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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

CHAIR: The committee will now resume with its investigation of the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation. Mr Taylor, welcome to you and your team. Are you able to table your opening statement?

Mr Taylor : Yes. I understand that it's already been tabled.

CHAIR: If there are any very brief summary remarks you would like to make, you are welcome to.

Mr Taylor : I'm happy to get started.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: What has the SBS done to keep Australia's multicultural community informed about coronavirus?

Mr Taylor : Thank you for the question. We've been active over this challenging period for the Australian community. We are obviously covering the circumstances in the same way that many other organisations are, but, of course, the distinct and different approach of SBS is to be able to broadcast those messages in multiple languages. We have services in 68 languages. So we've been very proactive in making sure that we're working with health agencies and government departments to ensure that critical health and safety information is being distributed out to communities in language. Just this morning, we had an interview with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Mr Paul Kelly, and we were able to very quickly take that interview and ensure that the questions were being fed by the various editorial and language teams to convert that interview into stories in Persian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Italian so that people could access that information not only in English but also in their first language.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Are you doing that across all your platforms: TV, radio, online and through catch-up services?

Mr Taylor : Yes, we are.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Does the SBS engage with the Department of Health as part of this work?

Mr Taylor : We do. We engage with state and federal health agencies to ensure that we're a reliable and independent conduit of vital information to those communities.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: I note you mentioned that you were focused on providing information in language. Is that focus on providing accurate information in language, or has it been more about countering disinformation or misinformation around the coronavirus?

Mr Taylor : I think it's a bit of both. Of course, we want to make sure health information is shared accurately and in language. It's also about ensuring that we have a voice for communities to counter some of the unfortunate commentary that's been in the media and on social platforms. But it's also to create a safe space for communities to come together and talk with each other about the effect of this issue on their communities—what they're hearing, what they're feeling and how they can support each other.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: How did SBS keep Australia's multicultural community informed about the recent bushfires?

Mr Taylor : We adopted a similar approach to that which we've adopted for COVID-19. We've been actively engaging with communities and making sure that they're aware of the circumstances in language. We've also been focusing on sharing some of the positive community responses around the bushfire, such as some of those communities that went and set up food stores in bushfire affected areas and some of the multicultural communities that have been very proactive. We've been sharing information with multicultural communities in multiple languages about how they themselves can join a rural fire service and contribute to Australian civic society through that demonstration of commitment.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: How else does SBS information keep Australians safe when it comes to health and safety issues?

Mr Taylor : What I've been talking about over the last year in relation to SBS's services is that we have a very proud 45-year legacy of providing services in language—in English, of course, but also in multiple other languages—so people can participate and feel connected to Australian society. We broadcast in 68 languages. We're expanding that offering to be about digital delivery of services, streaming and podcasting. But also, over the last year, we've been dramatically increasing the volume of subtitle content of our long-form video content—so there are subtitles in Chinese and Arabic collections, which allow Australians to reach our Australian news and information services. Recently, we also launched an in-language login on SBS On Demand. So now, three months ahead of schedule, you can login to SBS On Demand in Arabic and in Chinese. Of course that, combined with the growing repository of Australian news and information subtitled in those languages, is a demonstration of our commitment to ensure that multicultural communities can access all forms of vital information, including health information, in their first language.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Mr Taylor, last month the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mr Mike Burgess, gave a wide-ranging threat assessment address. He stated that right-wing extremism, brought into sharp, terrible focus by last year's Christchurch massacre, is manifesting in small cells of adherents gathering to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons and disseminate hateful ideology. He said the threat of right-wing extremism is real and growing, among other things. Has SBS considered what this address means for its work?

Mr Taylor : Yes. I'm aware of the report. We are firmly of the view that SBS is, if you will, a domestic soft-power tool available for the Australian community. We think that the more we can share Australian news and information, given that it's independent, balanced and unbiased, the more we can crowd out other voices which seek to take up the consumption of local Australian communities. We've had great success and we've launched new In Language services. We launched SBS Arabic24 a couple of years ago so that we could better serve Australian Arabic communities in Arabic. That is now the largest linear Arabic radio service in the country, more than twice the size of the next largest Arabic service. We think that for every minute that Australian audiences are consuming our content, it's a minute they are not consuming other content sources. We think that's a good outcome for Australia.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Has SBS engaged in any cross-portfolio consultation or collaboration to consider the implications of Mr Burgess's address for its work?

