Black power in Redfern, 1968–72’, in K. de Souza and Z. Begg (eds), There Goes the Neighbourhood (2001).