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Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

Senator CONROY —I would like to start with the decision of SBS to introduce what it calls a ‘new program-break structure’. On 1 June SBS announced that it would introduce a new policy that would see ads routinely placed within programs. When was this policy implemented?

Mr Brown —The policy is in the process of being implemented. Some programs adopted the new break structure early this month, but it will not be fully implemented until the beginning of next year.

Senator CONROY —What has been the audience reaction to date?

Mr Brown —We have had phone calls of complaint, as we expected. My recollection is that in the first two days they were running at about 400 complaints overnight. Complaints are currently running at about 20 or 30. That was expected; it would be unlikely that any audience would welcome any changes or the introduction of advertising of this type.

Senator CONROY —How many complaints has SBS received to date about the new advertising policy?

Mr Brown —I would have thought it is probably in the region of a thousand, because I cannot tell whether it is the same complainants are ringing up on consecutive nights.

Senator CONROY —You said that you have only partially introduced the structure at this stage. Would it be 10 per cent of programs that are affected, or 20 per cent or 50 per cent?

Mr Brown —It is probably less than 10 per cent.

Senator CONROY —So you have had a thousand complaints for less than 10 per cent of programs.

Mr Brown —The complaints come through on nights when there are no programs affected, so I do not think it is particularly related to the number of programs. I think what has happened is that a general awareness—

Senator CONROY —So there is a general outrage rather than specific?

Mr Brown —There is probably a sense of concern even in advance of the structure being introduced.

Senator CONROY —It was reported by Amanda Meade in the Australian on 19 October 2006:

We hear management has had to put an extra staff member on to handle the number of complaints, and the tally is so high staff have had to stop logging each call.

Did you have to put on an extra staff member?

Mr Brown —I do not believe so. We do not log—

Senator CONROY —I understand it is required under the act that you log every phone call.

Mr Brown —Yes, but we tend to group them anyhow—even phone calls of congratulation or a cluster of phone calls making the same point. For that matter, we group clusters of emails. I should have said that the previous numbers included emails. I am not aware of any change in that regard.

Senator CONROY —If there is any change to that—extra staff having been involved in receiving the phone calls—please let us know. Take that on notice.

Mr Brown —Certainly.

Senator CONROY —What research was done on the likely audience reaction to the new policy?

Mr Brown —In the course of formulating this new practice some audience research was carried out, but it would not have specifically addressed the question: ‘Do you or don’t you favour this?’ One does not need to carry out research to know that audiences do not favour advertising. I think it is as simple as that. What we were interested in testing, though, was whether it was acceptable if it was necessary for the wellbeing of SBS and the continuance of its programming policies, including the making of more Australian programs and protecting current levels of investment in programs. My recollection is that that came through, and I believe it came through even three or four years ago when this matter was previously considered—that, if it were a question of survival, if the alternative was the cancelling of programs, then this was acceptable.

Senator CONROY —Can you explain the process of public consultation that was undertaken in relation to the issues you have talked about around the introduction of in-house programming?

Mr Brown —The process of public consultation took place after the in-principle decision. The consultation related to the manner in which it would be implemented, which is an option that SBS has under its act. It is already carried out in program breaks in radio and has done so for the last 10 years. It has also selectively done this with a number of television programs, particularly in sports but also in things like the Eurovision Song Contest, so it is not a totally new policy. The consultation took the form of publishing draft guidelines to govern the placement of breaks and how one assesses a natural break. Comments were invited and considered before the guidelines were adopted at the beginning of October.

Senator CONROY —You indicated some degree of support from people who understood that if it were a choice between losing or not making as many Australian documentaries they could live with it. Did I unfairly characterise your earlier response?

Mr Brown —That is correct. That comes about partly through audience research and partly through engagement with organisations such as FECCA, which made public comments on their concerns about this step. However, in my dialogue with their executive—when I took them through the rationale—although their concerns still remain, there is a considerable degree of understanding that if SBS is to continue to carry on with and expand its role then this is understandable and acceptable.

Senator CONROY —It sounds like they were presented with a choice: ‘You can have advertising or bubonic plague, which would you prefer?’ Funnily enough, they chose advertising.

Mr Brown —The issue is not solely about revenue. We have tried to make that clear. Our audiences have already indicated by their behaviour that they do not accept the current model either, as I think we have demonstrated. When we carry these large breaks of seven or eight minutes between each program, audiences simply desert SBS. They vote with their feet in terms of the current structure.

Apart from the revenue issue, it led to two significant issues for us and for our audiences. Firstly, there was no sort of audience flow which every other network would expect. We were simply shutting off our audience and having to try to restart at the commencement of each program. Secondly, and very importantly, under the current structure we were unable to place our program promotions in accessible areas. That meant that we were failing to reach our audience with information about other programs, which is critical if we are to deliver the charter obligations of reaching out to all Australians. I can say anecdotally that I think everybody who works at SBS is constantly confronted with this: ‘I hear you had a wonderful doco on last night. I’d have watched it if only I’d known it was on.’ We really had to address that issue. So, alongside the commercial content that sits now within programs, there is and will be promotional content as well.