Mr Taylor : We have lots of conversations right across government agencies to make sure that we're aware of the issues that government are concerned about and that we're deploying our services to the best benefit of communities. We modulate our offers from time to time. We don't have the same offer for every language group; we have different offers for different language groups with a view to creating safety, to creating awareness, to creating information and to creating capacity in our communities to participate in Australian society.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: I appreciate the evidence you've given so far but what mechanisms and tools does SBS have that may assist in addressing the rise of right-wing extremism in Australia?

Mr Taylor : I think that central to our capacity is our very strong news and current affairs offering. We think that Australian news and current affairs, particularly that produced by SBS, is the best news and current affairs to be consumed by audiences in Australia, to have an Australian perspective. We are an independent broadcaster, not a state broadcaster, and therefore we're confident that our news and information will inform and assist Australian audiences in engaging with Australian society. That is fundamental to our capacity. I'd also say that we enjoy very deep relationships with communities and with community leaders—we've been broadcasting in many languages for over 45 years—and therefore those relationships allow us to understand the issues that are being faced by those audiences and those communities.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Does the SBS code consider complaints about discrimination and/or vilification on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion?

Mr Taylor : Yes, it does.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: How does SBS deal with hate speech on its online platforms?

Mr Taylor : Firstly, we don't take comments on our own platforms—so audience members cannot place comments on, say, an SBS News site. Like all media operators, we do publish our news on third-party social platforms—platforms you will all know and be aware of. One of the challenges with publishing news on those platforms is that other individuals are able to make comments below those articles. We have a legal and an ethical obligation to create a safe environment surrounding our news stories, so we have significantly increased our investment in moderation—which is essentially people who are there to weed out comments which we regard as being, per your example, hate speech. It's an imperfect system with a series of imperfect tools provided by social media platforms but we are very focused on creating the safest environment possible for our audiences when they are consuming our news and information.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: How does the government's consultation on the new online safety legislative framework affect SBS?

Ms O' Neil : Obviously we've made a submission into that inquiry, noting the issues that Mr Taylor has talked about around the difficulty of moderating platforms that are not our own platforms. And obviously we want to ensure that, while we build a harmonised regulatory framework, there is duplication avoided, so we've also made submissions on some technical matters associated with that.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Is there scope for the proposed new framework to empower the eSafety Commissioner to deal with complaints about content or even third-party interactions related to SBS platforms?

Ms O' Neil : That is probably a policy question for government but certainly I think we've made the point that the regulatory framework we have at the moment is working very effectively. I can't comment on what the government might want to do in relation to the eSafety Commissioner.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Minister, did you want to comment on that?

Senator Reynolds: I have nothing further to add at the moment but when the eSafety Commissioner appears later today it would be appropriate to raise that with her.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: On the policy question regarding the new framework, I asked if there was scope for the new framework to empower the eSafety Commissioner to deal with complaints about content or third-party interactions on SBS platforms.

Mr Atkinson : I might ask Mr Eccles to comment on that but I think it's part of the consultation process at the moment, so I don't think it is excluded from the scope.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: So it under consideration at the moment as a policy question?

Mr Eccles : A discussion paper was issued—I will get the date shortly—with comments closing around the shape of a new online safety act. These matters have been covered in the consultation process. For specific issues, if you don't mind, we might wait until the relevant experts are here. They will be here when the Office of the eSafety Commissioner is here providing evidence.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: So if I ask that question later, I will get an answer about that scope?

Mr Eccles : Completely, yes.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Is the SBS making a submission to the online safety consultation?

Ms O' Neil : Is that different to the online harms one or the classification one? There is a couple.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: The online harms one, the one we were referring to.

