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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

CHAIR: I now call the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation via videoconference. Did we take any opening statements to be tabled? No? That's even better. We like that. Senator Pratt might have some questions for you.

Senator PRATT: I certainly do. Mr Taylor on 7 February the minister announced triennial funding arrangements for both the ABC and SBS, along with a statement of expectations for Australian content reporting. What funding has SBS received, please?

Mr Taylor : Thank you for the question, Senator, and hello, Chair. SBS received a total appropriation of $953.7 million over the triennium commencing on 1 July FY22. That funding is broadly speaking in three tranches: base funding; the continuation of two terminating measures which would otherwise have ceased on 30 June, which come to a total of about $12 million a year—which have also been rolled into our base funding, which means we no longer need to seek for that funding to be extended, which is good news; and we have funding provided as part of a grant, which has now been provided as part of our appropriation, to provide audio description services in the amount of $1 million a year. That's been extended for three years as a terminating measure. In summary, our funding has been maintained whole such that we can continue our existing suite of services with certainty over the triennium.

Senator PRATT: You've touched on it, but could you unpack for me how much of that funding is a continuation of what SBS already had in the current triennium, how much is new or additional funding and what any additional funding is for.

Mr Taylor : The additional money is additional to the extent that it has been reflected into the forward estimates, but it maintains existing funding enjoyed by the organisation, plus indexation applied over the period in that same way it is applied to all agencies.

Senator PRATT: Could you repeat that last bit. What's the additional funding for?

Mr Taylor : The additional funding maintains two terminating measures, which would otherwise have ceased at 30 June, plus indexation over the three years, and it's been rolled into our base—so they are no longer terminating measures—we have funding for audio description continued for a further three years in the amount of $1 million per annum, and our base funding has been extended, plus indexation.

Senator PRATT: So it's additional funding but really additional funding for critical parts of your service that already existed that would otherwise have terminated.

Mr Taylor : Yes, Senator. The funding would have terminated but hasn't, so we're able to maintain our existing services and we're grateful for that opportunity.

Senator PRATT: So that funding is pretty much business as usual. It's not better than usual or game changing. How do you characterise it?

Mr Taylor : Certainly we never make the assumption that terminating measures will be extended, so we're pleased that they have been extended and rolled into our base. It's nice to have that certainty so early in the year so that we don't have to start making contingency plans. I will say that we've been fortunate to receive additional funding in the last two budgets prior to this one to expand our in-language services in particular. In fact our audiences were the beneficiaries of one of those tranches of money last night, when we launched our On Demand, five-day-a-week television news services in Arabic and Mandarin. So we are really pleased to be able to expand our services to some of Australia's most important growing and vulnerable communities.

Senator PRATT: The funding for audio description is $3 million over three years?

Mr Taylor : Yes, Senator.

Senator PRATT: Will that enable more audio description than you're currently doing, or is it about the same? How many hours is that?

Mr Taylor : We've been providing audio description services under the previous funding arrangement of about $1 million a year. We have committed to providing 14 hours of content audio described per week. I'm pleased to report that we are delivering over 20 hours on average per week across SBS, World Movies, Viceland, NITV. We expanded that service to VAST as well. I believe we're the only broadcaster to have done so. We are working on a project at the moment to include those services in On Demand. So we've been able to deliver more value than originally projected for the money provided.

Senator PRATT: So it is more audio description than currently. How many hours?

Mr Taylor : The funding is the same. We've been able to deliver more bang for buck. We're committed to deliver 14 hours a week. We have been delivering over 20 hours a week since the start of the service, and our aim is to—

Senator PRATT: Thanks, I missed that. Turning to the statement of expectations, the media release from the minister of 7 February, Minister Fletcher said he had today 'written to SBS and ABC outlining their three-year funding packages and issued statements of expectations regarding the reporting by the two organisations in relation to a number of key activities, including a new National Broadcaster's Reporting Framework for Australian eContent'. Can you confirm that you have received a statement of expectations? Have you ever received one before this?

Mr Taylor : We did receive one. It is the first one that I recall receiving in my time at SBS, which is about 10 years.

Se nator PRATT: That's because you were previously exempt from them; is that right?

Mr Taylor : I don't believe that's the case; I just don't believe previous ministers availed themselves of that mechanism.

Senator PRATT: Do you know why there is a policy change in that regard? What is the government's rationale for that statement of expectation?

