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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
24/10/2017
Estimates
COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

[17:21]

CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Ebeid. Would you like to make an opening statement before we kick off, noting that the time is very limited?

Mr Ebeid : Yes, thank you.

CHAIR: Fire away.

Mr Ebeid : I'd like to start by briefly addressing some of the recent media criticisms that SBS has somehow been off-charter or has been disregarding obligations or, even worse, distorting the wider market. I just want to say that these claims are totally false and they're being made by self-interested, aggressive commercial parties. It's clear that the media sector has changed dramatically over the last five years and continues to do so. SBS has had to adapt and remain relevant to ensure that as many Australians as possible see the important content that we provide. SBS has a very clear and deliberate digital strategy: to evolve our services and relevance. I'm very proud that our digital strategy has been proving successful and that we're engaging with more Australians today than we have ever before. However, it's not about becoming an aggressive commercial operator. Rather, it's the result of having an innovative and audience focused mindset and a clear objective of delivering distinctive content to our audience's convenience. As a hybrid funded broadcaster, SBS has a responsibility to engage in commercial activities efficiently and strategically. Our act clearly states that we are to have commercial activities. We operate within existing market parameters, noting that our size and budgets mean that we are still the smallest player. Recent accusations that SBS has outbid commercial operators for content, some of which have 10 times our budget, are simply untrue and fanciful.

SBS On Demand continues to bring Australians unique culturally and linguistically diverse programming from around the world. A vast majority of these dramas, 80 per cent, on On Demand are in language. We're pleased that this content is striking a chord with audiences, and we've now got over 2.7 million Australians who have registered to use SBS On Demand and we're serving over 20 million videos per month. We make no apologies, as a public broadcaster, for bringing Australian taxpayers a quality streaming service at no extra cost that is, in most part, funded through advertising. Similarly, our strategy to acquire small amounts of general interest English-language titles and movies that do have a broad appeal is to attract a new audience so that we can cross-promote our SBS charter aligned content with the aim of having a bigger impact. That strategy has been working for SBS for many years and suddenly some are criticising SBS for doing this in the online space, driven solely by reasons of self-interest. The provision of digital media services is specifically set out in our charter. I think it's outrageous to even suggest that the public broadcasters should not operate in these emerging online platforms.

SBS radio and online language services are unrivalled and admired globally, and remain key in helping migrants and emerging communities navigate life in Australia. Again, using our digital technologies, we are engaging more Australians than ever before. Each month there are 1.5 million downloads of in-language programs and over 2½ million visitors come to our language websites. With Australia's population increasing in cultural complexity and languages, our services are only increasing in demand and popularity, especially as mainstream media is becoming more and more homogenous and consolidated.

We're incredibly proud of the new drama series Sunshine that we launched this week, set in Melbourne. It is all about the story of a young South Sudanese Australian basketball player and his community. This is another example of SBS championing new Australian talent, featuring a strong line-up of South Sudanese faces that have never been seen on Australian TV before. It's the most diverse cast since our last drama, The Family Law.

Finally, I'd like to say that next month SBS is premiering a documentary series called The Mosque Next Door, filmed in Brisbane. It's the first time that Australian television has been given unprecedented access into an Australian mosque. At a time when there's growing divide in society, it's vital that SBS continues to tell these important stories, debunk myths, share facts and shine a light on social issues to continue Australia's success as a multicultural nation. I look forward to your questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Senator CHISHOLM: I'll try and ask double-barrelled questions where I can so we can get through topics as quickly as possible. In relation to the pay of staff at SBS, what details do you currently provide? Do you feel this is sufficient, and what do you think the outcome would be if SBS was required to publish names with salaries?

Mr Ebeid : At the moment, SBS publishes our salaries. My salary is publicly available as it's set by the Remuneration Tribunal, and we also publish online and in our annual report a table with salary bands from $200,000 up for our employees. We list the number of employees in each of those bands, and I believe that that is in line with every other government department and agency that does that. I'm not aware of any other government department or agency being asked to list names.