Ms O ' Neil : Yes, we have made a submission.

Senator ANTIC: I have a few questions in relation to two separate topics. The first one relates to the weekend's Mardi Gras. I believe that the SBS had a float in the Mardi Gras.

Mr Taylor : Yes, that's correct.

Senator ANTIC: I'm interested to know a little bit about the decision to put that float in there, how that was made and the reasons why.

Mr Taylor : I'm happy to take the question on notice to give you a full response but, firstly, we are the host broadcaster of the Mardi Gras and have been for a number of years. We think it's a really great demonstration of inclusion in society and so we are proudly a broadcast partner of the event. In relation to the float, as you would have seen, there are many organisations that have floats in the parade. Our view is that we have a large contingent of staff who are either allies to or members of the LGBTQI+ community and we think it's important to demonstrate our support for that community and our staff given that SBS believes in the power and benefits of social inclusion.

Senator ANTIC: Tell me a little bit about how it was funded and whether staff time was used in terms of putting the float together and those sorts of things.

Mr Taylor : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator ANTIC: I'm just interested. You obviously have people there who are interested in it but can you tell me whether or not the broadcaster has an involvement or marches or has floats in any other community parades of note? Are there any others that you enter a float into? I'll give you an example of a few. There is the Tamworth Country Music Cavalcade, the Adelaide Fringe Parade in my home state, Sydney's St Patrick's Day parade. Are any of those on SBS's list?

Mr Taylor : I'm happy to take it on notice. We are represented at dozens of dozens of parades for all different sorts of different communities right around the country. We are very actively involved in community events, and I'm happy to give you a list of all the events that we attend and participate actively in throughout the course of any year.

Senator ANTIC: Just another quick question in relation to the Garma Festival. I think NITV is run by SBS and it covers the Garma Festival. I think the ABC covers it as well and sends a large number of staff too. Just so we can get this clear, can you explain: does SBS cover the Garma Festival through NITV?

Mr Taylor : Yes. NITV, the National Indigenous Television service, is proudly part of SBS. The Garma Festival is obviously a very important event on the Indigenous policy and cultural calendar, attended by 3 to 3½ thousand people. There are a range of policy forums and other forms of academic and cultural discussion that occur across the four days of the event. NITV does cover the event. They send a small number of staff—I would say approximately 10 crew—to cover the event and the content is by and for Indigenous audiences.

Senator ANTIC: You say 10, is that the number that SBS send or just NITV?

Mr Taylor : NITV is part of SBS, so the NITV crew is a number—I would say 10 or 12 individuals go up. I attended last year's event as well. It was in August if I recall correctly. To give you a sense of the work they do on the ground, they originated about 20 hours of the new content from the event, which would've been published out on our linear NITV service and also on digital platforms: think Facebook Live, think Instagram, think Twitter.

Senator ANTIC: How many of them were SBS reporters by comparison to how many were NITV reporters?

Mr Taylor : I will check, but I'm pretty sure the only crew on the ground were NITV crew.

Senator ANTIC: In terms of what they actually do when they are there, can you give a bit of an idea of what the staff are doing? And whether or not you consider that to be a fairly good return on investment? You've just said you got content out of that, so—

Mr Taylor : It would be unimaginable for the National Indigenous Television service not to be present at the Garma Festival. I think it's an incredibly good use of their time. Sending 10 people up to generate huge volumes of content is a very good investment. They use very a lean production methodology, which means they get all their signals back to our broadcast centres using a backpack which hooks into the 4G network. It's essentially a big mobile phone. It's a $18,000 piece of kit which facilitates all of that live broadcast being sent back. I think it's an incredible demonstration of their efficiency and tenacity as a member of the SBS family.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Minister, will Dr Hass Dellal soon conclude his term as chair of the SBS?

Senator Reynolds: Yes. I understand that's the case. I will get the dates for you and the details—2 June.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Hi current term concludes on 2 June?

Senator Reynolds: Yes. Because he served two terms he is not eligible for a further term.

Mr Atkinson : The minister has asked the panel to commence a recruitment process.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: That was my question. Has the government commenced the process for the appointment of the new chair?