Mr Taylor : The rationale is as set out in both the statement itself and the media release. The rationale is, as I understand it, that the government is seeking for SBS and ABC to harmonise their content reporting around Australian content levels and, therefore, to harmonise it in a way that is commensurate with the way commercial licence holders report.

Senator PRATT: In 2014, the ABC and SBS efficiency study commissioned by the Abbott government formed the view that the minister could provide the ABC and SBS with a statement of government expectations, noting that to do so would however be controversial and could give rise to concerns that the government is intervening in ABC and SBS for political reasons. What is the legal status of a statement of expectations in relation to SBS?

Mr Taylor : As I understand the statement, most particularly because it's disclosed within the statement itself, the requested disclosure of information is voluntary; it's not an instruction and it is not intended to constitute editorial independence. I will operate on the assumption that that's the case until I see evidence that it's not and we will work constructively with both the ABC and the ACMA to come up with a reporting template that provides a level of transparency about our expenditure, noting that we already provide a part of content reporting and that was noted within the media policy statement issued by government on the same day, and that we have a general tendency for disclosure subject to protecting things like commercial in confidence information.

Senator PRATT: What are the consequences for SBS if you choose not to comply with that statement of expectations in relation to the reporting framework?

Mr Taylor : I suspect that's a question best answered by the minister. I don't have any sense of what the outcomes of not voluntarily disclosing information would be.

Senator PRAT T: So it's voluntary, but you haven't been told if there will be consequences if you don't comply; is that correct?

Mr Taylor : I just want to refer to the statement of expectations so that my answer is correct. I think the statement itself indicates that the government reserves the right to seek our voluntary disclosure, should we not engage in the spirit that's intended of the request. If I could add, if you were to look at our annual report, we have a practice of disclosing information about Australian content levels, broken down in a high degree of granularity. The government's media policy statement acknowledges that we go to great lengths to disclose information. I operate on the assumption that the intent here is to provide harmonisation with our reporting and the ABC's reporting such that the regulator, looking as it is on media policy, is able to do an apples with apples comparison. That in and of itself is non-contentious, and we of course will remain vigilant about making sure we're sharing information that we are happy to do so in the way we are, and that it doesn't constitute interference.

Senator PRATT: To the best of your knowledge, has the minister explored the option of legislating a new national broadcasters reporting framework for Australian content?

Mr Taylor : I have no knowledge of that. I'm not aware.

Senator PRATT: In terms of the reporting request itself, do you have a view as to the utility of the measures the minister seeks reporting on?

Mr Taylor : Not until I get into a bit of detail about the specific form, frequency and granularity of the reporting. I imagine that there is some logical reason to want to be able to compare content outputs across different platforms on a like-for-like basis. There will be a level of granularity that we're comfortable with and a level of granularity that we're not, but I don't have a sense of how ACMA is thinking about the issue, not having spoken to them about it. So I think I will need to let the process unfold a bit before I express a view about whether it's appropriate or otherwise.

Senator PRATT: But you're independent. What if, for example, the government were to say 'There is plenty of Australian content because it's all being done by SBS and ABC, we'll let all the other stations off the hook.' That wouldn't serve your independence very well, would it?

Mr Taylor : That's a hypothetical. If I were one of the only providers in the market providing Australian content I would probably welcome that, because that would lower the competition. I doubt that's been contemplated. But it's a hypothetical. I can't speak to what the government may or may not do with the information until I have first formed the view about what information is required.

Senator PRATT: What was the utility of it, did you say? You dropped out.

Mr Taylor : Apologies. I think, as per the statement of expectation and based on background reading I have done on the media policy statement, it seems to me there are two imperatives. One is to ensure that the reporting that we do through, for example, our annual reports remains consistent year on year to allow for longitudinal analysis of content spend and outputs et cetera for us and the ABC. Secondly to harmonise the reporting such that when people look at SBS reports and ABC reports they have got an apples with apples comparison. And thirdly, to bring the reporting standards of SBS and ABC into line with the reporting standards of the commercial sector so that policymakers can have a cross-industry view of expenditure against different genres, for example. That seems to me to be a full capture of the rationale behind the request, but we are yet to have conversations with the ACMA.

Senator PRATT: I will now ask some brief questions on your access to the news media bargaining code. On 22 September an article by Zoe Samios in The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 'Facebook snubs SBS, The Conversation on media deals'. The article stated that 'social media giant Facebook has shot down requests to negotiate content deals with multicultural broadcaster SBS'. Is this statement true?