In terms of the second part of your question, I am very concerned about listing names for several reasons. Firstly, for commercial reasons—it puts SBS at a commercial disadvantage. As it is, as the smallest broadcaster, we know that we often don't pay the highest salaries. To advertise, if you like, what all our top employees earn would just put us at a commercial disadvantage. It will be harder to retain employees; it will be harder to attract employees.

Lastly, in many conversations I've had with several senior BBC executives, the BBC told me that, since they published names and salaries, all it has done at the BBC is increase salaries right across the board as employees then started asking questions about why they were earning less than colleagues. Their advice at the BBC is absolutely to avoid it at all cost because it does increase costs. I actually think that, together with breaching our employees' privacy, it doesn't make a lot of commercial sense and it's not in the public interest for us to do so because it will drive costs up.

Senator CHISHOLM: You're creating a bit of a conflict for me. As a bit of a union person, I'm always happy for people to be earning as much as they can, but I'll move on. With regard to the Channel 9 submission—whilst you didn't mention it specifically, there was some commentary in your opening address. Free TV and Channel 9 in their submission to the House of Reps inquiry into the Australian film and television industry claim:

Nine consistently finds itself in a competitive bidding process with SBS …

I want to see if you wanted to comment on that.

Mr Ebeid : From my perspective, given the sort of content that we have on SBS and the sort of content that Channel 9 would have, I find it very hard to believe that we're constantly, or consistently, in any way, up against Channel 9 for similar content. I do admit that, from time to time, we would be interested in similar content, but it's actually quite rare. I'm not aware of any bidding war, because more often than not, when we do rarely come up at the same time for the same piece of content, given the size of their budget versus ours, we generally walk away because there's no point in bidding against somebody who's got a budget eight to 10 times ours. It's just makes no sense for us to do that, so we would rarely do that. I find their submission to be inaccurate in the extreme.

Senator CHISHOLM: They go on to give specifics around Scripps, which were sold to SBS Food Network, which they hoped would go to 9Life. There is The Night Manager, which you bought based on a script, which they claim they can't afford. They also claim your movie catalogue doesn't fit within your charter. Do you think this is something that is a legitimate claim by Channel Nine?

Mr Ebeid : From my perspective, I think Channel Nine knowingly misled the parliament in their submission. I believe—and I have evidence from Scripps to say—that there was no bidding war. They claimed that they were interested in the Food Network when, in fact, they were not when we were doing the deal with Scripps. They also say in their submission that the Food Network should not be something that the taxpayers should pay for, but I have said publicly on many occasions that the Food Network is 100 per cent paid for by advertising and there's no taxpayer money whatsoever that goes into funding the Food Network. In fact, the Food Network does contribute a modest profit to SBS, which enables us to reinvest that money into making more things like Sunshine and our other charter-aligned content. It's good for us to have that channel.

SBS has had several commercial channels over the years that we've provided to Foxtel: World Movies and Studio—and that we've always made a profit on to put back into SBS to be less of a burden on the taxpayer. Now that we've done a channel in free-to-air, I find it amusing that we're getting complaints about that. For example, the World Movies channel has been going for 20 years and we've never had any complaints about us being in the commercial sector for that. As I said in my opening statement, our charter requests us to have commercial operations in order to be less of a burden on the taxpayer. What was the other one that you mentioned there?

Senator CHISHOLM: The movie catalogue does not fit within your charter.

Mr Ebeid : Yes, and you mentioned The Night Manager which, again, Channel Nine said we bought on script. Just for the committee's sake, that means that we review a script and buy the program before it's made. The reason we do that is that we get it a lot cheaper than if we wait for the production to be made. Then we'd have to pay a lot more to see how well it does overseas. That is why we buy on script. Again, Channel Nine in their submission said we should have a program like that on a second window. That is exactly what we did do. We had it on a second window with Foxtel. Foxtel aired the program first and then we had it as a second window—a little bit of homework would have avoided such a false statement.

Senator CHISHOLM: Moving onto another subject: a story Josh Taylor ran in Crikey, 'SBS killed drug testing for welfare trial scoop in exchange for Turnbull interview'. Are you aware of that article?

Mr Ebeid : Sorry, who is Josh?

Senator CHISHOLM: Josh Taylor from Crikey.

