james taylor
SBS managing director James Taylor (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

A long overdue conversation about racial and cultural diversity is slowly washing through the Australian media.

And SBS, the multicultural broadcaster, where diversity is baked into the charter, is the latest news organisation to apparently fail the test.

Yesterday, several non-white journalists recounted experiences of racism and microaggressions at the broadcaster. An image, which spread like wildfire over social media, suggested an overwhelmingly white leadership team, more evidence that the country’s multicultural broadcaster may have a real diversity problem.

Journalists speak out

In a series of widely-shared Twitter threads, Indigenous writer Kodie Bedford recounted years of racism, workplace bullying and microaggressions during her time at SBS.

Bedford said Indigenous reporters were made to undergo additional grammar training, had their accents criticised, and their articles and scripts edited line by line in front of them.

“We felt like dopey blackfellas in the corner, ticking boxes,” Bedford wrote. 

Other non-white journalists recounted negative experiences at SBS. Guardian Australia podcast host and former SBS Indigenous cadet Laura Murphy-Oates recounted experiencing racialised comments about her voice, toxic managers, and a news and current affairs leadership team that was entirely white.

Several other journalists raised examples of microaggressions in their interactions with SBS.

The unbearable whiteness of leadership

In a speech delivered late last year, SBS managing director James Taylor hit out at a lack of diversity across the media sector.

“As a media industry, we need to move away from a tick-box approach of inserting diversity into stories, and instead focus on sharing more nuanced stories that simply reflect the diversity we experience in our lives every day,” Taylor said.

In a separate address, he took a subtle dig at the ABC’s own recent diversity push, which he called “a bit of noise”. The subtext was clearly that the ABC was finally catching up.

But while 40% of staff at the broadcaster speak a language other than English at home, there are concerns this diversity isn’t being reflected at more senior levels. 

As Bedford’s threads were picking up traction, writer Michelle Law, who is an outspoken critic of the whiteness of Australia’s media and culture sectors posted a picture of the SBS leadership.

All the faces appear to be white.

According to the SBS charter, the broadcaster must “contribute to the overall diversity of Australian broadcasting and digital media services”.

But former SBS CEO and managing director Michael Ebeid, the first person from a non-European background to take the helm, urged caution before calling out a lack of diversity in leadership.

“Diversity is not always about colour, and if you look at the leadership team, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of country backgrounds,” Ebeid told Crikey.

Ebeid pointed to Taylor’s Italian heritage, and chief financial officer Nitsa Niarchos, who is of Greek background, as examples of cultural and linguistic diversity on the leadership team.

Ebeid also urged critics of the broadcaster to look at the content it was producing and the unique stories that were being told.

“Look at the stories they’re running, look at the evening news,” Ebeid said

“Just because you don’t have somebody of colour, doesn’t mean you can’t put together an awesome drama series or news story.”

However UTS emeritus professor Andrew Jakubowicz, a former SBS board member, said there had always been tensions between the SBS Board and management about diversity issues.

Ultimately, Jakubowicz believes a lack of non-white people in SBS’ upper echelons had helped entrench a lack of diversity in leadership. 

“Management tends to reproduce itself because it feels comfortable with people it understands and knows,” Jakubowicz says

“To change an organisation, the people who make decisions have to feel the issues. Until that community around the table making the decisions is diverse, the decisions aren’t going to be diverse.”

Does SBS need to do better on diversity? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.