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TV & Radio

Apr 4, 2014

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.

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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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