Do we really need SBS?

6/9/2005 6:34:56 AM

Does Australia really need to be serviced by two public broadcasters? Sasha Uzunov investigates the audience of SBS, 25 years on:

CRIKEY - Australia - The ABC's Chairman Donald Macdonald recently gave an elegant speech at the National Press Club in Canberra about where the public broadcaster was heading. Afterwards, as he fielded questions, reporters once again honed in on the thorny issue of whether the second public broadcaster, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), should exist.

Macdonald refused to be drawn on whether SBS was just duplicating a role the ABC is already performing. It's a pity – we all know that SBS will soon broadcast the Ashes Test cricket from England, normally the preserve of the Nine Network, a large commercial entity. SBS prides itself on being the voice and face of multicultural Australia. But do we really need it? Another question is have Australia's ethnic communities already moved into the mainstream of Australian society? Just look at the non-Anglo-Celtic surnames in our parliaments, favourite sporting teams or on mainstream television!

What is ironic about SBS is that it claims to serve multiculturalism. But that has to be questioned. Since its inception in 1980, SBS TV, then known as Channel 0-28, has had reporters and presenters from a wide variety of backgrounds, such as Greek, Italian, Croat, Serb, South American, Asian and so on.

In 25 years there has not been one reporter or presenter from Australia's sizeable Turkish and Macedonian communities. This is a remarkable statistic. Members of the Turkish and Macedonian communities claim that SBS TV marginalises them because the broadcaster fears the influence of the politically savvy Greek lobby. All of these ethnic groups do not get along because of historic tensions that have no place in peaceful Australia. SBS by playing favourites rather than showing toughness is in fact keeping these tensions alive.

Mark Boyd, SBS TV's News and Current Affairs Chief, says SBS doesn't discriminate nor does it have a quota system. But surely in 25 years, one Turk or a Macedonian would have broken through SBS's glass ceiling?

In its coverage of the Iraq War, SBS's Dateline program, the current affairs flagship of the network, has never given much coverage to the Assyrians, who are Iraq's indigenous people and also happen to be Christian. We hear daily about the plight of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs and the non-Arab Kurds in the north. But the Assyrians remain a forgotten people in their own land.

In 1990 popular SBS TV reporter Vladimir Lusic was removed from the current affairs program Vox Populi (Voice of the People) under mysterious circumstances. Lusic, who now lives in his native Croatia, told me a few years ago he was concerned about political interference at SBS from the then Communist Yugoslav government.

Perhaps the time has come for some form of inquiry into the viability and diversity of SBS. Maybe the time has come 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.

Mike Field, Deputy Marketing Manager, SBS, writes:

For 15 long years SBS has laboured under the yoke of the communist government of the former Yugoslavia. Thanks, Crikey, for breaking the news of our terrible secret to the world! Mr Uzunov's colourful submission is a marvellous if somewhat idiosyncratic read. For the record, according to the Bureau of Statistics, Australians come from around 200 different ethnic backgrounds. Logic dictates that not all of them will be equally represented at all levels within SBS. However only fans of conspiracy theories and disgruntled former employees would dispute that it's a thoroughly multicultural organisation that operates remarkably well despite Marshal Tito's best efforts.

Keep up the good work.

Sasha Uzunov replies to Mike Field:

Dear young Mike, I thank you for your response to my article "Do we really need SBS?" I was hoping for a refutation as to why SBS was duplicating what the ABC is already doing. As for Communist Yugoslav influence on SBS TV, why don't we have a Senate inquiry or a Royal Commission? You just don't know what they might find? Which people have been naughty and getting upto mischief at the tax-payers expence. Hmmm, sounds interesting. As for bias within SBS let's investigate that as well.

Sasha Uzunov

Freelance journalist