Senator CONROY —SBS has a community advisory committee, I understand. Was this committee consulted by SBS before the board’s decision to introduce in-house program ad breaks?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator CONROY —What has been their reaction?

Mr Brown —The committee is an advisory committee to the board, not to management. I think it fair to say that they would have wished there had been consultation. But in my discussions with them I have made the point that, in this situation, SBS was really making a decision on a business practice. Management takes to the board many recommendations regarding business practices—investments—and they do not routinely go through the community advisory committee. The community advisory committee generally addresses issues of concern to particular ethnic communities. It is selected on that basis to be representative of multicultural Australia. I do not think the placing of advertisements is a particularly multicultural issue. It lies at the heart of a business issue for SBS.

Senator CONROY —When you say you think they were unhappy, have they expressed themselves?

Mr Brown —I do not believe there is a formal resolution to that effect. It is customary for me to attend a community advisory committee meeting and to talk to them, and that certainly was the sense that I got from my discussions with some of them. I think it is fair to say as well that that was not a committee view; it was a view of some members of the committee. Again, I would have to say I had a similar reaction to the one I had when I had discussions with FECCA, that there is a measure of understanding of what this involves.

Senator CONROY —Did the community express a position; did it take a view?

Mr Brown —I do not believe it did.

Senator CONROY —There wasn’t a motion?

Mr Brown —On this, I do not believe there was.

Senator CONROY —Do you want to take that on notice?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator CONROY —You have been to all of the committee’s meetings in recent months?

Mr Brown —No, I think I have missed one. They meet only quarterly. I certainly attended the last one, but I think I missed the one before.

Senator CONROY —Going to the issue of promos, you can put promos anywhere you want to. During half-time at soccer, you can promo your own shows. In fact, you do. They do not count as ads under the SBS Act, do they.

Mr Brown —No, they do not. Indeed, there was a discussion some three or four years ago about whether or not SBS should interrupt programs for promos only. That was not a matter governed by the act; promos could be placed anywhere in the schedule—interrupting programs, not even in natural breaks—so that is correct.

Senator CONROY —Section 45 of the SBS Act states that SBS is limited to five minutes of advertisements per hour at the beginning or end of programs or during natural program breaks. The term ‘natural program break’ is not defined by the act, but up until this year SBS has given it a limited meaning. Would you agree with that?

Mr Brown —With radio I think it had taken a different meaning from that in television, so there was not a consistency of approach. Certainly the application of that had been in favour of breaks between programs rather than within programs, with some exceptions.

Senator CONROY —Under the old SBS Codes of Practice, a rest period during a sporting event is given as an example of a natural program break; is that correct?

Mr Brown —That is my recollection.

Senator CONROY —So there had been a code of practice that discussed, and even defined, some of these areas.

Mr Brown —Yes. I think I am right in believing that it was in the interval between operas and things like that. Clearly they are the most self-evident natural break within programs. There are actually more natural breaks within events which are being televised rather than program breaks. There are breaks within programs. It is probably widely known that a lot of the material we source from overseas arrives with breaks already in it. The practice has been to edit those programs so that the breaks are removed.

Senator CONROY —I am looking at the old SBS Codes of Practice, under ‘Advertising and sponsorship’, which says:

Advertising announcements must not distract from the value of SBS Radio and Television programs as a medium of information, education and entertainment. Natural program breaks, as referred to in Section 45(2)(a) of the SBS Act, include:

  • any pause during coverage of an event where audiences miss none of the proceedings that relate directly to the event (for example, rest periods in sports events); and
  • the junctions of the program segments that are contained in SBS Radio programs.

I think that implies what you were discussing.

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator CONROY —In terms of consistent policy on TV and radio the code is fairly straightforward. It says that for TV and radio a ‘natural break’ is, for example, half-time in a football match of any code.

Mr Brown —That was the previous policy and definition. We did have breaks in programs like the Eurovision Song Contest, which was shown as live and which had natural breaks.

Senator CONROY —Their natural breaks were included because you bought a program in which there were natural breaks, so you had no choice but to put something in there or have a blank screen.

Mr Brown —You can edit them out.

Senator CONROY —But, as you said, you show it live.

Mr Brown —It was shown as ‘live’.

Senator CONROY —Under the old policy, which programs carried ads within them?

Mr Brown —On television: the Eurovision Song Contest, sports events and the Ashes. Even under the old code the gap between overs during the Ashes series was deemed to be a natural break, but there was some debate about whether what was taking place on the field between overs was a continuous part of the action.

