The country’s peak multicultural body’s supportive submission on the SBS ad averaging bill has been called into question, with an SBS viewers’ group highlighting the financial support that the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia receives from SBS. But the group dismisses suggestions financial pressure was placed on it to support the bill, and says SBS’ sponsorship was minimal.

In its submission to a bill that would allow SBS greater flexibility in how it uses its 120 minutes of advertising a day, FECCA said it supported the proposal. (The bill would allow SBS to double its ads in prime time provided it aired fewer ads at other hours.) FECCA chairman Joe Caputo wrote:

“In view of the budget cuts, to commence 1 July 2015, FECCA supports the Bill — specifically Schedule 1 — that provides SBS with flexibility in scheduling advertising and sponsorship announcements on its broadcasting services … FECCA believes that the additional advertising revenue is necessary to ensure that the role of SBS in supporting multicultural communities is not diminished following the SBS funding reduction.”

The position came as a surprise to many within SBS and outside of the broadcaster, as FECCA was believed to be opposed to the advertising change and had previously stated its strong objection to funding cuts.

SBS viewers’ lobby group Save our SBS has pointed out that FECCA receives sponsorship from SBS. The broadcaster’s 2014 report describes SBS as the “major sponsor” of FECCA’s 2013 Breaking down the Barriers conference. The exact amount of sponsorship is not delineated in the SBS annual report, but FECCA’s 2012 annual report — the last updated to its website — shows that it received $51,000 in sponsorship for the conference.

SBS has been strongly pushing for the advertising flexibility. In its own submission, it says a failure to pass the bill will force it to cut into programming to make up for the funding shortfall. It also tables two studies it commissioned on the impact of greater advertising flexibility. These are a rebuttal to the commercial networks, which fear SBS ad averaging would amount to an unacceptable incursion on their revenues (SBS says the potential gains will be limited to $4.1 million in the first year).

SBS has been lobbying senators in recent months to support the passage of the bill. Save our SBS has also been on a lobbying trip to Canberra, accompanied by public broadcasting advocate and former ABC (now SMH) senior journalist Quentin Dempster, to rally opposition to the proposal.

However, FECCA chairman Caputo said SBS’ sponsorship of the conference hadn’t been considered when forming the submission. Asked whether SBS had met the group to discuss the proposal, and whether this had influenced the organisation’s position, Caputo said “the recommendation was influenced solely by our analysis of the proposed amendments”.

“FECCA has consistently expressed its disappointment over the major budget cuts to SBS. We are concerned about the implications such cuts will have on the content of the broadcaster. While we prefer the government reinstate the funding (as we have communicated through numerous submissions), we don’t see any prospects of any such move, in view of the budget savings measures pursued by the government,” he said.

Caputo said a discussion paper from the Department of Communications was pivotal to FECCA’s support of the bill. “The [department’s] analysis was carefully considered when preparing the response,” he said. “FECCA follows a process for any representations, and the process for this submission was no different.

“FECCA does not receive any grants or other assistance from SBS,” Caputo added.

Asked whether FECCA should have disclosed the sponsorship from SBS, he said the broadcaster was one of several dozen sponsors of the festival, and that much of its support was provided “in-kind”.

“We maintain our independence and impartiality, and either conference or ongoing [government] funding we receive has absolutely no impact on our positions and representations,” he said.

Save our SBS president Steve Aujard has in a statement expressed his disappointment with FECCA over the submission:

“It is distressing to see both the SBS Board and apparently FECCA roll over on a strategy that can only destroy SBS’ raison d’etre. There seems to be a hidden agenda here. A fully commercial SBS can be privatised in future years. The legacy of the late Malcolm Fraser to build SBS as an inclusive media for all ethnicities in our now polyglot country would be destroyed with such an eventuality.

“We’re urging all senators to hold the line against this coercion by a compliant SBS Board and FECCA — and note that SBS was a ‘main sponsor’ of FECCA.”

More than 61,000 people have signed a Save our SBS petition opposing the government’s bill to allow more ads to air in prime time on SBS. SBS counters this in its submission with research it conducted of 1100 mostly SBS viewers, which revealed 73% said they “would prefer SBS to offer the same amount of unique and distinctive Australian content, funded by slightly more advertising in some time-slots and offset by less advertising in other slots” over maintaining “the current advertising quota with negative impact on local programs and services”.

Peter Fray

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