As suspected, Stan Grant is abandoning SBS’s World News Australia after just one year to pursue ‘new challenges’ – rumoured to be a job at the World Bank. Having seen off the popular Mary Kostakidis, many viewers will liken his departure to a rat deserting a sinking ship having chewed a hole in the hull. But the blame for the loss of Australia’s most authoritative female newsreader lies not at Grant’s feet.
In fact Grant’s departure masks the real issue at SBS: the destruction of what was Australia’s finest free-to-air international news bulletin, which had been the flagship of SBS’s television content for more than two decades. SBS management – from the Howard Government-stacked board, through misguided Managing Director Shaun Brown to the clearly out-of-place News and Current Affairs chief Paul Cutler, formerly of CNN in Asia – must take the blame for this fiasco.
It’s now clear that the move from an acclaimed half hour bulletin that focused on international news to a more tabloid-style, hour-long program that included a ‘long form’ interview in the style favoured by CNN, was made for purely financial reasons. The insertion of three breaks in the new hour-long format was meant to boost SBS’s coffers by allowing the broadcaster to sell advertising space during what was one of its most highly rating programs. But, following the change of format early this year, ratings for the 6:30 news – the second half of which now clashed with the ABC’s 7:00pm bulletin – fell by almost 20 per cent, from an already low 6.5 per cent to 5.4 per cent.
Despite growing public anger, falling ratings and disgruntled staff, SBS management remained intransigent. But reams of spin to the contrary can’t disguise the fact that SBS’s News and Current Affairs division is in a mess.
On the same day as Grant announced his departure, News and Current Affairs staff at the public broadcaster had a small victory in a protracted stand-off with management over the terms and conditions of their employment. After weeks of often acrimonious negotiations – and with only 24 hours to spare before the bulk of the division’s research and production staff were out of contract – SBS management backed down from its insistence that all staff be classified as ‘administrative’ and put on short-term Australian Workplace Agreements.
The attempt to force trained journalists onto a lower salary through a classification that ignored their qualifications, and to hire staff only for the duration of a program’s on-air season, left many of Australia’s most talented and hard-working journalists irate. With no security of employment for its journalists beyond the short term contracts offered season to season, and no recognition that the work of journalists involves ethical obligations and professional commitment beyond that of clerical workers, the integrity of SBS’s role as a public broadcaster would have been seriously compromised.
In the end, the combined force of SBS’s principled News and Current Affairs staff overcame the myopic, commercial view of management. Speaking off the record earlier this week, SBS journalists were relieved to have been put back on Certified Periodic Agreements that restored their journalistic classification and right-to-leave loading and other remunerative rights, but remained furious that the mind-set of management was so clearly antithetical to the principles and purpose of public broadcasting: to put the public interest ahead of commercial or political interests
This remains the central problem at SBS. Having just emerged from 11 years of a socially conservative, economically neo-liberal Government, it’s a wonder SBS remains in existence at all. The board ensconced by Howard and his cronies, as I have noted before, has virtually no public sector experience and a tenuous connection with Australia’s multicultural and non-English speaking communities. The management that board has put in place lacks both an understanding of SBS’s original role and purpose, and a commitment to the principles that underpinned its creation almost 30 years ago.
Perhaps the loss of such high-profile staff might finally awaken those commercial media professionals and financial gurus now in charge at SBS to one very simple but powerful fact: no-one, perhaps apart from them, works at SBS for the money. Journalists and program makers are attracted to SBS because it espouses and embodies principles that they believe in as public sector media producers.
In closing, it’s gratifying to note the messages of support for SBS that were posted on the NewMatilda.com forum after the first installment of this article. Many correspondents, while expressing anger at the changes to advertising, rightly sang the praises of SBS’s Australian drama production which is going a long way to filling the gap left by the decline in production at the ABC. Certainly, dramas such as Remote Area Nurse, The Circuit and, most recently, East West 101, are outstanding television.
But even this success comes with caveats. Firstly, all the programs mentioned above were commissioned from the independent production sector by former head of SBS Independent (SBSi) Glenys Rowe, who left the job over a year ago – her replacement, Ned Lander, also quit last month and is yet to be succeeded. Secondly, all these programs were outsourced and produced by independent producers funded in part by SBSi. And thirdly, despite the high quality and obvious appeal of these programs, virtually no-one is watching them: The Circuit struggled to reach more than 200,000 viewers, and early ratings for East West 101 are not much better, while Australian light entertainment programs on the ABC, such as Spicks and Specks, The Chaser and Summer Heights High regularly broke the million viewer mark this year. This strengthens the argument that such programs are better placed on one national public broadcaster, thus bringing the reality of multicultural programming into the mainstream of Australian life.
All this raises real and complex questions about the future of SBS. One thing is certain: the current practice, of policy developed in reaction to the culture wars and in absence of a coherent political policy supporting the network’s charter to support and promote multiculturalism, cannot continue if SBS is to justify its ongoing public funding.
It’s 20 years since a review of SBS’s services was undertaken by the Hawke Government. That review led to the abandonment of the 1986 budget proposal to amalgamate SBS with the ABC.
It’s time for another. In the face of digital broadcasting, the at-a-mouse-click availability of international news and television content over the internet, and the changing face of multicultural Australia, a review of SBS and of the representation of cultural diversity in Australian media is long overdue. Only after a comprehensive, non-partisan and government-funded review of its charter, policy and practice – and relationship to the ABC – can SBS move confidently into its fourth decade of operation.
A review is, in fact, SBS’s only hope of resuming its previously unassailable position as Australia’s home of high quality, culturally relevant television.