Senator CONROY —I thought you supplemented—and I am not sure whether you kept taking the feed from overseas—the Ashes series with expert commentary, with various examples in which two or three quick deliveries were shown. I thought that was very valuable and really showed the thinking behind some of the strategies. Certainly it was not in every ad break but you did that during a fair few of the over breaks.

Mr Brown —I think it is true that our coverage of the Ashes carried less commercial content than would have been the case if it had been televised on Channel 7 or 9 or 10. In part that was due to the fact that we have a five-minute cap, so that was a natural sort of capping. You are correct: Channel 4 provided in some of the between over breaks an analysis that we chose to tape.

Senator CONROY —So we have Eurovision, sporting contests, and the Ashes in particular; are there any other programs?

Mr Brown —There probably are, but I cannot recall any of them. There would not be many.

Senator CONROY —So, under the new advertising guidelines, SBS has decided to give the term ‘natural program break’ a wider meaning. Did the board seek legal advice on whether its new policy was consistent with the act?

Mr Brown —SBS obtained legal advice at the senior counsel level.

Senator CONROY —Was that external to the organisation?

Mr Brown —Yes, it was external.

Senator CONROY —How much did that cost?

Mr Brown —I would have to take that on notice.

Senator CONROY —You probably could have saved a couple of ad breaks, knowing the prices in Sydney of SCs.

Mr Brown —I think the net benefit to the budget will be evident.

Senator CONROY —So you will let us know how much that cost?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator CONROY —Can you table that advice?

Mr Brown —No, I cannot table that advice; my understanding is that it would jeopardise legal privilege.

Senator CONROY —You can waive it yourself. You are the owner of it.

Mr Brown —There are commercial issues as well. So it is commercial-in-confidence, and there are legal privilege issues.

Senator CONROY —You are not a commercial broadcaster. I know the minister whispered that answer to you, but you are not actually a commercial broadcaster.

Senator Coonan —Senator Conroy, SBS is not a commercial broadcaster, but it does have commercially sensitive information.

Senator CONROY —What is commercially sensitive about—

Senator Coonan —Well, it has competitors.

Senator CONROY —I am asking Mr Brown. What is commercially sensitive about a definition or a legal advice on an act of parliament? It does not sound like there are any commercial interests involved.

Mr Brown —There could be. That is because of the issue of our competitors and their attitudes towards our decision.

Senator CONROY —You did not take any legal advice about how much money you would make, did you, or what you could charge?

Mr Brown —No. I am constrained in what I can say about the legal advice because of the—

Senator CONROY —You are not constrained at all. You paid for it.

Mr Brown —In order to protect legal privilege—

Senator CONROY —There is no legal privilege to protect if you choose to waive it.

Mr Brown —But I do not choose to waive it. There are commercial considerations, and they relate to the same thing. It is because of the possible views of our competitors, who have already expressed publicly that they do not approve of what we are doing.

Senator CONROY —Have any of them suggested that they would take a legal case against you? I have not heard that, and I have heard plenty of the screeches.

Mr Brown —Because they have not said that I do not believe it removes the possibility.

Senator CONROY —You are just being shy, Mr Brown. You have an excellent SC opinion. You should be proud to table it and say, ‘Look, we have no problems with this.’

Mr Brown —I stand by my answer, Senator, that I believe there are issues of legal privilege and commerciality involved.

Senator CONROY —Is there any difference on where ads can be placed under the new SBS guidelines, compared to where they are placed on commercial television?

Mr Brown —I guess there are two issues. Firstly, breaks on SBS will be shorter and less frequent than is the case on commercial television. That relates to the five-minute caps. So from a viewer perspective, and viewers are already seeing that, the breaks are very short and they are not particularly frequent.

Senator CONROY —When you say ‘less frequent’, how can one period per hour be less frequent if you are doing—

Mr Brown —No, not less frequent than the previous SBS model; less frequent than the Seven, Nine and Ten models, which is the comparison I thought you were seeking. With regard to the identification of a natural break, I really do not know what Seven, Nine and Ten do there. I think in some cases, their definition of a natural break would accord with ours. In others it might not.

Senator CONROY —We will never know. You will not tell us what your definition is. You will not show us your legal advice.

Mr Brown —I think our approach and our instruction to staff responsible for this are contained in the new guidelines, which we have made public for people to comment on, and I think they do because every type of program represents potentially a different style of natural break. Clearly, the radio model of between segments is an easy identification. Sport you have already mentioned. With drama it is where there is a significant time lapse change, or a significant change in locality. These are potentially natural breaks. People responsible for identifying those natural breaks are being trained to make those assessments. As I have said previously, there are a number of programs which arrive at SBS with breaks already positioned in them that have been identified by the producer as natural breaks.