Mr Atkinson : Yes.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Is the government using the nomination panel?

Mr Atkinson : Yes.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: What stage is the process up to? Has the role been advertised?

Mr Atkinson : I think it was requested in late January—

Mr Taylor : I think it was advertised Saturday a week ago.

Senator Reynolds: I can confirm the role has been advertised.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: It has been advertised?

Senator Reynolds: Yes.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Have applicants been shortlisted?

Mr Eccles : No. Applications haven't closed, as far as I understand.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: So applications are still open?

Mr Eccles : That's right.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: When do applications close?

Mr Eccles : I will come back to you on that. We should be able to get that to you presently.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Because then I'd be interested to know when you'd expect applications to be shortlisted—

Senator Reynolds: Applications close on 6 March.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: When do you expect applications to be shortlisted?

Mr Eccles : That's a matter for the panel. But they normally move in time to enable decisions to be made before the term of the current chairperson expires.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Is the nomination panel being assisted by a recruitment firm?

Mr Eccles : Yes.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: What recruitment firm?

Mr Eccles : I believe it is called Korn Ferry.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: What is the term of the contract with the recruitment firm?

Mr Makin : The contract runs until the middle of this year, to 30th June 2020.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: What is the value of the contract with that recruitment firm?

Mr Makin : It is $175,454.54.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: When will the announcement of the new chair be made?

Mr Eccles : The precise date of the announcement would be a matter for the government, but it would be in broad keeping with the fact that the current chair's appointment expires in June.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: So you'd expect it to be made—

Mr Eccles : At some point before that.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: broadly at some point before then.

Mr Eccles : Yes.

Senator Reynolds: Which is why the process is now commenced: to make sure that it's done in good time.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Mr Taylor, I've got some questions about natural program breaks. As you're aware, section 45 of the SBS Act regulates advertising and sponsorship on SBS and it provides that SBS can only broadcast ads or sponsorship announcements that run during periods before programs commence, after programs end or during natural program breaks. How does the SBS interpret the meaning of the words 'natural program breaks'?

Mr Taylor : Our intention is to reduce disruption to audience members through the insertion of advertising. We carry five minutes of advertising per hour, which is about a third of the ad load of commercial free-to-air operators. Sometimes there are slots in which an ad can be easily slotted into, because it was a slot that was identified by the program maker, but our classifiers work to find appropriate slots and therefore insert the ads in those programming breaks.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: How would you operationalise the words 'during natural program breaks'? How do you put them into practice?

Mr Taylor : We have some internal guidelines, which I can provide you notice if that would assist.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Yes, that would be fine. What guidance is provided to staff in ascertaining these breaks?

Mr Taylor : The guidance notes are used to provide guidance to the staff.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Is their industry best practice in determining what a natural program break is?

Mr Taylor : Without reading you specific words from the guidance, I think industry best practice is to minimise disruption to audiences and to minimise the interruption to the flow of the narrative of the story.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Does SBS have a different approach to this requirement depending on its platform or does it apply the same approach to its broadcast and catch-up service?

Mr Taylor : We apply the same approach methodologically, but it's fair to say that digital platforms are still relatively nascent in their capacity to provide smooth transitions to ads and other non-program material. We are working—as the entire industry is—to ensure as smooth a process as possible for the insertion of advertisements.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Do you receive many complaints about this issue of natural program breaks?

Mr Taylor : Not about natural program breaks.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Can or do people complain under section 45 of the act or does it need to be in the SBS code.

Mr Taylor : We accept complaints across a couple of mechanism. They're either formalised through our formal complaints mechanism or we take a whole raft of informal audience feedback through our complains line or through the lines of inquiry we open around our on demand platforms. We respond to every single complaint, and we take them all very seriously. It's obviously our intention to improve the quality of the experience over time for our audiences; therefore, the feedback is very useful to us.

Senator MARIELLE SMITH: Thanks. That's all my questions.

