SBS CEO Michael Ebeid gave a revealing insight into the workings of the network’s newsroom last night, in a public conversation about leadership.
Asked by the St James Ethics Centre’s Dr Simon Longstaff about values, he related a story about the importance of making sure that employees’ personal values “aligned with the corporate values”.
“Two weeks ago a politician rang and said that he’d given an interview to an [SBS] journalist who said that he wanted to talk about ‘ABC’.” But in fact the journalist had asked questions about “DEF”, he said.
“It was a great interview, but it was not obtained the right way. I rang the politician back and told him we would not be putting it to air. If I had not done that, the politician would not have given us another interview.”
Would the ABC have pulled an interview at the behest of a politician? Aren’t they fair game?
Ebeid is no stranger to controversy, telling the audience that SBS had had to weather public outcries over a documentary on Pauline Hanson, and an extended interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
“It’s very important that we don’t tell the audience how to think,” he said, adding that “the outrage brigade will always be outraged — and they are all on Twitter.”
Ebeid, a business graduate, worked at IBM, Optus and the ABC before SBS. He told the audience that leadership had changed over the past 30 years from a “command and control” model to one of coaching and inspiring people.
When he became CEO in 2011, each area of the network — the newsroom, marketing, television, radio and engineering — had its own distinct culture, he said. In all departments, accountability was not a high priority and there was a sense of entitlement to a job. The CEO said he made it a priority to change the culture of SBS to make it more accountable — going so far as to draw a blue line around the walls of the main meeting room. From that, the staff now describe actions as being “above the line” or “below the line” he said — meaning that they accorded with company values.
The self-confessed technophile told the staff that they had to upgrade themselves to a digital world and that journalists had to file radio, television and online reports. He offered training and courses to all staff so that they could acquire the necessary skills.
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Ebeid said he knew that he was sailing into some headwinds; people were already switching off broadcast television and streaming services such as Netflix Stan and Presto were on the horizon. “I wanted to make sure we were relevant in the future.”
The 50-year-old chief executive said he didn’t want to show content that could go on the ABC or commercial networks. “As at June 30, we can see that our audience numbers are up and we are the only network that has increased. It’s not about ratings, it’s about more people engaging with us every month.”
Ebeid was born in Egypt and came to Australia when he was three. He is very proud of SBS’ diversity; 51% of the employees and 47% of the leaders are female, 48% speak a language other than English at home and 13% identify as LGBTI.
Changing any organisation is never easy and there has been public criticism. In recent years, there has been a series of leaks from the network about an alleged push for less serious news items, the hiring of more Caucasian journalists in the newsrooms and allegations of workplace bullying. In addition, a bill that would have allowed the network to increase advertising was rejected by the Senate amid heavy lobbying by the commercial networks. In 2015, sports reporter Scott McIntyre was sacked for sending out a series of incendiary tweets on Anzac Day questioning the morality of Anzac soldiers.
Asked last night about the issue, Ebeid said he couldn’t comment in detail about the case as it was subject to legal constraints. He did say that, in his opinion, there was no such thing as journalists having a public and private Twitter account. Journalists acquire their large Twitter followings through their jobs; sending controversial tweets can damage your brand as a journalist and, by association, the organisation, he said.
“An employer can ask, are you able to do your job in a way that you don’t do anything to damage the brand and in a way that the audience will respect you?” he said.
All freedom of speech comes with responsibility, he said. Anyone saying something that contradicted SBS’ values, code of conduct or principles, wouldn’t keep their job.
Finally, like all broadcasters, he couldn’t resist a dig at the ABC, saying that the SBS catch-up service, called SBS On Demand, now had 15 million views a month.
“And it costs us hardly anything. Compare that with ABC iView, which cost millions.”