Senator CONROY —Minister, has the government taken any legal advice about whether the SBS is complying—

Senator Coonan —Not that I have instigated. I do not know whether the department has.

Ms Williams —No, we have not.

Senator CONROY —You had noted that the SBS has started ads during programs and changed its definition?

—The starting point for this is that, as you know, the Labor government in 1991 said that there can be advertising. I am informed by Mr Brown that there is no increase in the amount of advertising and that it is to be introduced in natural breaks. Until there is some issue that arises out of what I have been told is to happen, I cannot on the face of it see that there is a legal breach.

Senator CONROY —What programs will now have ads that previously did not?

Mr Brown —I do not think there is any specific prohibition on any programs. There may, though, be occasions where a program does not present itself with a natural break and a case-by-case decision is made not to place commercials in it.

Senator CONROY —Can we expect ad breaks in news bulletins?

Mr Brown —Yes. I think news programs are probably one of the groups that are easiest to identify natural breaks in because they are segmented. It is not unusual to see, as with our news but even with the ABC news, a pause or break to either reflect on the headlines or talk about upcoming material. Even the BBC would do that in the middle of its programs. So there are breaks already existing. In the case of our Dateline program, between items we already carry a sort of break with a graphic and a musical sting to indicate a change of subject. I think that qualifies as a natural break.

Senator CONROY —Do you seriously believe that the SBS’s interpretation is consistent with the intent of parliament?

Mr Brown —I can really only go on what the act says and what I believe from my understanding of the circumstances to lie behind the original decision. My assumption—and I have never been challenged on this—is that SBS is a hybrid funded broadcaster. It is substantially reliant on government funding, but from 1991 it was entitled to raise its own revenue to supplement that government funding. It would seem to me to be wrong of SBS to turn its face against commercial opportunity that produces revenue that allows it to deliver its charter more effectively.

Senator CONROY —I am looking at the act, and it says:

The SBS may only broadcast advertisements or sponsorship announcements:

(a)  that run during periods before programs commence, after programs end or during natural program breaks; and

(b)  that run in total for not more than 5 minutes in any hour of broadcasting.

They seem to be limitations. They are saying that there are only certain places you can run ads—that seems to be what this section does. But, under your new definition, there are no limits. Every single place can potentially have advertising. It just seems to me that with the way the act was written—and I have spoken to some of the people who were involved in drafting it—it was not open slather. Clearly, it does not say: ‘Just have ads wherever you want;’ it says: ‘You can have ads in only a couple of places,’ and yet, as you have testified, there is now open slather in every single program. That just seems to me to be inconsistent with the intent of the limits that the legislation attempted to set. You have now defined those limits as being unlimited.

Mr Brown —I do not believe I have said that.

Senator CONROY —What, you can put them in every single—

Mr Brown —Firstly, the five-minute break does remain. Secondly and more importantly, the placement of those breaks is dependent on a natural break being identified. I think the act also requires the board to draw up guidelines in terms of placement of ads, and it has now done that. The identification of natural breaks does mean from time to time that there may be programs that do not have breaks and there may be programs that have a different break structure than the basic working model that we have identified for staff. When I said that there was no general prohibition on a particular genre of programs, I was not indicating that it was open slather on the placement of breaks; I was indicating that the starting point is that any program should be considered as being capable of having natural breaks and the processes that take place internally in accordance with the new guidelines will determine if those breaks exist and where they exist.

Senator CONROY —Is there a natural program break in Inspector Rex? Can we look forward to ads in Inspector Rex?

Mr Brown —We have not put Inspector Rex on the list of programs to be dealt with.

A moth having flown into one of the spotlights and smoke coming out of the light—

Senator CONROY —We are on fire.

Senator Coonan —That is a natural break!

Senator CONROY —This is definitely a natural program break. If SBS are covering this, they can put an ad in right now. We were just wondering whether we could look forward to Inspector Rex having ads.

Mr BrownInspector Rex is a drama. There is a guideline established for natural breaks in drama programs and, if those guidelines identify breaks inside Inspector Rex, then, yes, Inspector Rex will have breaks.

Senator CONROY —When he stops for a drink or has some food? I am just wondering what your definition of a natural break is. The burning bogongs are back. Is that you on fire over there, Senator Fierravanti-Wells? Are you burning something? We may need a natural program break here. The devil has arrived: I can smell the incense burning.

CHAIR —Senator Conroy, at the meeting on Wednesday the committee decided they would rotate questioners after around 15 or 20 minutes. You have been going for half an hour. I wonder if we might move on to another questioner.

Senator CONROY —When you say ‘the committee’ decided, you mean the Liberal majority decided.

CHAIR —No, it was done by consensus.

Senator CONROY —I am told it was not consensus at all. I just wish you would stop misrepresenting the committee’s deliberations.

