Our SBS insider, Les Murray-Pomerantz asks: What on earth
is happening to our public broadcasting utilities?

First we have the ABC cowering in its post-election bunkers. Now we
have SBS afraid of stepping on its own shadows — a zombie mist has
engulfed the St Leonards HQ of SBS, an organisation now surely in a
terminal stage.

The rot began when Lord Downer of Bagdad and his boss King Howard
stacked the board with their own zombies: Carla Zampatti, Gerald Stone
and Christopher Pearson.

Where once management and staff occupied the building, turning our a
solid mix of global current affairs and local niche programming,
zombie-like creatures now lurk the corridors of SBS.

Independent journalist John Martinkus is one of a handful of
full-blooded humans left at SBS. No wonder he earned the irk of our
fearless Lord Downer who got stuck into him from the comfort and safety
of the Golden Tonsil’s office.

Martinkus’s crime? Downer accused him of being in a place he was not supposed to be and “giving comfort to terrorists.”

One would have thought the SBS management would come out guns-blazing
to defend Martinkus, fresh off the plane from his ordeal at the hands
of his Iraqi captors.

But all we got was a half-hearted effort and a gag placed on him. Round one to the zombies.

For the record, when Martinkus was car-jacked and kidnapped he was
actually outside his hotel in Baghdad — directly across the road
from the Australian embassy.

And he did not give comfort to the terrorists. What he said was that
from the terrorists point of view there were reasons to kill some
hostages but no reasons to kill others — like him. In fact Martinkus made it clear he was appalled by such killings.

When the zombies took over SBS they installed a hotline from DFAT
directly to the offices of Phil Martin, the soon-to-depart director of
news and current affairs and Mike Carey, the EP of Dateline.

DFAT was monitoring the programs — a trick they picked up in Singapore
where the government there has full control of the media.

For months Martin lived in fear of the phone calls from DFAT. He was
hoping and praying for a regime change. But when that did not
eventuate, he quit his job two days after the election.

Martinkus is not the first journalist accused of being in a place he was not supposed to be.

Independent filmmaker Carmela Baranowska on assignment for SBS in
Afghanistan in June was also accused of similar crimes. Carey received
a call from DFAT’s hotline when the news broke that Baranowska had gone
missing for a few days. He was seen — lost in translation — agonising
for hours what to do. When Baranowska returned to Australia she was put
on the receiving end of the hot coals.

What is so wrong for being in a place you are not supposed to be? Isn’t
that what investitive journalism is all about: getting to the bottom of
the story, even if it means crossing a few trenches to do so?

From the despatches of William Howard Russell from the Crimea War, to
Wilford Burchard from Hiroshima, James Cameroon and Harrison Salisbury
from North Vietnam, there have been a long tradition of independent
journalists going to places they were not supposed to be.

If DFAT had its way, they would not travel north of the Brisbane line,
and we would only learn about those events through rose tinted glasses
in our history books.

Ironically Baranowska’s piece on Taliban Country, aired on Dateline, is a finalist in the IF ‘Glenfiddich Independent Spirit’ Awards.
It is also a finalist in the Asia Pacific Category and commended in the
Investigative Reporting Category of the Walkley Awards.

The airing of the program also resulted in the US Army and Marines
announcing inquiries into allegations of the humiliation and
brutalisation of Afghani detainees.

Is this the kind of journalism our government wants to stamp out?