Who Killed SBS?

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To say The SBS Story is hagiographic might be to overstate the matter — but not by much. Part-funded by the Australian Research Council as part of a linkage project with SBS, this book veers between genuine independent academic critique and the kind of slick corporate giveaway that could easily have been commissioned by SBS’s own marketing department.

This is a shame for readers wanting to know why Mary Kostakidis really resigned, why David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz fled to the ABC or how many millions SBS spends on Top Gear. Nor will it enlighten industry insiders seeking to know why all those who might have once challenged the direction taken by Managing Director Shaun Brown have resigned, retired or not had their contracts renewed.

It is certainly a world away from acerbic potboilers like Who Killed Channel 9? by Gerald Stone, who is Deputy Chairman of SBS — although one cannot imagine Stone writing with similar frankness about SBS. The decline of multicultural activism — or active multiculturalism — and the changes wrought by Board appointments under the Howard government not only mean that SBS has been dramatically tamed but also that the language available to analyse it has become constrained.

This is regrettable for its three authors, especially Ien Ang, whose solid credentials in the field of multicultural research are long established.

To be fair, the authors do attempt to illuminate the role SBS plays in Australian public life with, if not a spotlight, then at least the warm glow of theory. They argue that since the 1970s Australia and SBS have experienced three waves of multiculturalism. The first was "ethnic" and largely focused inwards on the needs of migrant communities. The second, "cosmopolitanism", flourished in the 1990s as the broadcaster captured shared experiences of diversity with catchphrases like "the world is an amazing place". We now live in a third era of "popular multiculturalism": comfortable, blended and so pervasive that it needs no name.

Of course, those who still think multiculturalism is important might not think much of this latter multiculturalism-lite. The authors do acknowledge the three versions of multiculturalism have existed less as serial ideologies than as competing contemporary strands, with some ascendant while others are in decline. They also recognise that for some — perhaps the new and isolated migrants least served by multiculturalism-lite — there is still the need for practical support from institutions such as SBS.

Unfortunately, Ang and her co-authors tend to recite the SBS dogma that its radio language programs cater for migrants through old-style ethno-multiculturalism while SBS TV — the child that ate the parent — embodies popular multiculturalism.

This argument was born with SBS TV in the early 1980s, but where it differs today — and what has finally made SBS anathema to many of its traditional supporters — is in the unilateral reinterpretation of the SBS Charter by Brown and his Board. The corporation’s many critics argue that Brown’s blinkered emphasis on serving "all Australians" ignores the other 193 words of the Charter which speak of the original multiculturalism — whether "ethnic" or "cosmopolitan". Further, to claim that SBS Radio still serves the needs of new migrants with poor or no English overlooks the fact that, under Brown, radio has been consigned to the backwaters of the corporation, internally and publicly.

Unhappily, this book serves SBS viewers no better. It does not examine exactly why the Board, headed by Howard favourite Carla Zampatti, has failed for eight years to gain "any significant increase in base funding". And for media pundits and would-be advertisers there is no proper explanation of why, after almost 30 years and with occasional flashes of brilliance such as East West 101, SBS TV still flounders in the ratings with only a five per cent share — or one in 20 people — of the main metropolitan markets. One should, however, marvel at Brown’s capacity for spin; he really is a glass "1/20 full" optimist rather than a "19/20 empty" realist.

Even for the hardcore SBS loyalists — those the authors call "ethnics and eggheads" — the fact that no-one with clear ethnic community credentials is now sitting on the Board is barely mentioned. Nor is there any proper discussion of why SBS introduced ads into the middle of programs or what funding alternatives might have been tried had the much respected Sir Nicholas Shehadie still chaired the Board.

These are issues at the heart of the opportunity missed. Most organisations depend on the calibre of those who lead, on their actions and interactions, but nowhere in The SBS Story is there any hard-headed critique of the individuals in charge. It is as if SBS runs on ideology alone, untouched by human hands. It would have been fascinating to hear from ex-Board directors like former Fujitsu Australia Chairman Neville Roach, academic Dr Amar Galla or actor Peter Carroll, all voices of dissent now gone. Now they would have real stories to tell.

The SBS Story could have been so much sharper, so much more valuable to the debate about our media and Australian identity. And to be charitable, one suspects the generally laudatory tone owes less to pressure from SBS than to the authors’ unwillingness to provide ammunition to conservative critics such as Andrew Bolt and Paul Sheehan, who have called for SBS to be closed down. Better a leaky SS SBS limping across the watery wastes of Australian commercial broadcasting than no SBS at all.

Only towards the end do the authors briefly bare their teeth, to question whether, after all the eulogising, everything the SBS Board and management have done has actually benefited the broadcaster and the society it is meant to serve.

But by then it’s too late.

Weighed down by panegyric quotes from the more than 60 current and former employees interviewed over three years, leavened only by a sprinkling of gainsayers like community broadcaster George Zangalis — "the love affair [with SBS]has come to an end" — the book sinks under the dead weight of SBS self-satisfaction, its authors dragged down and finally, with one despairing wave, submerged.

The SBS Story: The Challenge of Cultural Diversity by Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy (UNSW Press: 2008)

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