CHAIR —I do not think I am doing that. Senator Ian Macdonald has just raised the fact that this was decided. I am calling your attention to the fact that you have been on the floor for about half an hour.

Senator CONROY —I was unaware that this was the new practice of the committee. I guess it is a natural program break under the definition of the legislation.

CHAIR —It could be, Senator Conroy. You are on the money there.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It is a natural break, Senator Conroy.

CHAIR —Perhaps you might finish this segment, Senator Conroy, and we will go to someone else.

Senator CONROY —Can I indicate that I think this is an abuse of the Senate estimates process, but you have the numbers and you will do what you like.

CHAIR —We do take note of your comments, Senator Conroy, and we thank you for concluding at that point.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was going to move a motion, but the committee as a whole decided it was not necessary to move a motion and that, in courtesy to each other, we would naturally move on at about 15 minutes so every senator had a chance to operate. Senator Lundy spoke on it and she said, ‘As long as that does not mean you will lock us out.’ As I said to her, there are many government senators who also have questions of agencies who want to get some answers. This is not the sole preserve of the Labor Party.

Senator CONROY —Senator Lundy indicated to me that it was not a consensus. I can only go on that basis.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It was a consensus. Senator Lundy was involved.

CHAIR —Senator Wortley did not make a comment at the time.

Senator WORTLEY —It was not actually a resolution; it was an informal discussion.

CHAIR —That was what Senator Macdonald is saying.

Senator WORTLEY —It did not come to a conclusion. It was that everyone gets the opportunity to ask questions if they have questions. You are right: 15 minutes was suggested, but I cannot recall 15 minutes being the agreed time. It would depend on who the witnesses were and the allocated time.

CHAIR —I agree with you, Senator Wortley.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is a matter of common courtesy, with respect.

CHAIR —Senator Wortley is correct: it was not agreed that it would be 15 minutes.

Senator CONROY —This is the only committee that has imposed this. It is not a matter of common courtesy. Courtesy applies on every other committee I have ever been on. Just because you have spent most of the last 10 years sitting over there, Senator McDonald, it is not discourteous to allow the opposition to finish its line of questioning.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Before I was sitting over there, I was chairman of the finance and administration committee. We religiously applied a 15-minute segment for everybody so that everyone had an opportunity, fairly, to question. It is simply a matter of common courtesy.

CHAIR —Let’s go through the chair.

Senator CONROY —Nobody claimed that it was by consensus.

Senator WORTLEY —It was not a formal vote.

CHAIR —There was a discussion and there appeared to be a consensus. As Senator Wortley said, it was agreed that we would rotate the questioning. I have called your attention to the fact that you have been going for half an hour. Maybe, if you want to finish this particular line of questioning, we can move onto someone else and come back to you.

Senator CONROY —I was intending to finish my questions to SBS but you and others are indicating that you want to take the call from me. I am in your hands, Chair.

CHAIR —I will take the call from you, and I will pass to Senator Ronaldson.

Senator CONROY —I am not offering the call; I am just indicating that you have said you are going to take it.

CHAIR —It will come back to you.

Senator RONALDSON —Mr Brown, could you introduce your team. I am not too sure who is who.

Mr Brown —Paul Broderick is the Director, Technology and Distribution. I think he has appeared previously. Jon Torpy is the Chief Financial Officer, who has appeared before. Bruce Meagher is our Director, Strategy and Communications—a new appointment, so this will be his first time with SBS. David Ingram is Acting Director, Radio. The new appointment to Radio does not take her position at SBS for another two weeks.

Senator RONALDSON —So this would be called the A team, would it? This is your A team, do you think?

Mr Brown —I am sure they would like to be called that.

Senator RONALDSON —These are your senior people, are they not?

Senator CONROY —It is not Telstra!

Mr Brown —This is part of the senior executive.

Senator RONALDSON —You would be acutely aware of what underpins SBS: a multicultural, multilingual viewpoint for all Australians.

Mr Brown —I am aware of its history and its charter.

Senator RONALDSON —Would you accept that the front bench is a bit waspy?

Mr Brown —I am not aware of that being a prerequisite.

Senator RONALDSON —Do any of your A team speak another language? Clearly not.

Mr Brown —It is not something I have asked them.

Senator CONROY —Just a question of relevance: I am just looking at how this is relevant to additional Senate estimates.

CHAIR —I suppose Senator Ronaldson is developing a point, so we will let him finish doing that.

Senator RONALDSON —He is!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is as relevant as a break is in an SBS program, for heaven’s sake.

Senator RONALDSON —It is hard to disagree with that. Quang Luu was your former director of News, was he not?

Mr Brown —No, Quang Luu is the director of Radio.

Senator RONALDSON —Where is Mr Luu?

