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Whitewash? That’s not the colour of the SBS charter

Janice Petersen – one of the faces of World News Australia on SBS, which is facing accusations of ‘whitewashing’. SBS

Whitewash? That’s not the colour of the SBS charter

In commercial television you live or die by your ratings.

If viewers switch off, the advertisers go too. Consultants are ushered in, focus groups are formed and they will tell management what will stop them from reaching for the remote. Apparently they’re turned off by stories about the Middle East, Indigenous issues, refugees and ebola.

They want stories on fish oil and not the Ukraine.

It sounds like a scene from the 90s news parody Frontline but according to The Guardian this is SBS and what is in store for its flagship World News.

SBS is a hybrid commercial-public broadcaster and it faces a dilemma: ratings or charter responsibilities?

The SBS charter clearly states that the broadcaster should be:

meeting the communications needs of Australia’s multicultural society, including ethnic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

By inference, stories about Indigenous issues, refugees, the Middle East, Ebola and the Ukraine should be back in the bulletin.

So what is happening at SBS? The Australian newspaper recently accused its director of News and Current Affairs, ex-commercial television executive Jim Carroll, of “whitewashing” the reporting staff; of the 11 new hires under Carroll, all but three came from commercial networks and only two were from non-English backgrounds.

One of those new hires seems to have taken it personally and thereby totally missed the point.

Ellie Laing, on Mumbrella last week, bemoaned that being white should not exclude her from a job at SBS. Ellie – it doesn’t and this is not about you.

SBS has never employed people only on the basis of their colour – if it did it would never have engaged Paul Murphy, Jenny Brockie, Mark Davis, Kerry Brewster, Andrew Fowler, Greg Wilesmith … The list goes on.

They were attracted to SBS because of what it stood for and SBS employed them for their cosmopolitan and inclusive values. There may have been a time when there were few qualified media practitioners of non-Anglo backgrounds but this is not the case now.

Journalism schools are full of first-generation students that fit the SBS charter’s directive to “make use of Australia’s diverse creative resources” and “reflect the changing nature of Australian society, by presenting many points of view”.

Which brings me to the case of SBS journalism cadet Widyan Al-Ubudy.

SBS sources tell me they were shocked when they heard that management did not offer the Iraqi-born reporter a job upon the completion of her cadetship, late last year. The reason, reportedly, was budget contraints, which didn’t stop the station hiring two Anglo women in the same period – Brianna Roberts and Alyshia Gates.

Fluent in Arabic, Widyan Al-Ubudy came to Australia as a child refugee from Iraq. She graduated from Wollongong University with Honours; her thesis examined Muslim women’s media advocates post-9/11 and how they fared in influencing mainstream media.

She also built up a following among her peers as the presenter of SBS’s PopAraby radio show.

She writes on her Linkedin page, that her mother tongue “has proven an asset when sourcing talent for local and national stories.”

Her goals included “giving a voice to the voiceless” and being Australia’s first veiled news anchor".

SBS thought differently.

SBS has always been a niche broadcaster and it, like every other network, is suffering falling audiences in the light of the great media disruption. But its role is now more important than ever before.

When it began in 1978 as a radio network – one of its roles was to explain government services, such as Medibank, to Australia’s multicultural population in their own languages. Like the much undervalued ethnic media – this served to engage migrants with their new homeland and to help create a distinct ethnic Australian identity, one that has evolved from that of the home country.

But the internet and satellite television has changed all that.

Many new arrivals are not receiving their news through the prism of an Australian perspective. They are transnational citizens still engaged with their home countries via information disseminated from countries where they no longer reside. That does not bode well for Australian integration and our multicultural foundation.

At its most alarming, this is evidenced by the number of young Muslims who are more connected with radicalised websites than with local cultural institutions.

The SBS charter reminds us that its principal function is to provide:

multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and in doing so reflect Australia’s multicultural society.

That means more than just SBS World Watch, foreign movies and Ethnic language radio programs – it needs to find creative ways of engaging new migrants and first generation Australians.

In 2010 SBS embarked on an innovative program that fulfilled its charter obligations. Mandarin News Australia was an online and television news and current affairs program headed by executive producer Liz Deep-Jones.

It had a young bilingual staff that sought stories from the Chinese community and broadcast in Mandarin with English subtitles. It had a late afternoon timeslot on SBS2 with a repeat on the main channel, and it engaged and rated well for its target audience.

The program was a template for others that were to follow in the most widely spoken languages like Arabic, Cantonese and Vietnamese. In 2012 Mandarin News Australia was axed and none of the others television shows ever eventuated.

Its ironic that in the last year the ABC, especially ABCNews24, has begun to reflect the diversity of Australia’s multicultural fabric, on air if not entirely in content, and cosmetically is looking more like SBS.

Every so often the amalgamation monster raises its ugly head and when it does the ethnic communities rally around and slay it.

But if they are all at home watching Good Morning Athens or Tonight in Beirut on satellite television and their children are on websites that speak to them more than the Australian media does they may very well think there is nothing to fight for.

In the case of Al Ubudy, SBS’s loss is Multiculturalism NSW’s gain.

Hakan Harman, the CEO of Multicultural NSW (formerly the Community Relations Commission), confirmed that Widyan Fares (nee Al-Ubudy) is now working with his agency as a writer for The Point Magazine, a digital publication that aims to be a leading source of accessible, youth-focused information, news and current affairs relating to violent extremism and its impacts on community harmony in Australia.

Harman told me, when I spoke to him for this article, that Widyan is an outstanding member of the team and was a welcomed return to Multicultural NSW.

Widyan’s journalism skills and her dedication to addressing often difficult community issues are highly valued. We are lucky to have her on board.