Mr Taylor : Yes.

Senator PRATT: Has there been any improvement since then?

Mr Taylor : No.

Senator PRATT: Minister, a question for you. The minister has talked a big game about the news media bargaining code being an expression of Australia's sovereignty in relation to digital platforms. Senator Hume, you were the minister in the Senate when we dealt with this legislation, and you dealt with it on Minister Fletcher's behalf. Why won't the minister intervene on behalf of the national broadcaster to make representations or encourage a deal between Facebook and SBS?

Senator Hume: Just a correction to the record there. I took that legislation through on behalf of the Treasurer, not on behalf of the Minister for Communications. Designation, as you know, is a responsibility of the Treasurer. I'm not here today to represent the Treasurer; I'm here to represent the Minister for Communications. When the Treasurer makes that decision there has to be a significant bargaining power imbalance between the platform and the Australian news business. The platform has also had to have made significant contribution to the sustainability of the news industry through commercial deals and for the use of news content. The Treasurer, should he choose to make a designation, has to provide the platform with at least 30 days written notice of the intention to designate.

Senator PRATT: Did you hear that response, Mr Taylor?

Mr Taylor : Yes, most of it.

Senator PRATT: Do you believe you have met those preconditions to be eligible under the scheme?

Mr Taylor : We certainly registered with the ACMA and we were certainly contemplated by the scheme, given that both national broadcasters were included in the framework. It's worth noting that we have made several sincere attempts to enter into constructive conversations with Facebook, to no end. We welcome the Treasurer's support in relation to assisting Facebook to come to the negotiation table, or indeed to designate them, but I note that that is a matter for him.

Senator PRATT: Has the Treasurer supported you in any way with those negotiations or attempts to negotiate with Facebook yet?

Mr Taylor : I have had no direct conversation with the Treasurer about the matter.

Senator PRATT: But you have raised the matter with the Treasurer?

Mr Taylor : Via the minister, yes.

Senator PRATT: In closing, could you please provide the committee with some information about SBS RAT translations, the new Mandarin and Arabic news channel and the lunar New Year—how is SBS celebrating?

Mr Taylor : We're very pleased that since the start of COVID we have been supporting communities in over 60 languages. We provide health and safety information. I spoke to this committee about that previously. But to give you an update, since inception more than 11 million unique Australian visitors have accessed the COVID-19 portal, demonstrating the value that it brings to those communities. This is alongside other initiatives we have brought to provide live, real-time interpreting of daily press conferences in multiple languages, for example. Most recently we have provided digital explainers in 50 languages on how to administer a rapid antigen test. That has been met with strong audiences, which is fantastic.

The second question you asked was around our new—brand-new, indeed—news services, half an hour a night of video news in both Arabic and Mandarin that went live last night on SBS On Demand and will also be broadcast on our recently announced SBS WorldWatch linear channel, which is launching a little later this year and will also house all our international news services plus a number more that we're adding. And in keeping with our growing commitment to multicultural and multilingual Australia, we are proud to sponsor and support lunar New Year festivals right around the country, a really wonderful moment of celebration for community, particularly given the tough two years that we have had. It was so gratifying to see the SBS team and talent and branding and funding support across all of those events right around the country. It should be a signal of our growing commitment to support on-the-ground events which matter to communities.

Senator PRATT: I just want to add my thanks on behalf of my household. We've learned quite a bit about lunar New Year thanks to SBS's content. So thank you.

CHAIR: I'm going to ask one question today, which you might take on notice. I'm wondering whether you've provided any services to translate the Uluru statement. Is it in any of your languages?

Mr Taylor : Yes, Senator. We have indeed. We did last year. We translated it as a text file in over 60 languages and this year we updated it with a video in all of those languages. That one small act has been met with incredible support from communities and high engagement. If I could extend my answer, because I think it's on the same theme, you will note that we've been expanding our services in SBS On Demand so there are much deeper content repositories in multiple languages. You can create a user ID in five languages plus English now. What I've been struck by is that people whose first language is not English are consuming significantly more First Nations content than people whose first language is English. That speaks to what we see across the network—a real desire for multicultural Australians to connect with First Nations culture and storytelling. That's fundamental for us because we sit at the crossroads of the oldest continuing cultures and some of Australia's newest citizens.

CHAIR: If you could provide some of that on notice, that would be great. We thank you very much for your time and for being here this afternoon.