Mr Brown —Mr Luu has stepped down from SBS. His replacement is Paula Masselos. As I said earlier, she is to take up her position in two weeks time. You will see her at future hearings.

Senator RONALDSON —Did he step down on a voluntary basis, or was he removed from his position?

Mr Brown —He stepped down in accordance with what we outlined at the time of his decision to step down. He certainly was not removed.

Senator RONALDSON —He was not removed?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator RONALDSON —How much time did he have left on his contract? Or, I should ask, was he on a contract?

Mr Brown —His contract had not expired; there were some months left on it. It is not unusual at a time when an organisation is undergoing change, as we were, for there to be a discussion about the timing of someone’s departure.

Senator RONALDSON —How long had he been there for?

Mr Brown —For 17 years, so it was not unexpected that it would come to an end. That is a pretty significant period—it is probably longer than any senior executive in virtually any broadcasting organisation would stay in a single position.

Senator RONALDSON —What reasons did he give for seeking to discontinue his position?

Mr Brown —The decision emerged after a discussion between us about the continued change required of radio in accordance with the changes required of the overall organisation.

Senator RONALDSON —I take it from that that you had one course of action and he had another. Is that correct?

Mr Brown —No, this was not a disputatious issue.

Senator RONALDSON —I take it from what you are saying that he disagreed with your direction in relation to radio.

Mr Brown —No, that is not correct.

Senator RONALDSON —What was the discussion about on the direction of radio then?

Mr Brown —The discussion was about the fact that SBS was under new leadership—that is, my leadership—and about to embark on a review of all of its activities, certainly not radio in isolation. Given that this was almost certain to produce a changed agenda—it invariably does, particularly after such a long period—the issue was discussed openly with him about whether this was a suitable time for him to step down rather than wait out the final few months of his contract.

Senator RONALDSON —Was he paid out the balance of his contract?

Mr Brown —A confidential commercial settlement was reached with him.

Senator RONALDSON —Why would you be paying him out if he resigned?

Mr Brown —It was an agreed departure on mutual terms.

Senator RONALDSON —So it was not solely his decision?

Mr Brown —Ultimately it was.

Senator RONALDSON —Because a scenario had been put to him where it was impossible for him to continue? Is that what occurred?

Mr Brown —No, that is not the case at all.

Senator RONALDSON —It just seems very strange, Mr Brown, that you would be paying out someone who had decided there was no longer a place for them in the organisation.

Mr Brown —I did not say we paid him out; I said we reached a commercial settlement.

Senator RONALDSON —Was he paid anything further than for his last day of work?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —So he was paid out, wasn’t he?

Mr Brown —I think the implication—

Senator RONALDSON —Was he or wasn’t he? Was he paid out or was he just paid up until the date that he, according to you, allegedly resigned?

Mr Brown —The implication of ‘paid out’ implies that the full term of his contract was paid, with all of the allowances and considerations that go with it. I am saying that is not the case. There was a mutually agreed commercial arrangement.

Senator RONALDSON —Can I go to the code of practice and the news and current affairs section. In part, it says:

SBS believes in the right of the audience to make up its own mind after an objective presentation of the issues.

To this end, all reasonable effort must be made to ensure that the factual content of news and current affairs programs is accurate, having regard to the circumstances, and facts known, at the time of preparing and broadcasting the programs.

SBS will take reasonable steps to ensure timely correction ...

... not misrepresenting them or unduly favouring one over another.

Reasonable effort should be made to ensure news and current affairs programs are balanced and impartial ...

Is that the new code of practice?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —In your view, is SBS—your reporters and others—always balanced and impartial when presenting news and current affairs items?

Mr Brown —I think there are occasions when any media organisation would not meet the obligations under its code or guidelines or whatever, but my view is that by and large, yes, that is the case—that our journalists and producers do deliver against this code.

Senator RONALDSON —Could you give me some examples of where they have not been balanced and impartial?

Mr Brown —I am not so sure it is quite a case of impartiality, but in recent weeks the audience affairs manager, operating under the new complaints procedure, has upheld two complaints and partially upheld three complaints. They relate to two specific stories. The number of complaints probably suggests otherwise, but there were two issues. In those two cases there was a failure against the code.

Senator RONALDSON —What were they?

Mr Brown —One was a Dateline program where there was a complaint that insufficient weight or information had been given on an Israeli position on a particular debate. That was upheld. The other related to a World News Australia story from the BBC which was included in a program. It attracted four complaints, one of them specifically about the item. The other three were more general complaints that the bulletin lacked balance. It was a decision of the audience affairs manager and the complaints committee on that one that the complaint against the actual item was upheld. The complaints against the actual program were partially upheld, confined only to the shortcomings of that particular report.

Senator RONALDSON —I take it from that that you believe equal weight should be given to different views in programming. You just said that insufficient weight was given to the Israeli point of view in relation to this Dateline, and that was upheld—is that right? That is what you just said.

