Cast, crew and management working on the long-running TV series Neighbours could face legal action if any of them are found to have engaged in racist, offensive or discriminatory behaviour.
Production house Fremantle Media will launch a legal investigation to back up its previous promise of an independent review into alleged racism against actors of colour.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has stepped in, with the union’s director of equity, Michelle Rae, writing to the Fremantle Asia Pacific CEO, Chris Oliver-Taylor, a past president of Screen Producers Australia, late last week.
“In the wake of these allegations, MEAA is in discussions with Fremantle Media and industry stakeholders to insist on the implementation of anti-racism, sexual harassment and discrimination training for everyone working on screen productions,” she said in a statement to the Guardian.
Fremantle Asia Pacific has so far refused to respond to specific questions from the Guardian outside its previous statements, saying the company will make no further public comment until the investigations are complete.
Aware of racist conduct
The Australian actor Remy Hii, who appeared in more than 50 episodes of Neighbours in 2013/2014 and has since worked extensively overseas – including Marco Polo and Crazy Rich Asians – told the Guardian on Friday he was aware of Indigenous and Indian-Australian actors on the Neighbours set enduring racist and offensive comments, although he had not been a target of such behaviour himself.
He said the revelations from former cast members Sharon Johal, Shareena Clanton and Sachin Joab over the past week did not surprise him, but much of the public reaction had.
“I’ve worked in America a lot, and if anything like this came to light there, my god, heads would be rolling,” Hii said.
“You’re talking about a ‘burn the institution down’ kind of reaction, there is no way anyone would be able to get away with it.
“It’s actually crazy seeing the kind of general public response … people who have tried to sweep it under the rug go like, it’s not that big a deal, get over it. If this happened in America, the repercussions would be swift and they would be severe.”
Among the allegations raised by former Neighbours actors over the past week are those by the Indigenous actor Shareena Clanton, who claims the ‘n’ word was used repeatedly on set by another employee despite her objections, and claims by the Indian-Australian actor Sharon Johal that a fellow cast member repeatedly referred to her as “blackie” or “the black one” to other people on the set.
Johal also said she was subjected to regular impersonations of the Indian cartoon character Apu from The Simpsons, a character its creator, Hank Azaria, apologised for earlier this week, saying he believed his portrayal of Apu had contributed to “structural racism” in the US.
Rae said the allegations over the past week of racist and discriminatory behaviour on the Neighbours set were a catalyst for industry-wide change to make screen workplaces safer and more inclusive.
“These reports highlight that there is a fundamental issue within the power structures of our industry,” she said.
“To change the screen culture there must be clear and safe processes for dealing with incidents that are transparent and ensure that all members of screen sets, including management, are held to account.”
Rae said at the very minimum, Australian screen productions should be ensuring all workers were taken through anti-racism, sexual harassment and discrimination training and inductions.
“This is standard practice in the US,” she said.
Careers at risk
Hii said there was a lack of understanding in the industry about the challenges actors from diverse backgrounds faced, even when they did summon the courage to call out offensive behaviour from fellow cast and crew members.
“This kind of behaviour does exist in the industry and we do need to call it out, but it’s so important that when people do come forward that they don’t feel like they are alone,” he said.
“It’s a really terrifying thing to do to speak your truth to power, because of that fear of a backlash or you might be blacklisted or labelled difficult and end up losing work because of it.”
Hii said since graduating from Nida more than a decade ago, as an Australian of Chinese-Malaysian background he had endured more examples of “complete ignorance” than overt racism.
“In audition room after audition room I was being called on to put on an Asian accent, without even any details of what type of ‘Asian’ accent’ that might be,” he said.
“It’s still a case in Australia the only time [a character of non-Anglo appearance] can exist on our screens is if they’re playing some kind of a cultural stereotype.”
For male actors of Asian backgrounds, Hii said that invariably meant roles as “gambling addicts or IT nerds” on Australian television.
He was once invited to audition for the role of a Thai ‘lady boy’ where the transgender character was the butt of the show’s humour.
A written statement issued earlier by Fremantle said the company did “not tolerate behaviour that does not align to our Anti-Discrimination, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), Harassment & Bullying Policy” and that the company took “all complaints very seriously, investigating all allegations fairly and thoroughly”.