11 Jun 2010

Is Less News Good News?

By David Ingram
Could upcoming cuts to the newsroom staff at SBS actually be a sign that the broadcaster is getting back on track, asks David Ingram

It was never going to be easy putting the good ship SBS back on course.

Following hard on cuts to the multicultural broadcaster's world famous subtitling unit, the axe is falling on the TV network's other claim to fame: its news service.

News Director Paul Cutler sent an email to all his staff asking for a show of hands of those willing to take voluntary redundancy. He said numbers would be small and blamed the need to pump more money into the network's second digital channel, SBS TWO.

Information on these latest cuts is hard to come by — always a funny thing when you're dealing with a news organisation. A week after Cutler's email, the MEAA (Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance) was none the wiser about the cuts. They are hoping to learn more when they meet SBS management today.

If Cutler's email is to be believed, the cuts to SBS news and current affairs — known internally as Newscaff or NACA — will be smaller and less brutal than those which are set to reduce subtitling staff by more than 20 per cent. They are, however, no less significant.

They're less brutal because the market for unemployed English speaking journalists is far more forgiving than that which exists for jobless bilingual subtitlers. And they're significant because news and current affairs was the one function for which the SBS Executive, in their rush to boost ratings and revenue, continued to be most protective, as evidenced by the fact that they had survived most recent attempts at serious budget trimming.

While SBS management has defended itself against charges of mainstreaming at the expense of multicultural programming by pointing to such quality dramas as East West 101, Remote Area Nurse and The Circuit, these only ever represented a few hours of programming in an annual output of thousands. Ask any Australian what they know about SBS and beyond sexy foreign movies and sport — condensed by the wags to "Sex Before Soccer" — people will mention the international news service, even those who never watched it.

Under Shaun Brown, first as head of TV and then as managing director, Newscaff became voracious. It had long been the favoured child in the SBS family, but under the former journalist Brown it became insatiable.

As managing director, he implemented the decision of the Carla Zampatti Board to introduce in-program advertising. This decision was taken largely, it was explained, to fund an extended 6.30 pm news bulletin. This was duly launched in January 2007 — at the cost of the iconic World of Sport.

The 60 minute bulletin seemed ill-starred from the outset. Within months, the network's Madonna turned martyr: Mary Kostakidis quit as principal presenter — and she was followed soon after by her co-anchor Stan Grant.  Although World News remains credible, it has never set the media world alight and trails a poor fifth in the ratings behind the three commercial channels and the ABC.

There's now talk that SBS will revert to a 30 minute bulletin at 6.30 pm. Such a move would more likely be an element of a longer-term strategy than driven by any immediate need to save money.

If Cutler's email is to be believed, it is unlikely that viewers will see a significant change in the type of news output broadcast on SBS — and certainly not a change of the magnitude witnessed in the late 1990s when, in a bid to save $1 million a year, local news coverage was slashed.

There will be fewer journalists, maybe there will be fewer questionable overseas jaunts and more revoicing of foreign-sourced reports — but most informed observers think SBS Newscaff can survive with slightly fewer resources. One former executive producer who has been watching Newscaff closely for many years believes it is currently overstaffed for the programs it produces: commenting: "For one reason and another, [Newscaff] has been an area where pinching pennies while spending dollars seems to have been a way of life."

Behind the cameras, within the corporation's Sydney headquarters and Melbourne satellite studios, SBS TV in general — and Newscaff in particular — gobbled up resources.

Between 2005 and 2006, Brown restructured the organisation. This was ostensibly to improve cross-divisional cooperation and streamline operations — but effectively worked to feed SBS TV and Newscaff.

The multilingual radio division was largely dismembered; its two radio newsrooms and studio operations in Sydney and Melbourne — as well as its publicity, promotions and audience survey functions — were hived off to rejigged divisions headed by executives from TV. Somehow, the whole of SBS Radio's annual publicity and promotions budget, some $700,000, was taken and very little of it was used to promote radio.

Left with only half a division to manage, the corporation's chief multicultural asset, Quang Luu, resigned as head of radio after 17 years. He had clashed with Brown in late 2003 over the latter's attempt to introduce a WorldWatch news bulletin, Thoi Su, from Communist Vietnam. In July 2006. Luu left abruptly, just four days after announcing his retirement to his staff.

Which brings us back to the significance of the latest cuts to SBS Newscaff.

These cuts may be perhaps little more than nicks — to all but the handful of staff who'll lose their jobs — but the fact that they are being made to help fund the more multicultural, multilingual SBS TWO may be highly significant. It could well be another sign that the days of SBS's frantic mainstreaming under the Zampatti Board are well and truly over.

The recent swingeing cuts to SBS subtitling seem difficult to reconcile with a return to multiculturalism — but they both could fit the new realpolitik taking place under the new Chair, financier Joe Skrzynski. Money is short, commercial revenue is not filling the gap — so SBS needs to convince the government that it is thrifty and that it is serious about multiculturalism again in order to win extra taxpayer funding.

The Prime Minister and his Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, seem to be reading from the same script. Notwithstanding the puzzling reappointment of West Australian director Bob Cronin — one of Channel Seven owner Kerry Stokes' senior executives — the recent appointment of Dr Bulent Hass Dellal to the SBS Board was inspired.

The Turkish-born Hass Dellal not only brings the strongest multicultural credentials the SBS Board has seen in several years — even more impressive than Polish-born Skrzynski and the other Rudd appointee, Ethiopian Elleni Bereded-Samuel — but he is widely recognised and respected within multicultural Australia. Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation since 1989, Chairman of the Centre for Multicultural Youth, Chairman of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies Consultative Committee at Melbourne University, an Advisory Board Member on the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, a member of the Government's Australian Multicultural Advisory Council — the list is long and impressive.