Mr Brown —Yes. I do not believe it was a case of equal weight; I just believe it was a shortcoming and that not sufficient weight had been accorded to a comment.

Senator RONALDSON —With an item like that, do you believe that there should be some balance—even if it is not equal weight—in the reporting of those sorts of items?

Mr Brown —Yes. It is a requirement of SBS that we have balance.

Senator RONALDSON —Can I take you to the code of practice again. Do documentaries fall within the remit of the code of practice relating to news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —No, they do not.

Senator RONALDSON —What part of the code does govern and guide SBS in relation to the content of documentaries?

Mr Brown —General programming—segment 1.

Senator RONALDSON —That is 1.2, is it—‘Diversity of views and perspectives’?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —That is the same section where it states that some subject matter broadcast by SBS may be considered controversial. Section 70A of the act states:

... SBS may determine to what extent and in what manner political matter or controversial matter will be broadcast by the SBS.

Is that right?

Mr Brown —That is correct, yes.

Senator RONALDSON —Is it not reasonable for the public to have the same expectations from documentaries as they would in relation to news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —No, I do not think it would be reasonable. I think this matter has been addressed before. Documentaries cover an enormous range of content, and the obligation that we accept is that there be a wide-ranging number of perspectives delivered across the range of programs. It is almost impossible to conceive of a situation where one documentary balances another documentary or indeed that, within a program, there is equal weight given. For example, in recent times SBS has run a documentary on the Buchenwald Ball, a documentary about Australian survivors of Buchenwald attending an annual ball to celebrate their survival. I am not sure where one would begin to discuss a balancing issue in that regard. Also, we recently carried a documentary on anti-Semitism. It is hard to imagine a call for us to carry a balancing documentary representing an opposite point of view or even to say that within that program equal weight must be given to those people who do not believe that anti-Semitism is inappropriate.

Senator RONALDSON —So you do not believe that there are any circumstances where there should be a requirement for impartiality, for example?

Mr Brown —The test of impartiality relates more to news and current affairs. I have addressed this before, but I think the protection against any predominant view being expressed through our selection of documentaries is to make sure that there is the widest possible range of perspectives. I know the contentious area here is the Middle East. Almost invariably these discussions come down to the selection of documentaries in this area, and I would say that our documentary selection represents a wide range of perspectives. I draw your attention to an article in the Australian Jewish News recently which applauded SBS for its range of documentaries and said that, although it had previously had concerns, those concerns have now largely been addressed.

Senator RONALDSON —Mr Brown, if only it were only the Middle East causing problems. Under what circumstances would documentaries qualify as news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —I would like to quote that article, if I may.

Senator RONALDSON —Perhaps you can table it.

Mr Brown —Yes. The article says:

... there has been definite improvement over recent months in SBS documentary programming, symbolised by a recent two-week period when SBS showed three major documentaries touching on the Middle East, all of them informative, un-ideological and well worth seeing.

The author goes on to list the documentaries, and says further:

... but the real positive change toward actually approaching the stated goal of “balance over time” in documentary programming must be acknowledged.

Senator RONALDSON —That was for documentaries.

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —Not news and current affairs.

Mr Brown —No. But we were talking about the test of impartiality.

Senator RONALDSON —The allegation had been that your documentaries were not balanced and were biased.

Mr Brown —That allegation is often made.

Senator RONALDSON —Why are you taking great comfort that someone is saying that it is pleasing to see that there has been some improvement?

Mr Brown —I am not taking great comfort. I pointed out to you that there is a range of views about how well we deliver against this.

Senator RONALDSON —But you said before that it does not matter, and that as far as you are concerned documentaries can be biased and impartial and that that does not breach any guidelines. So why would you now be celebrating the fact that someone has said that your documentaries are showing less bias and less impartiality?

Mr Brown —What I said was: the protection against a predominant or biased view emerging in the selection of documentaries is to make sure that the widest possible range of perspectives and views is expressed. That is the requirement in the code, and that is what I believe we are delivering against. I offered the quote from the article only to make the point that an area which has previously been strongly critical of our selection of documentaries in the Middle East is acknowledging that we do deliver a range of different perspectives. I am not trying to suggest that that author has any great approval of our news and current affairs, quite the contrary.

Senator RONALDSON —I think the point has been made. In what circumstances would documentaries qualify as news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —The definition of ‘documentary’ is not a particularly definite one. I think some people would regard a Dateline program that devotes itself to a single subject as probably being a documentary. But under our codes we would regard that as being current affairs.

Senator RONALDSON —I cannot imagine the circumstances where a Dateline program would be viewed as a documentary, but it is an interesting concept.

Mr Brown —It is not unusual approach. It is a pretty standard approach to the continuum that exists in factual coverage.