Mr Ebeid : I think I know what you're referring to, yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: On 3 July, then Crikeyjournalist Josh Taylor reported that SBS withheld a scoop on the government's controversial drug testing for welfare recipients weeks before the budget in May 2017.

Mr Ebeid : I'm aware of the issue that you're talking about, yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: What was your role, as CEO, in killing off that news story?

Mr Ebeid : Firstly, we didn't 'kill off that news story'. I played no role in that situation at all. That story was not a story that was killed off. I think that was a false situation.

Senator CHISHOLM: Did you have any involvement in the story as it came to pass?

Mr Ebeid : No, not at all. I was made aware of it after the fact.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is it an issue that the SBS has looked into?

Mr Ebeid : We looked into it when we saw that media report. All I can say is obviously what we decide in terms of our stories is very, very important; our editorial integrity is paramount for our SBS news—and the sources of what journalists get, from whatever source, is paramount in terms of protecting that story. I can't really comment about what happened in that situation other than to say that I did look into it when we saw that, and I'm very satisfied that nothing untoward went on there.

Senator CHISHOLM: Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Thanks, Senator Chisolm. Senator McKenzie, very briefly.

Senator McKENZIE: Very briefly. I was just pursuing some questions with the managing director of the ABC earlier around their new app, which, when you go in, has Bahasa Indonesia section and a Chinese section in language. I asked questions about how they'd actually assessed section 26 of their own act, where they must actually have regard to the services provided by the SBS Corporation. I guess, when I look at your own charter, it says your principal function is to 'provide multilingual and multicultural radio, television digital media services'. I'd like to understand the services you provide in Indonesian and the services you provide in Chinese. I'd also like your own assessment of whether you see this action by the ABC as fundamentally delivering on your own charter objectives and causing that overlap, if you like?

Mr Ebeid : Okay. There's three parts to your question. The first answer is that we do provide extensive programs in language programs, news coverage, in both Indonesian and Mandarin. And we have been obviously doing that for 40 years for those two languages. We have quite an extensive online offering for Australian speakers of those two languages. I would probably say that I don't understand why the ABC is doing it, given that our charter talks about being in language and having linguistic services. I guess I don't understand what Ms Guthrie talked about when she said it's a trial, because, at the end of the day, we obviously have limited resources and we want to avoid duplication, which is something that's important to both of us.

Senator McKENZIE: I didn't get the chance to ask Ms Guthrie but I will on notice. And I'll ask you now. When you're trialling new products to market, don't you trial them in the market to which they're intended to be used?

Mr Ebeid : Of course.

Senator McKENZIE: Otherwise, it's kind of a ridiculous research task.

Mr Ebeid : That's right. That's what I meant when I said that I don't understand why she'd be trialling it domestically when they have an Australia Plus site.

Senator McKENZIE: Did the ABC, Ms Guthrie or anyone who works for the ABC, contact the SBS with regard to setting up this new digital service?

Mr Ebeid : No, not to my knowledge, no.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you on notice double-check, because my understanding was—she was very clear she had had regard to the services provided by the SBS before she set up this pilot. So I'd be interested if she or her organisation had bothered to contact anyone in SBS to see what you are doing in Indonesian?

Mr Ebeid : I'm happy to take it on notice, but I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I did raise it with Ms Guthrie myself once those services were brought to my attention.

Senator McKENZIE: What was her response?

Mr Ebeid : That she was trialling it.

Senator McKENZIE: With a domestic population for international consumption?

Mr Ebeid : That's right.

Senator McKENZIE: Excellent. Thank you.

CHAIR: As we go to Senator Hanson-Young, we are just trying to figure out exactly how long you have before you have to dash to the airport.

Mr Ebeid : 6.10.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, about 10, I believe.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, Mr Ebeid. I know you took some questions from Senator Chisholm in relation to the wages and not publicising individual's wages. I understand the reason not to make those public. For the sake of this committee, would you be able to table how you do currently kind of display the different bands?

Mr Ebeid : We actually brought copies just in that question did come up.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I think it would be helpful to see how it actually looks. Have you been contacted at all internally by staff who are worried about what these new requirements, if they were to pass the parliament or, indeed, if you agreed with the insistence of the minister? Have staff contacted you about how they feel about this?