Dellal is a thinker, an administrator and a canny political player, all qualities which will give Skrzynski a strong right arm in wrestling control of the SBS Board from the remnants of the Zampatti era — if that's what he is inclined to do.

And importantly, Dellal's appointment will bring credibility to the broadcaster — which is what SBS needs right now.

Even its most ardent admirers have lost faith in SBS in recent years: the Board and executive now need to work hard to re-establish trust.

And the big question is: are they up to it?

While Brown is saying the right things and working hard to fill the broadcaster's begging bowl, the recent fiasco over announcing redundancies in subtitling and the lack of transparency over the cuts to journalism jobs are both troubling. Brown and his executive will have to do a lot better if they are to repair SBS's traditional compact with its supporters, staff, audiences and paymasters.

If they do, then the funding drought may prove to be a temporary one. In appointing Skrzynski, Bereded-Samuel and Dellal, Conroy has sent SBS the clearest message possible that he's open to being convinced. If the Board and executive respond openly and honestly, Conroy may turn on the tap for the broadcaster, washing away the bad memories of recent years.

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David Grayling
Posted Saturday, June 12, 2010 - 07:55

I've noticed a fairly strong but usually subtle pro-Israeli bias on SBS. It's all in the language being used, like using the word 'incident' instead of 'atrocity' or 'massacre' to describe the attack on the Aid Convoy.

I'm not sure whether this is being driven by the journalists who work there or whether it's a result of the management trying to please their Jewish viewers. Or both. Resultantly, I watch a lot of Al Jazeera to bring some balance into ME reporting.

I do hope the mooted changes bring more balanced reporting especially where Israel, America, and the West in general is concerned.


Posted Sunday, June 13, 2010 - 17:36

Hi David
I can’t say I saw much evidence of an overall pro-Israel bias when I worked at SBS, but I no longer watch as much as I did so it could have changed. I have not generally been complimentary about the quality of management at SBS under Shaun Brown and their retreat from multiculturalism, but news judgment was never a key complaint from me.
Things must have changed a lot if SBS is now accused of being pro-Israel because when I worked there (till 2007) they were more usually accused of being anti-Israel, even antisemitic. The majority of complaints about program content concerning the Middle East came from pro-Israel organisations such as the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), either directly or through forums such as Senate Estimates Committees, and SBS journalists struggled against a common public perception they were anti-Israel in their news and current affairs coverage.
I happen to think the overriding issue is more to do with the way the media in Australia generally covers and comments on the Middle East, including the treatment of Arab or Muslim issues. It is usually a problem of poor quality journalism, and I’ve never felt SBS is the worst offender in this regard.

David Grayling
Posted Monday, June 14, 2010 - 09:50

I agree that SBS is not the worst offender given the biased offerings by media controlled by Fox News, David I.

But I do remember the time when SBS was the only television outlet that wasn't down on the Palestinians. This has changed.

Perhaps it has to do with funding needs given that Liberal and Labor Governments both demonstrate clear pro-Israeli bias.


Posted Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - 14:56

"There will be fewer journalists, maybe there will be fewer questionable overseas jaunts and more revoicing of foreign-sourced reports"

They will have to take "World News" out of their programs name.... they have hardly any correspondents left as it is... last thing i saw on Iraq from them was a recycled feel good piece about a dead soldiers family sending soccer balls to some village in Iraq. Awwwww... what a touching occupation... I used to love SBS's coverage... would never miss the show if i could help it... now there is no point... everything they cover is available better elsewhere free...

Posted Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - 18:09

Henry di Suvero

Ever since News Director Paul Cutler went on a trip to Israel several years ago sponsored and paid for by the NSW Board of Deputies, World News reporting on the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict has been heavily pro-Israel.

Last night's (14 June) news segment reporting an "Independent Internal Inquiry" to be conducted by Israel is just the latest in this pattern of uncritically presenting Israeli propaganda. You can't have an "INDEPENDENT" inquiry to one party's alleged misdeeds if it conducted by the very party being investigated. Unless of course you live in SBS's Animal Farm.

The two talking heads were both pro Israeli: an Israeli Minister and of course Israel's great advocate and supporter, Susan Rice, the USA's Ambassador to the UN. No one was shown who was opposed or critical of the Israeli action.

ABC didn't even carry the item--- it was not news that Israel was again to establish some mechanism to cover up an atrocity. The SMH of 15 June headlined its story as "Israel to hold own inquiry into raid" and led the story saying "Israel has flouted pressure for an independent international inquiry...."

Israel has an excellent public relations reach into the US and Australian media cultivated in part by bringing journalists like Paul Cutler to Israel and keeping up ties afterwards. The problem is that the viewer is given dose after dose of Israeli propaganda and it is all presented under the guise of an independent SBS.

Segment after segment is stacked with Israeli sourced material and no attribution is ever made of the source. Typically Mark Regev for the PM or Col (Ms) Leibovitz for the IDF will speak to mike, and hold forth spouting about "terrorism" at some length, with no factual material provided by either. Pure propaganda shoved down the throats of SBS viewers.

SBS News follows a pattern of breaking a news story from an Israeli
viewpoint, indoctrinating viewers with that first impression and then occasionally and later, presenting a contrary viewpoint.

The real answer is in sacking Paul Cutler, he is too compromised to continue in his position as News Director.

Posted Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 19:27

This issue has been clear to me now. This is really a complete explanation to how things have been running so far. - Aldo Disorbo