Death of the multicultural broadcaster


At a congress in Wollongong last weekend, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) celebrated its quarter century. In October this year, SBS Television will mark its own 25th anniversary. It might be said that the two organisations are the twin offspring of Australian Multiculturalism. If so, we’re in the grip of a serious case of sibling warfare.

Over the past 25 years, FECCA and SBS TV have supported and nurtured one another, contributing to a modern, multicultural Australian identity of which we should all be proud. Recently, however, there has been tension between the two organisations, driven by SBS Television’s apparent decline in commitment to Multiculturalism in programming policy and practice.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

FECCA has been openly critical of recent developments at SBS Television. However, it is becoming clear that aiming fire at SBS Television itself is ineffective, inadequate and unfair.

As a publicly funded broadcaster, subject to the forces of politically driven decisions on funding and policy from the government of the day, SBS in 2005 operates in an environment increasingly hostile to its original purpose and charter.

The Howard Government has altered the composition of SBS’s board radically, and the changes wrought by this, together with the atmosphere of the broader political environment in which SBS must compete for funding, are largely responsible for the shift in on-air programming and the apparent decline in multicultural content on SBS TV.

In 1983, when the new Hawke Government created the first SBS Board, it was to have only ‘ethnics’, in the terminology of the day, with just one Anglo-Australian member, to represent the broadcasting industry. That philosophy guided government appointments throughout the Hawke-Keating era. The Howard Government has taken a decidedly different approach.

The SBS Board of 2005 is almost entirely made up of Anglo-Australian, American or British media and financial sector professionals, with the exception of Joseph Elu and Chairman Carla Zampatti. Apart from Zampatti, the last member of the board from a non-English speaking background was former Deputy Chairman Neville Roach.

Roach was also Chairman of the Council for Multicultural Australia until he resigned in protest at the Howard Government’s refugee policies in January 2002. His second, two-year term on the SBS board expired in August 2003, and he was not re-appointed.

Roach’s replacement was Christopher Pearson, a former speechwriter for, and noted public supporter of, Prime Minister John Howard.

The new-look SBS Board evinces vast experience in commercial media and financial management, but precious little understanding of the role and purpose of a public broadcaster, with obligations to reflect public policy and social goals – in this case, the policy of Australian multiculturalism.

SBS’s decision to compete with the ABC for broadcast rights to The Ashes test series, which will begin screening during prime time on SBS Television next month, highlights the problem. The Ashes is a bastion of Anglo-Australian tradition, and a cornerstone of the mono-cultural Australia that SBS was created to challenge, if not displace.

SBS no longer operates in terms of multicultural and ethnic minority programming. Instead, it is focused on reflecting Australian society back to itself, in all its diversity. This sounds admirable, but it is dangerously self-immolating, suggesting as it does that SBS’s work in fostering a culturally diverse society has been done.

The goals now espoused by SBS are argueably very similar to those contained in the ABC charter.

It is the growing resemblance between Australia’s two public broadcasters that is the most dangerous development for the future of SBS. After all, can the ongoing, public funding of two separate public broadcasters, with comparable charters and increasingly similar programming, be justified in a nation of around 20 million people? The obvious answer is no.

An item in yesterday’s Crikey bulletin asked exactly this question, referring to The Ashes broadcast as yet further evidence of SBS’s growing irrelevance, Sasha Uzunov suggested that ‘Perhaps the time has come for some form of inquiry into the viability and diversity of SBS for both the Coalition government and the ALP opposition to adopt a bipartisan policy on merging SBS with the ABC. After all, we are all Australians, regardless of our origins.’

One increasingly vocal critic of Howard’s Australia, Malcolm Fraser, whose Government established SBS Television in 1980, warned in 2003 that ‘Given half a reason, this government will say œSBS has served its purpose , and save money by abolishing it’.

Unfortunately, it’s all too likely that our current federal government is determined to undermine SBS to the point at which it is no longer a viable or justifiable expense for the Australian taxpayer. The increasing sameness of SBS has the real potential to destroy vested interest in, and support of, the network as a necessary public institution.

By traducing its original purpose, undermining its ideals and reducing its distinctiveness to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the ABC, or even from commercial television, the Howard Government is driving SBS so far from its original purpose that it could conceivably be quietly disbanded and absorbed into the ABC with little complaint, or even notice, from the public.

But by turning its fury on SBS rather than the federal government, FECCA and other vested critics of SBS are playing a dangerous game, and possibly right into the government’s hands. After all, if the organisation can no longer rely on the support of the ethnic communities that have been its champions for so long, who will speak up for SBS when the bell tolls?

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