Mr Ebeid : I have had several employees express their concern about their privacy being breached, particularly non-on-air talent staff—for example, middle managers who don't understand why their privacy needs to be breached, given the transparency that we already have. They don't understand how names would add any further to transparency.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Here you've got the different pay levels, you say how many people under each level are paid against that, and there's obviously a total. I mean, that's pretty transparent, in my view. What you'd have to do is then write down individual's names. Is that how you'd see it if the legislation was to pass?

Mr Ebeid : I think that might be a question for the minister because I'm not sure what would be required at this stage.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Minister, are you familiar with this table as circulated?

Senator Fifield: I am.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is the government's view about what you would do to this? You would just start adding people's personal names next to these figures, would you?

Senator Fifield: You would have names next to basically what people's packages were, where people had packages above $200,000.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Why would that provide any more transparency than what's already here, in terms of where public money is being spent?

Senator FIFIELD: As I said before, I think people who hold senior positions at the public broadcasters do hold positions of trust. There is greater transparency for members of parliament, judges, ministers, senior public servants and senior military officers.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The managing director's wage is public, but would you be prepared to publicise your own staff's wages and their names next to it?

Senator Fifield: I'm not sure that any of them fall into this particular income bracket. What we're doing is—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm not sure about that. Are you telling me ministerial staff don't—

Senator Fifield: Pay must have increased since the days I was one. But public broadcasters—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Staff who work for you as a minister, do you think, regardless of whether they're at 200 or 100 kay, do you think they should have their personal names linked to their salary, publicised online or tabled in the parliament?

Senator Fifield: Well, what we're proposing here for the ABC and SBS is that it is senior staff above a certain threshold. It's well known—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But you wouldn't do it for your own staff?

Senator Fifield: It's well known what the pay is for ministerial staff, the bands that there are for senior advisers and each office only has one chief of staff so—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How much does your chief of staff get paid?

Senator Fifield: I can't tell you off the top of my head.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But the bands are available?

Senator Fifield: No, it's regularly tabled in the parliament—sorry, in the Finance and Public Administration Committee how many staff each minister has, how many people have a chief of staff, what the level is—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But that's not personal names. That's the distinction here.

Senator Fifield: It would be fairly straightforward to work out who's who. My point is, in a number of spheres in the public sector, there's greater transparency than there currently is for the public broadcasters.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Good for SBS staff and ABC, but not good enough for your own staff. I'll move on. I know Mr Ebeid doesn't have an awful lot of time. I wanted to ask about investing in local content. As you would know, the Senate has recently established a review into local content and there's obviously a broader review going on. Have you been involved in that at all as part of the public broadcaster?

Mr Ebeid : Yes, we have made submissions to that committee as well.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What's your view about what is needed to protect Australian local content?

Does SBS have a view?

Mr Ebeid : From an SBS perspective, we've always maintained that we would love to do more Australian content, tell more Australian stories like the ones we do such as the Sunshine one I mentioned earlier, other documentaries et cetera that really fall into our space. But making Australian drama is 10, 15 times more expensive than acquiring content from overseas. On our limited budget, we can only do so many hours a year of Australian content. At the moment, SBS produces roughly about eight to nine per cent of its TV schedule as Australian content. I would love to double that but obviously that requires funding. There have been several reviews over the years that have always said that it would be good if SBS was achieving around 30 per cent Australian content. That would be something obviously we'd welcome but it would be impossible for us to do without the corresponding funding.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I understand this issue of funding and that brings me to my next question. Obviously the government's proposed changes or expansion of advertising on SBS hasn't passed; it's been withdrawn. Has SBS been given any further support in order to fill that gap?

Mr Ebeid : The minister has kindly organised supplementary funding for us for this financial year as the government did last financial year as well. We're currently in ongoing discussions with the government for post this financial year.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So from 2018-19?

Mr Ebeid : We're made whole, if you like, till June 2018 and then we're still yet to resolve that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How much would that be worth?

