The culture wars in the Australian Parliament are never more fierce than in Senate estimates hearings for ABC and SBS. SBS boss Michael Ebeid and ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie both faced down questions from senators in some, at times, fiery sessions yesterday.

Guthrie said “conversations” around redundancies announced in March had been going on with affected staff over the last few months, and had mostly occurred in support divisions. She said more “conversations” would be had with staff in content divisions (TV and news) over the next few days about restructures, including forced redundancies. She said the ABC was partway through the 120 jobs that will be cut.

She defended the ABC’s use of search engine marketing to promote its news — something that has particularly upset News Corp Australia and Fairfax.

“The national broadcaster should not be a scapegoat for the problems of others in the media,” she said in her opening statement, going on to say later that marketing made up about 0.2% of the ABC’s budget, and digital marketing only a fraction of that money. “The public expects the ABC to make its full breadth of content available to them, including digital.”

In her opening statement, she said she would announce today $2.9 million for arts, technology and science coverage, which would include nine new jobs. 

Predictably, Guthrie also faced questions from several conservative senators all about Yassmin Abdel-Magied and that Anzac Day post. She had to say multiple times that Abdel-Magied is a contributor not an employee, the post was taken down, she apologised before it was brought to the ABC’s attention, and she was told about ABC’s social media policy multiple times. But one after the other, questions persisted. John Williams, Pauline Hanson, Eric Abetz, and Malcolm Roberts all had a go.

Williams also questioned if it was “biased” for the ABC to advertise jobs for indigenous people only. Guthrie said it was for specific roles to meet targets. Williams said that a young lady in Sydney wanted to get into the ABC in regional Australia but couldn’t go for the job because she wasn’t indigenous. Hanson later asked whether identifying as an indigenous Australian was just a matter of “ticking a box”.

Both Hanson and Roberts — on the very same day Roberts’ staffer Sean Black was arrested on assault charges — claimed that public opinion of the ABC “isn’t very good”. Hanson then asked why Four Corners had targeted her recently for an episode on the party. Ludlam replied: “Because it looked like you broke the law”. Hanson demanded and received a withdrawal from Ludlam.

Hanson also asked about ABC’s 7.30 political correspondent Andrew Probyn’s revelation on Insiders about an upcoming trip to Afghanistan she was due to go on, which was subsequently cancelled. Editorial director Alan Sunderland said Probyn had not believed he was betraying any confidences, and there hadn’t been any evidence from the Defence Department that the slip was the reason the trip was cancelled.

Both Hanson and Roberts wanted to know how much Tony Jones is paid, but Guthrie said it is commercial-in-confidence (which has always been the ABC’s position). This was a change from their usual habit of asking for executive pay information that is already available in annual reports.

Abetz and Roberts were keen to know the ABC’s definition of various words. What is “fake news”? The ABC doesn’t have an official definition according to ABC’s head of editorial policy, Alan Sunderland. Abetz suggested that ABC News stories with errors in them that are corrected could be considered “fake news”. Just to round it out, Roberts complained about climate change coverage, and said he would be putting questions to the ABC on notice about “science”, and then questioned where the ABC was getting its science information from.

Roberts: On whose science does your organisation rely?

Sunderland: That question makes no sense to me, I’m sorry, Senator.

Roberts: It doesn’t?

Sunderland: No it doesn’t, I’m sorry, Senator.

Earlier in the day, when SBS was up, Abetz demanded to know all about Ebeid’s advocacy for marriage equality. Ebeid was one of dozens of signatures from CEOs on a letter put together by Australian Marriage Equality, which states they are signing it in a personal capacity. Ebeid said the issue was “important” to him, but Abetz said that it may be important to Ebeid but he is also on the public stipend. Abetz also complained about a freedom of information request filed that SBS had blocked for emails between Ebeid’s office and AME over the letter, wanting to know if Ebeid’s SBS signature block was on the emails, which were considered personal. When that avenue of inquiry was fruitless, he then asked whether Ebeid was comfortable with his job title being associated with him being identified as an LGBTI CEO in the AFR, in association with his “personal campaign to change [marriage] law”.

Ebeid: Every person in the country has a personal view on various issues. Just because I’m employed by SBS, doesn’t mean I have a lobotomy of my personal views … In my personal capacity I am more than entitled to have a personal view on a number of issues that I am free to do.

Abetz: I have not argued otherwise. All I am talking about is your role as a taxpayer-funded person using that position for your advocacy.

Hanson asked what SBS did to integrate migrants into Australia, and help them learn English. Ebeid said that there were guides available, but said that the government already offers a significant number of services to help new migrants to learn English, and it would be a duplication for SBS to undertake any such services.

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Peter Fray
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