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The former chairman of SBS, Joe Skrzynski, talks about the relevance of broadcasting for our migrant society. By David Salter.

Joe Skrzynski on how he leaves SBS

Credit: COURTESY SBS

Sydney financier Joe Skrzynski this month completed a five-year term as SBS chairman, after recommendations from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his reappointment were reportedly overruled in the prime minister’s office. Skrzynski reflects on the status of public broadcasters and the role of SBS.

David Salter Just when public broadcasting is getting really interesting, you exit, stage left. Would you have liked to continue for a few more years?

Joe Skrzynski Well, frankly, you have to be careful not to think you own these positions. We’ve seen the opposite of too short – of people staying around too long. Five years is a pretty decent period of time to have done something. If you haven’t done it in five years, you don’t know what you’ve been doing.

DS There’s a distinct whiff of a clean-out happening across federal government agencies and quangos at the moment.

JS I think we might be seeing in Australia a bit of trend towards the American system, which is that incoming governments believe that putting people of their choice in the implementation arms of government means that you’ve got an alignment between the policy vision and the implementation side, and you can get things done quicker.

DS How does that gel with the traditional Australian or British idea of the complete independence of the public service?

JS Well, it’s a bit of a challenge to it. But in many ways Australia becomes a halfway house between British tradition and American differences. The birth of media is a very good example of that. With the birth of radio, the British said, “It’s too important for the private interests to have it”, while the Americans said, “It’s too important for government to have it”, and Australia took the middle course of having both.

DS We rarely think of the SBS board as being stacked but it’s common to say that of the ABC board. Why has there been this distinction?

JS I think that the ABC runs, as it should, very significant local news and local current affairs programs and they obviously handle all the political ins and outs in Australia. That means the ABC is on every minister’s media call list whenever there’s an important announcement. And as part of that process any good journalist has to do their background research and ask the probing questions, as opposed to just providing the microphone. Ministers, being human beings, struggle with the emotions of having, perhaps in their opinion, an unfairly hard interview. They walk out of that room thinking, “We pay their damn salaries, and look what they do!” SBS, with its more overseas focus – Dateline and Insight aren’t largely about politics, our news is predominantly overseas – provides less opportunity for that rub-up with ministers’ feelings about how they’ve been treated. 

DS It’s hard to avoid the politics of these issues in an Australian context. SBS itself hasn’t shied away, over the years, from invoking what’s called the “migrant vote”. Do you think that’s been a legitimate tactical tool?

JS I wouldn’t describe it as a tactical tool. I’d say that if our charter is about giving voice to, and reflecting, the reality of the diversity of Australian migrant society, and all the different ethnic groups that go to make it up, and those groups didn’t care what we did, then we would have failed massively in our charter. So I don’t think it’s a case of SBS whipping up that vote. It’s a natural result, if you do your job well, that the “migrant vote” cares about SBS.

DS Your speech last month in Canberra made a forceful case for the continued existence of SBS as a freestanding, independent broadcaster. But during its early incarnations a lot of critics tended to describe it in terms of “a cure for which there is no disease”. How do you respond to that now?

JS Well, I think they were wrong. Particularly about SBS Radio, which is one of the modern wonders of the media world. Nowhere has anyone done 74 languages every week. The next closest is Vatican Radio with 32. So here we are doing twice as many as the voice of God. We now have 23 languages of the Asian subcontinent – from India across to Japan. There’s 1.7 million Australians bilingual in those 23 languages and we’ve given them 100 hours a week for that language group. Seven of the top 10 language groups are now non-European. When we started it was seven out of the 10 were European. It’s been a huge shift. And within those radio programs we’ve now rebalanced from home country news to local news to ensure that people can hear, in the language in which they’re most comfortable, what every other Australian is hearing about and thinking about.

DS A generation ago “multiculturalism” was a very fashionable concept in Australia. Many now consider it an outmoded approach to ethnic diversity. Do you think today’s SBS reflects that?

JS I think we’ve been pretty keen to sidestep the “straw man” that people erect around multiculturalism. A lot of the metaphors that are drawn allude to the perceived failures of multiculturalism in Europe. The fact is that many of those European monocultural countries never really made much of an effort to integrate the minorities that they brought in for convenience for work reasons. They didn’t offer them paths to citizenship. Australians have a different history altogether, so I think it’s good to just get away from words that bring so much baggage now and just talk about the success of a migrant society. You’re absolutely short-sighted to think you should leave all your “foreignness” at the Customs department on arrival and become totally Australian as we currently know Australia. The idea that you actually do bring those differences gives you the great hybrid vigour of the new nation.

DS We can’t not talk about advertising. To me, SBS had a lot of difficulty sustaining a claim to being a genuinely independent public broadcaster the moment it began to accept – and seek – advertising dollars. Ads now contribute about a third of the operating budget of SBS. I realise you inherited that decision, but do you think it has compromised the service?

JS If you mean by that editorial influence – categorically no. I’ve seen absolutely no sign of that whatsoever. Indeed, perversely, having many sources of revenue – which is what you have when you have advertisers – is less of a threat to editorial independence than having one source of revenue, because the tendency to self-censor – not to offend a single source of revenue – could be a more corrosive influence on editorial policy than having many sources of revenue. The second point to be made is that when you say that it means we’re not a public broadcaster anymore, then that’s actually a very Anglo view of public broadcasting. If you went and looked at the whole universe of state-owned media organisations around the world you’ll find that close to half of them have advertising.

DS What about program choices themselves – that you will tend to buy, or produce, programming that you know will be attractive.

JS Yes, that’s definitely one of the factors that management and the board have to keep an eye on. Wanting higher ratings to get higher advertising dollars is clearly a temptation. At the same time, to really retain relevance to the taxpayer base you also have to have a reasonable amount of ratings. You can’t be so specialist and niche that you’re not reaching the wider group of Australians who are the taxpayers.

DS At another level, the decision to carry advertising acted – maybe not deliberately – as a backdoor way of making it much harder to have a merger with the ABC. You’re against merging the two broadcasters, but not just on those grounds.

JS No, and I’m sure that wasn’t the reason for putting advertising on. It’s an unintended consequence, not a designed principle. I don’t see it as a good idea for a number of other more important reasons. SBS is a very, very complex organisation. It’s got more stakeholders than the Tower of Babel. Managing across radio, television and online to those specific audiences is far too complex to say, “Well, that just becomes a small division of the ABC.” On a merged basis SBS would be about a fifth of the total operation and anybody that’s experienced large organisations and tribal infighting knows what happens to small divisions – they become the poor cousins. It would be a very bad outcome for the idea of special broadcasting for it to be subsumed into a small division of the ABC. 

DS So what’s next for Joe Skrzynski?

JS I wouldn’t expect to turn up in a well-run Swiss clock organisation where there’s no challenge. Something with a high purpose which needs rethinking. Rethinking the vision, rethinking how are we doing it, have we got the right people there, have we got the right ways of doing things, and can we get more resources in? I’m not sitting here with a grand strategy. I’ve found it’s a bit like Neville Wran said – you keep your bags packed and when you see a hole in the fence, you duck through.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Popular culture". Subscribe here.

David Salter
is a veteran independent journalist, author and broadcaster.

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