Mr Ebeid : It was $8.7 million per annum that was removed from our funding in anticipation of that legislation passing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So it was just shy of $9 million?

Mr Ebeid : That's correct, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Minister, are we expecting some type of gap to be filled there? Nine million dollars seems like just a rounding error for some government departments.

Senator Fifield: I can't speculate on potential future budget decisions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you won't commit to filling that gap?

Senator Fifield: I'm just saying, as is always the approach with these matters, we don't speculate about what future budget decisions may be.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would that be in next year's budget that that would be announced?

Senator Fifield: That's the budget cycle.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Ebeid, $9 million, as I said, doesn't sound like much to some people. We've got a government who wants to give a billion dollars to Adani so everything's relative. But I'm sure for SBS it's a lot of money.

Mr Ebeid : It is. It's a lot of money for us, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Could you put into context how that impacts on your planning? Is that an extra show? Is that more journalists?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I have been asked that before at Senate estimates and it's difficult for me to speculate because, obviously, I wouldn't want to foreshadow what things we would need to cut from our services but there's no doubting that we wouldn't been able to absorb $8.7 million a year so it definitely would have impacts on our services. It could mean, for example, a dozen radio languages. It could mean less Australian production et cetera.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I understand.

Mr Ebeid : But it would need to be absorbed, obviously.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, right. Roughly what percentage is that $9 million of your annual budget?

Mr Ebeid : It would be about three per cent, according to my trusty CFO.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you at all concerned about the impact of the government's competitive neutrality review and the impact on online services such as SBS on Demand?

Mr Ebeid : I'm not going to be alarmed because I haven't seen any terms of reference yet. I'm looking forward to working with the government to see what the terms of reference will be. Once I see that, I might be able to answer the question. At this stage, we've heard different ideas or speculation about what will and won't be included in the review. I would say—and I know Ms Guthrie said this—that I'd like to understand the problem we're trying to solve with the review. This is the seventh year that I've been in this role. I've had four ministers and I've been through three reviews. I know these reviews cost millions of dollars and take a lot of time and resources, so I think it's really important to understand what problem it is that we're trying to solve. If the problem is being driven by some of the false and misleading allegations that I talked about earlier from some of the commercial networks, I think we need to tread with a lot of caution, because we're then potentially spending millions of dollars on a review on misinformation. That concerns me but, as to the actual review itself, I welcome any review as an opportunity to talk about the important work and the good things that we do, but the terms of reference are yet to be decided.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Minister, do you have an estimated figure of how much this review is going to cost your department?

Senator Fifield: The review will be done within the department's existing resources.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So no extra resources are being spent on this?

Senator Fifield: It will be conducted within the department's existing resources.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We'll keep a watchful eye on that. Mr Ebeid, you outlined already how you've put a lot of energy into making SBS On Demand a very useable service for the public. What would be the impact of a paywall on that online platform?

Mr Ebeid : I don't think we need a paywall on SBS On Demand, because it's mostly funded through advertising. We're fortunate that we can put advertising on there to help with paying for the service, the platform and the content. We are a little bit different to the ABC in that way. In many ways, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to charge people for a service and then have advertising as well. I don't see the point of that. I think it would certainly limit people's use of it, and I think what a lot of people in Australia love about SBS On Demand is that it's a free service where they can access our content. We provide it as a public good in every way. I think homes that can't afford a subscription service shouldn't be denied good content.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In relation to that, we know the government gave Foxtel $30 million to be able to put women's sport on Foxtel. Has the government given SBS any extra money to promote unique or women's sport?

Mr Ebeid : No, the government hasn't.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You've recently incorporated a new women's sport—the women's soccer.

Mr Ebeid : We try to do as much women's sport as we can. We did have the netball for a couple of years up until last year. We've just announced this week that we're going to do the W-League, two games a week, on SBS.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Free to the public to watch?

Mr Ebeid : That's correct. We've got other women's sports, like the US tennis, cycling and the FIFA Women's World Cup, that we broadcast on SBS as well. So we do quite a bit for women's sport.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: With very limited resources. Final question, chair, I know you want to move on. I want to ask about The Handmaid's Tale.

