Peter Khalil: In recent weeks, we’ve seen the ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie sacked, we’ve seen ABC chairman Justin Milne resign over unacceptable political interference and we’ve seen significant public concern about the coalition government’s attacks on the ABC. This government, many of whose members tend to follow the advice of the right-wing think tank the IPA, the Institute of Public Affairs, have once again been floating the idea of privatising the ABC. They’ve gone even further than that; they’re reheating the old hoary chestnut of merging the ABC and the SBS. The latest assault on public broadcasting follows the coalition government’s breaking of a pre-election promise not to cut public broadcasting funding arrangements but then cutting millions from the ABC since 2014, resulting in 800 job losses.
Some of those in the chamber would know that I worked at SBS prior to entering parliament. I was the executive director of corporate affairs there for almost four years. I know intimately, having worked there, the unique value proposition that the SBS provides to Australia, to the culturally and linguistically diverse communities across Australia, but also the value to the Australian public as a whole, as a public broadcaster. And there is a deep appreciation and understanding of the vital role both our public broadcasters play in our society.
Whilst the coalition government complain a lot about our public broadcasters, I think it’s probably true to say that public broadcasting and the quality journalism which comes with it are more important now than ever before. In many respects, the public broadcasters provide that common reference point and a trusted voice. What do I mean by that? In the febrile and fractured media market which we know exists now—which is exacerbated by somewhat of an echo chamber of cable news and social media, where people reinforce their own bias through various platforms that basically talk to them and only to them and provide them with very narrow viewpoints—people are not really talking to each other. There is the old cliche about having that water cooler moment at work on a Monday morning. I don’t know whether there are water coolers anymore, but you might be talking to your coworker over a cup of coffee or tea about a particular news item you saw the night before, and you might now be talking about completely different sets of facts. In the past you might have had different perspectives and you might have disagreed, but you probably would have had a single reference point on the news that you saw. Now people are hearing a completely different set of narratives and facts from media sources and platforms. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but, without a common frame of reference, there is that additional hurdle to understanding one another—and what we now see in our society is a lot of people just screaming and shouting at each other rather than having a dialogue.
The news now tends to be completely different depending on where you get it. Factually, we’re in this post-fact era where people talk about fake news and different news sources have completely different sets of perspective and fact. So there is a unique responsibility for our public broadcasters to provide a public good and have a focus on that town square responsibility, if you like, of providing quality journalism for Australians to foster that constructive national engagement.
We also have to distinguish between our public broadcasters. There is a difference between the SBS and the ABC. The SBS had a globally unique model that provides multicultural and multilingual content for a domestic audience. There’s nothing else like it in the world. We’re talking about provision of over 70 languages for a potential audience of more than three million Australians who speak a language other than English in their homes. In contrast, the BBC World Service, for instance, provides only 40 languages, and those broadcasts tend to be broadcast not at a domestic audience but outwards to other countries. SBS provides this important role, this unique role, that helps inform and educate Australians around our multicultural diversity. It is a model that works very, very well and complements the ABC. It’s one that I think has served Australia very well and has been a factor in making sure that Australia has become the wonderfully egalitarian and multicultural society that we live in today.