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SBS seeks ABC-style independence (and a $20 million loan)

With the ABC under pressure from the government, SBS wants to have the same level of independence. Bernard Keane and Farz Edraki on an FOI investigation by Crikey.

As the Coalition attacks the ABC’s independence, SBS is seeking to free itself from government direction and shift to the same level of freedom from government control as the ABC.

In correspondence to new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull last October — obtained by Crikey under freedom of information laws — then-SBS chairman Joseph Skrzynski and managing director Michael Ebeid sought Turnbull’s support for legislative amendments that would move SBS to the same level of independence as the ABC …

The ABC is explicitly not subject to government direction except in the specific case of a requirement to broadcast items in the national interest. But for nearly 20 years, SBS, while not subject to direction in relation to program content or scheduling, has been subject to direction on “prescribed matters” and in particular subject to “general policy orders” from the minister for finance.

Last year, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 replaced the traditional framework for governments agencies — split between the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act and the Financial Management and Accountability Act  — with a single framework. SBS sought Turnbull’s support for consequential amendments to the PGPA Act, currently being developed by the Department Finance, to remove SBS’ subjection to the “general policy orders” requirement of the old CAC Act. Skrzynski told Turnbull:

There is no good public policy reason why the two national broadcasters should be subject to different levels of independence and it is important that the difference which has existed since 1995 is finally corrected.”

As it is Mathias Cormann’s portfolio that is developing the PGPA amendments and not his own, Turnbull was able to handball the issue. His office told Crikey:

The consequential amendments relating to the PGPA Act are being developed by the Department of Finance in consultation with agencies, including the SBS. SBS is already editorially and creatively independent of Government.”

SBS didn’t want to say too much. A spokesperson said:

SBS is engaged in the PGPA Bill inquiry process, which from our perspective has been a constructive consultation process. We are availing ourselves the opportunity to contribute to the formation of the rules like all other agencies.”

The PGPA amendments process is expected to be completed toward the middle of the year.

SBS had more luck getting support for a $20 million loan needed to defray the cost of covering this year’s World Cup from Brazil, starting in June, asking for Turnbull’s support for a short-term loan from this week until the end of the financial year. SBS had already been in talks with the Department of Finance about the loan, doubtless pointing out that they expected to earn around $25 million in advertising from the Cup (the broadcaster spent around $30 million to secure the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Cups in 2004).

While the letter seeking the loan is heavily redacted, Ebeid appears to suggest SBS would have to cut into its normal operations to fund its Brazil coverage without the loan. The loan was provided in additional estimates in February.

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  • 1
    wilful
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ve increasingly come to the view that SBS TV is a load of bollocks. Why are taxpayers paying for third rate docos on Hitler’s diaries? Vikings is a great show, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be shown on a commercial channel. Apart form world news, and multi-language stuff during the day, SBS serves no real purpose. Merge it with the ABC!

  • 2
    Raaraa
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    @1

    Are you kidding me? Most of my favourite shows are on SBS. Who else would bring some of the International shows that come in? Remember Top Gear before it was butchered by Nine? Mad Men, The Returned, Tour de France, plus a number of shows from China, Japan and other parts of the world. I remembered once when one of the commercial station took the Russian movie, Day Watch and destroyed it by dubbing it in English.

    If SBS didn’t take these shows, nobody would, or if they did, took the popular hits and showed the dubbed version.

  • 3
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I’d have thought the “multi-language stuff” was integral to SBS’s remit, @wilful. As for “Vikings” not being on a commercial channel, it’s unlikely SBS outbid them for it, so clearly the commercials didn’t want it.
    And why merge SBS with the ABC when you could go the whole hog and sell it to Murdoch? Then Australians who prefer to get their news and information in their native tongues would have access to the truth, instead of “a load of bollocks”.

  • 4
    Guy Francis
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    lets be honest,the current form of govt we have and have had for the last decade or more are increasingly less inclined to criticism,and our media have become more and more partisan in one way or another,the abc may have something to answer for being more to the left,but considering how to the right the general media is atm,it at least creates some balance

  • 5
    Guy Francis
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    oops,i missed saying sbs is a wonderful station that many coutries should be envious of,it may be the best tv station in the world

  • 6
    JohnB
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Adding to Raaraa’s list…

    Eurovision Song Contests - though once per year is enough.

    Many news and current affairs programs in many languages, frequently much more interesting than Fox or Australian commercial news programs.

    Like it or not, Soccer, The World Game (football, to some).

    Some delightful Scandinavian crime shows: The Eagle, Unit One, The Killing, The Bridge.

    On the other hand, I don’t value highly the annual New Years’ Eve “Dinner for two” re-run.

    Rockquiz.

    Their own World News every evening. Much more solid than can be found elsewhere.

    New Years’ Day concerts in Vienna, each year.

    My wife would add that SBS now airs more and better operas and ballet than does ABC.

    The list continues.

  • 7
    JohnB
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    And a host of food programs, Australian (Gourmet Farmer, anything by Luke Nguyen or Peter Kuruvita) and international (Two Greedy Cooks, Heston Blumenthal’s “Feasts”).

  • 8
    Raaraa
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    The emphasis on World News and news targeted at community groups is enough to justify SBS’s existence. I’m a bit tired of having to rely on the cyclical 24/7 news coverage offered by the other stations.

  • 9
    zut alors
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    SBS are also my most watched channels. The foreign films & drama series are of high standard, as is Al Jazeera news. Often on Saturday afternoons there are excellent arts documentaries hidden away in off-peak timeslots.

    I’m all for increasing the funding - despite the fact that sport & World Cups leave me cold.

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