Mr Ebeid : I hope you enjoyed it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It's fabulous—and even better that it's on our SBS. What do you say to the criticism that commercial operators are upset that they didn't get it themselves?

Mr Ebeid : They could have, but SBS did do a strategic output deal that The Handmaid's Tale was part of a much bigger lot, which is why I reject the criticism that we somehow outbid another network.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It's a free market anyway, isn't it?

Mr Ebeid : It is—of course it is; it is a free market. Our charter does talk about our principal function of having multicultural and multilingual content, but there's certainly nothing in our charter that says we shouldn't have good content on SBS. Effectively, what the criticism is saying is that anything that is good content shouldn't be on public broadcasters, which is slightly outrageous.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And offensive to the viewership and the taxpayers, I would imagine.

Mr Ebeid : Absolutely, As I said in my opening statement, we do, from time to time, acquire broader-appeal content so we can attract a broader audience and then cross-promote other pieces of content that are more charter-aligned, if you like. We've been doing it for years. Now that we're doing it online, the only reason there are complaints is because of Nine's ownership of Stan, effectively.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you think they wanted it for Stan as opposed to showing it free on free-to-air?

Mr Ebeid : I know that for a fact, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So they wanted to charge people whereas you've provided it for free?

Mr Ebeid : That's correct-it was for Stan that they would have liked it, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you, Chair. I have a brief bracket of questions, given the time. I make reference to the SBS World News report of 17 June 2017 about the fatal attack on an Israeli policewoman by Palestinian attackers. Is it agreed SBS found the report to have breached its own code for accuracy and impartiality?

Mr Ebeid : I recall something about it, but I don't have the details, Senator. I'm happy to take that on notice and check. I think there was a complaint, and I just don't remember what the outcome of that complaint was, because it was a couple of months ago now.

Senator ABETZ: Is a Ms Begbie with us or not?

Mr Ebeid : No.

Senator ABETZ: She is the signatory to the letter that I have.

Mr Ebeid : She's our ombudsman.

Senator ABETZ: Take it from me that the letter she signed said:

The report did not state that one of the police victims, female officer Hadas Malka, had died as a result of the attack. The fact was available prior to broadcast and should have been included in the SBS report.

Mr Ebeid : Ms Begbie is very thorough—so you've got the answer in front of you?

Senator ABETZ: You'd be gracious enough to accept that, thank you. The letter continues to say that the report could have left the average viewer with an unfair impression of the incident. Then, over the page, we are told;

SBS apologises for this breach … As a result of this breach the Director of News and Current Affairs, Jim Carroll—

is he about?

Mr Ebeid : No.

Senator ABETZ: It says:

… has reminded his staff of the need for fact checking and fairness in reporting.

Was that just a general spammed-out email to all staff that they should be fact-checking and fair in their reporting?

Mr Ebeid : Knowing how accurate Mr Carroll is with these things, I suspect it was both. It would've been a discussion with the people who put that report together and then a general reminder to the newsroom. I suspect he would have done both, but I'm more than happy to take it on notice to tell you what he did, but we take those things very seriously.

Senator ABETZ: If you could take on notice—if you are able to provide me with a copy of the general notice that went out in reference to this comment in the letter—

Mr Ebeid : Happy to.

Senator ABETZ: 'reminded his staff of the need for fact checking and fairness in reporting,' how that was communicated and, if it was in written form, if we could have a copy of it. Can I then ask specifically, in relation to the journalist involved, was any—take this on notice, please—specific counselling or other advice offered to this journalist; and were there any specific consequences for that journalist? Then: was there any correcting broadcast?

Mr Ebeid : There probably would have been, if a letter like that went out, I'm pretty sure, but, again, I'll take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Please take that on notice. If there was, can you let us know when it was run and how often? If there wasn't a correcting broadcast, why not, because the viewing public would have been left with—to quote the letter from SBS—'an unfair impression of the incident'?

Mr Ebeid : As you can see from that letter, we are very transparent. When we get it wrong like that, we certainly tell the complainant we did so, and I recall from that complaint we received a very gracious letter from the complainant thanking us for the thorough response that we had. I feel proud that we have an ombudsman that is impartial like that and takes those matters seriously.