Senator GREEN: I'll just follow on from questions from Senator Antic about the Mardi Gras parade and the involvement SBS has in that production. Other departments or agencies of federal government have floats as well. I notice the Department of Defence has one, which, Minister, with another hat on, you must be very proud of. The AFP has a float as well. What is it about the SBS when it comes to supporting culturally and linguistically diverse LGBTI members of our community? Why is it important to support those people?

Mr Taylor : I think you're right. The Australian Defence Force, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and APRA, for example, all have floats in the parade. I would answer your question in a couple of ways. SBS is a network that prides itself on creating a more inclusive and participatory society. That means inclusion of everyone. You would be unsurprised to know that it's possible to be a member of the multicultural community and a member of the LGBTQI+ community, with this notion of intersectionality that people speak of.

Senator GREEN: I am.

Mr Taylor : Therefore we want to make sure that members of both communities feel like it's okay to be members of both communities. We think it's a really great demonstration of contemporary Australia.

Senator GREEN: Thank you.

Senator CANAVAN: Mr Taylor, I'd like to take you to an article that I believe is on the SBS website. It's on SBS News and is titled: 'Fires not due to climate change: expert.' This article was originally published, I believe, on 21 October 2013. The reason I'm bringing it up now is that Mr Dave Pellowe tweeted, back in November last year—I think it's complementary to you—and said it was 'unusual balance' from SBS News, quoted from the article and included a link. Apparently, within an hour of that tweet going up, the article disappeared from the SBS website. It's up on the website again. It appears that it went back up a couple of days later, after that tweet, and it says on your website that it was updated on 14 November 2019. Are you aware of the removal of the story?

Mr Taylor : I'm not aware of the tweet you're referring to. I'm aware that the article was removed and republished—yes.

Senator CANAVAN: What were the circumstances behind that removal?

Mr Taylor : The article was published originally in 2013 in relation to the then current bushfires. The article was live for the six-year period until the bushfires that started occurring in late 2019. As I understand it, our view was that the article had started to be shared in a way that was confusing to audiences about it relating to the 2019 bushfire crisis, not the 2013 bushfire crisis, so the story was pulled by the editorial team. We attempted to identify the expert in question. We couldn't find him. I think he's retired. But we did find some work that he did with another network a couple of days prior, so we updated the story simply to say that the story had been updated and that the expert still held the current views, and we republished the article. There was some other reporting in The Sydney Morning Herald by Jennifer Duke which also spoke to our decision to republish the article. It was characterised as a demonstration of responsible journalism to make sure that we were considering the context in which the article was being consumed as well as the content of the article itself.

Senator CANAVAN: My understanding is that this article was removed within an hour of the tweet occurring, and you're saying that, within that hour, SBS experts concluded that the article was confusing?

Mr Taylor : I don't think the article was confusing; I think the context in which—

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. I'm not going to dispute that, but you said that the discussion around the article led to a level of confusion. That was determined within an hour of the tweet going up. Is that correct?

Mr Taylor : Again, Senator, I'm not aware of the tweet to which you're referring, so I can't speak to the time line.

Senator CANAVAN: Can you take on notice when the article was removed from the SBS website—

Mr Taylor : Sure; absolutely.

Senator CANAVAN: and we'll be able to check that, and also who within SBS made the decision to remove the news article.

Mr Taylor : Absolutely, Senator.

Senator CANAVAN: Is it like the ABC? Are you the editor of SBS News, so to speak, like the head of the ABC?

Mr Taylor : I'm the editor-in-chief of—

Senator CANAVAN: So you're ultimately responsible for new stories?

Mr Taylor : I am, Senator.

Senator CANAVAN: Are you aware of other articles being removed from the SBS website?

Mr Taylor : I'm happy to take that on notice. It's worth noting that the article—

Senator CANAVAN: I'm happy for you to take that generally on notice but in particular if there have been other new articles removed from the SBS website because of a confusing discussion around the context of an article.

Mr Taylor : Certainly, Senator.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Taylor. I thank you and your team. If you've taken any questions on notice, the date for return is Friday 17 April. If you could get back to the committee by then, that would be appreciated.