A Boost For Diversity At SBS


Senator Stephen Conroy may have allowed himself a sigh of relief when he received the selection report from the expert panel tasked with choosing two new board directors for SBS.

While the decision to recommend recently retired Channel 10 executive Bill Lenehan is a little hard to understand, the choice of Dot West is inspired.

West is an Indigenous TV professional from Western Australia, a former member of the now-superseded National Indigenous TV Board, and a woman one source from the days of an independent NITV calls "a calming influence" in an industry sector alive with competing interests, as exposed by both the Watson and Stevens reviews.

She was a member of the original NITV Board from the days when it was a stakeholder body representing the disparate interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Australia's Indigenous media. She had the personality and the reputation to both represent remote communities and broadcasting and to bring a wider vision to NITV's evolving task, though she eventually left to return to Indigenous broadcasting in the Kimberley and Pilbara region such as Goolarri Media in Broome where she had been a very hands-on content maker and media manager.

To bring West back in as the Indigenous member of the SBS Board therefore satisfies a number of requirements.

She is a broadcasting professional with practical experience in production and management, widely respected in both Aboriginal and broadcasting circles. There may have been other candidates from NITV but most of them would have come with baggage perhaps too heavy for SBS to handle, particularly if they tried to claim special privileges over the new SBS Indigenous channel.

The SBS board under former chairman Carla Zampatti and former managing director Shaun Brown successfully stripped the broadcaster of older, wiser hands who could challenge decisions from a position of experience. It is probable the current Managing Director Michael Ebeid is relieved that he will not have to deal with an Indigenous director who can claim to "represent" the old NITV. West brings experience but no representative status, a win-win for the multicultural broadcaster.

Of course, simply appointing an Indigenous director to the SBS Board after a hiatus of several years will not itself cut much ice with Aboriginal Australia. What community leaders and activists will be watching for is evidence that the appointee has a visibly positive effect on SBS's responsibilities to Indigenous communities, both on-screen and off, once they start broadcasting on SBS Channel 4 on 12 December.

Initial indications are that West is probably one of the best people able to pull that off, with the added bonus that she is competent to negotiate the highly sensitive — and managerially charged — issue of the relationship between the Indigenous board director and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander managers and program makers of the new SBS channel.

The relatively new Director of Television and Online Content, ex-BBC executive Tony Iffland, will most certainly not want any board directors interfering with his staff, but it is equally important that there be some real relationships between the content-makers of the Indigenous channel and the only person on the SBS board with any real experience in and knowledge of Australia's First People. If Dot West can provide that link and be a mentor of sorts, SBS will benefit enormously.

Conroy must therefore have thanked his lucky stars when his relatively new independent Nomination Panel for the boards of the ABC and SBS under Ric Smith put forward West's name. Indeed, his statement on her appointment gushed: "Her comprehensive experience in the broadcasting industry, her strong management skills and her deep understanding of Indigenous issues will make her an asset to the SBS Board."

One suspects, however, that he might have taken longer to see the value of the second recommendation, Bill Lenehan. It is a choice which will puzzle many observers. Despite the Minister's statement lauding his resume as "Chairman of Digital Broadcasting Australia, Chairman of Queensland Harness Racing and… a Director of the National Australia Day Council", on the face of it there is little connection between Australia's national multicultural broadcaster and a retired general manager from Channel Ten in Brisbane and Sydney with connections to horse racing.

But that is old thinking, harking back to the days of SBS's creation and its early years of providing multicultural and multilingual services to an increasingly diverse and engaged Australian society. John Howard's 10 years in government put an end to that notion, downgrading multiculturalism to a side-issue and stripping SBS of a role unique in world broadcasting.

Under Howard-appointees Zampatti and Brown, the multicultural broadcaster went increasingly mainstream and ever-more commercial, abandoning large swathes of its charter responsibilities for radio and television and their audiences without picking up significantly larger audiences or government funding.

The current Chairman, financier Joseph Skrzynski, has tried to rectify that to some extent and the Minister has helped by replacing the old Howard board with a much more multicultural cross-section of Australian society. Incrementally his appointments have brought back cultural diversity — to include Skrzynski himself, Ebeid, Bulent Hass Dellal, Elleni Bereded-Samuel and now Dorothy West — and a younger, less ideological and more gender-balanced board with Jacqueline Hey, Daryl Karp and Patricia Azarias, the latter now ironically the last-surviving member of the early Howard board.

This "re-balancing" has given Conroy the freedom to appoint someone like Bill Lenehan and while it cannot be seen as an inspired appointment, it is at least not unreasonable, gives Queensland a voice on the board and is not blatantly ideologically driven.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lenehan's appointment — if there is one — is how he will relate to Ebeid and fellow SBS director's with TV content credentials such as Daryl Karp and now Dot West.

It was well known that there was a degree of tension on the Zampatti board between then managing director Brown, who was a journalist with senior management experience in New Zealand, and board member Gerald Stone, a former executive producer who had strong opinions on how a national television network should be run without having Brown's background in senior management.

Although Lenehan retired several years ago and doesn't have Stone's TV production experience, and while Ebeid is light on programming credentials, having come to SBS from the off-air side of the ABC, it will be interesting to see how Ebeid copes with two new directors with at least some significant knowledge of television.

SBS may not be the organisation it once was but it continues to live in what the Chinese might call "interesting times".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.