Senator ABETZ: It'd just be good if your fellow public broadcaster were able to follow suit in relation to some of these matters. If I could then simply ask you to follow up on those questions on notice—

Mr Ebeid : Sure.

Senator ABETZ: to ensure that the viewing public do not continue to be left with an inaccurate, partial or non-impartial a story.

Senator REYNOLDS: First of all I'd like to say congratulations on your focus on modern slavery. A lot of my colleagues here are anti modern slavery, so a lot of my colleagues across the chamber have a great deal of interest in this and we look forward to your continued advocacy for anti-slavery.

Mr Ebeid : It's an important topic, thank you.

Senator REYNOLDS: It is, so thank you for that. In relation to the salary discussions that you've been having, I was listening to your concerns about staff and transparency and those sorts of things. As politicians—and previously as a staffer—we are very used to having everything that we earn out there in the public, so anyone can google it, including—to follow up Senator Hanson-Young—even the minister's chief of staff, anybody can look up online and see what chief of staff get and the band, as for public servants.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Like here.

Senator REYNOLDS: Except the difference is individuals can be identified in public service, in parliament, you go online, you can see the scale, you know the band they're in so you know within $20,000 of what they're earning and what their other entitlements are. In light of that, to get over the issues you've raised, have you thought about the possibility of going to an APS-like scale so that, while they don't mention individuals, you have people who are pegged at on particular rates so that any taxpayer, who substantially funds your staff, can go and see, as they can with us. Have you thought about a system like that that might get over people's concern about other people knowing what they're earning?

Mr Ebeid : We do have bands today and our employees are in bands. They are different to public service. We are a government owned entity, we're not part of the public service. Anyone earning between $200,000 and $500,000 today, whether in Defence Department or any other part of the government—NBN, Australia Post, et cetera—nobody lists names, and I don't understand why the ABC and SBS are held out in special treatment in this. I don't believe that breaching employees' privacy in any way gives the public any more transparency than what we do today in the tables that we have today. You can see from our tables that we don't have a salary problem. One of the reasons why the BBC did what they did is because some employees were earning $3 million a year. If you look at our tables, we don't have anybody around that sort of money. And so, again, I'm not sure what the problem is we're trying to solve, other than embarrassing employees or having some sort of salacious headlines about what people earn. I don't believe that when people sign an employment contract—

Senator REYNOLDS: That wasn't my question. The question is for politicians, for public servants—all of us who are paid by the taxpayer—and while you're slightly different, most of your staff salary does come from the federal taxpayer. In the interests of transparency and openness why wouldn't you think about going to some system where—or even as an alternative—of having a look at how we can make this as transparent as possible? Senator Hanson-Young gave the example of the minister's chief of staff. Anyone can find out who the minister's chief of staff is and go online and check to see what his salary package is. The ABC had a similar position to yours but, just because you're in the media, why should you not be transparent, like everybody else who gets paid by the taxpayer?

Mr Ebeid : Firstly, it's not everybody else who gets paid by the taxpayer, because most government departments don't do what is being asked of the ABC and SBS. The second thing I would say is that government departments do not operate in a competitive landscape. The ABC and SBS do. We need to operate in a competitive environment where people are poached all the time. We spend a lot of time and money in training up young junior journalists only for them to be poached. Why would I want to make it easier for other networks to poach our staff? If you're working in the public sector, it's very different.

Senator REYNOLDS: Is it your position then that there is no possible option or way of becoming more transparent? At the moment, in terms of everybody else on the public purse, it is very transparent.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It's not.

Senator REYNOLDS: So there is no way of increasing transparency without dealing with some of those issues?

Mr Ebeid : I'm more than happy to look at alternative options, but I don't believe that those options are being put to us. There are other ways to do this, but again I would put to you, Senator, that I'm not sure what is trying to be achieved by having names listed. If the objective is to see that our salaries are not out of control, I believe the table we have today does that. Adding names does not add anything other than to put us in a commercially disadvantaged position. I'm more than happy to do what every other government department does, which is not what is being asked of us.

CHAIR: That concludes consideration of SBS. So thank you very much. We will now move to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.