The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has just released a discussion paper on the future of national public broadcasting (ABC and SBS: Towards a Digital Future, October 2008).
One of the key questions raised in the paper is whether the charters of the ABC and SBS should be amended to ensure that they provide a contemporary and relevant guide for these two organisations in the coming decades. So this is the right time to articulate the ongoing significance for Australia not only of the ABC (which is too much the exclusive focus of debate around public broadcasting in this country), but of SBS.
Too often SBS is dismissed as a niche broadcaster, relevant only for ethnics, eggheads and, more recently, revheads. Last year’s controversy about the departure of newsreader Mary Kostakidis and the introduction of ads within SBS TV programs didn’t help. The fact that “multiculturalism” is no longer flavour of the month has also been reason to question the ongoing importance of SBS.
Last year Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan even argued that SBS is “an indulgence we don’t need” because it has outlived its charter; “Australia has moved on. The term ‘ethnic’ is now laughably outdated.”
Sheehan’s short-sightedness is disturbing. As we argue in our book The SBS Story: The Challenge of Cultural Diversity (UNSW Press, 2008), SBS should be recognised as one of Australia’s most important cultural institutions. Importantly, its brief to “reflect Australia’s multicultural society” is more urgent than ever.
In this sense, the SBS charter does not need amending: instead, we need a serious engagement with what that charter means today and how it should be translated into contemporary practice. To appreciate this we need a much more expansive concept of multicultural broadcasting than is generally assumed.
What SBS must champion is a multiculturalism for the 21st century, not that of the 1980s. This is a multiculturalism that shows that all Australians - not just recent migrants of non-English speaking backgrounds - have a stake in the multicultural and multilingual society that Australia has become. Unlike what critics say, this modern multiculturalism does not promote segregation and separatism but, on the contrary, fosters social cohesion, integration and innovation.
Without many of us realising it, cultural diversity has become a mainstream issue. After decades of large-scale immigration Australia’s cultural diversity is now evident in all corners of society, but especially among younger generations. One only has to watch the playgrounds of schools around the country to get this message.
More than one quarter of Australians today were born overseas, and migrants now come from a vastly more diverse range of countries than ever before, especially from non-European countries. Almost 200 languages are spoken in Australian homes. If Australia is to remain a harmonious society where hostile intercultural conflict is rare, we need social and institutional arrangements that promote not just social inclusion, but also a wholehearted recognition of diversity as an intrinsic feature of Australian national identity.
In the interconnected, globalised world of the 21st century, a cosmopolitan attitude that is unafraid of unfamiliar and foreign others, is more critical than ever. This is what a national multicultural broadcaster can help nurture and advance.
Our book shows that SBS has already made an enormous contribution to this agenda over the past 30 years. This multicultural broadcaster was never just a welfare service for disadvantaged ethnics. In the mid-1990s then Managing Director Malcolm Long took his inspiration from Robert Hughes’ notable book The Culture of Complaint to declare that SBS’s role was to help Australians navigate difference. “In the world that is coming”, Hughes wrote, “if you can’t navigate difference, you’ve had it”.
That world has arrived and here lies the significance of a national broadcaster that sends out radio programs in 68 languages, familiarises Australian audiences with other cultures and languages through subtitled films, and provides a world news service that does not succumb to the parochialism that is so characteristic of news on the commercial channels and even the ABC.
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