Senator RONALDSON —You agree that Dateline is news and current affairs.

Mr Brown —For the purpose of the codes, yes. But my point is that a full-length Dateline program could equally go into the international market and be sold as a documentary, in the same way as we might buy a documentary.

Senator RONALDSON —Would not a documentary on David Hicks qualify as current affairs?

Mr Brown —If it were made by Dateline in a current affairs context, I suppose it would. But if it is a documentary made by a documentary maker and presented in a documentary timeslot, where the audience is aware that they are watching one of a series of documentaries across the year, no it would not fall under news and current affairs.

Senator RONALDSON —Would not a documentary on Palestine qualify as current affairs, or a documentary on Israel or Lebanon?

Mr Brown —No, no more than a documentary on anti-Semitism or the one we ran last week on progressive Islam initiatives in Morocco.

Senator RONALDSON —Aren’t they current affairs? Wouldn’t anything regarding Palestine, Hicks, Israel or Lebanon be viewed as news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —No, I do not believe so.

Senator RONALDSON —You do not?

Mr Brown —No, I do not.

Senator RONALDSON —Where would the documentaries where you say there is no requirement for a lack of bias or for impartiality fit under the code? Would they fit under the section where it talks about the right of the audience to make up its own mind?

Mr Brown —That is under 1.2.

Senator RONALDSON —Yes. What do the rest of those words say? Don’t they say ‘after an objective presentation of the issues’?

Mr Brown —Can you point me to the paragraph that you are looking at?

Senator RONALDSON —It says in the code:

... the right of the audience to make up its own mind after an objective presentation of the issues.

That applies to the news and current affairs section. Does that apply to documentaries or just to news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —Section 2 applies to news and current affairs.

Senator RONALDSON —So that I am clear on this, are programs such as Dateline viewed as being subject to the code of practice for news and current affairs?

Mr Brown —That is correct.

Senator RONALDSON —The new code of practice says that only significant errors of fact need to be corrected. What is the definition of a ‘significant error of fact’?

Mr Brown —I think that is a case-by-case judgement. But if it is a case that we have someone’s age wrong or there is a spelling error or something like that, that is not deemed to be a significant error of fact. If, however, it is a factual error that distorts the understanding of the viewer then it is a significant error of fact.

Senator RONALDSON —Who would make that decision?

Mr Brown —A lot decisions about minor errors are made at the level of the individual programs. If it were an error of fact identified through the complaints process and resulted in an uphold as being an inaccuracy then it would be for the director of news and current affairs to identify what action he proposed to take and for me, as editor-in-chief, to approve that.

Senator RONALDSON —Might it be considered, for instance, a significant error of fact to describe a person who is understood to have been actively involved and even fought with terrorist organisations—organisations which are widely acknowledged to be terrorist organisations—as a freedom fighter? Would you view that as a significant error of fact?

Mr Brown —He was described as?

Senator RONALDSON —A freedom fighter. David Hicks is understood to have been actively involved and even fought with terrorist organisations—organisations widely accepted as being terrorist. Is it an error of fact to call him a ‘freedom fighter’?

Mr Brown —Which program was that?

Senator RONALDSON —I am asking you a question. On your criteria, what would be the decision?

Mr Brown —I would not expect a news and current affairs journalist to label him in that way, but I would like to see the exact context.

Senator RONALDSON —Finally, the introduction states:

Some subject matter broadcast by SBS may be considered controversial. Section 70A of the SBS Act states “…SBS may determine to what extent and in what manner political matter or controversial matter will be broadcast by the SBS.”

Is there a committee that makes that decision? And what are the processes to determine the extent and manner of political or controversial matter?

Mr Brown —That is a delegated responsibility. It may on occasions be referred up the chain.

Senator RONALDSON —Who is it delegated to?

Mr Brown —It very much depends on the particular area of consideration. If it is radio, it will be the director of radio. If it is television, it will be the director of content. Sometimes it is me, as editor in chief.

Senator RONALDSON —At first instance, the decision is made by the head of news or the head of radio or someone beneath them?

Mr Brown —This does not really relate to news and current affairs so much as identification.

Senator RONALDSON —I accept that.

Mr Brown —An example you would be familiar with was the committee hearing before last, where you questioned me about The power of nightmares and The new al-Qaeda series. You asked me how that had come to be shown and why it was shown in this way. In the end that decision was referred to me. I made the call on its broadcast and the manner in which it was broadcast.

Senator RONALDSON —Just so I am absolutely clear: there is a further delegation from the director of news and radio making judgements about the manner in which political matter or controversial matter will be broadcast?

Mr Brown —Political matter relates more, I would have thought, to news and current affairs. There is not a great deal of political matter dealt with in programs outside of news and current affairs. Controversial matter may well be—

Senator RONALDSON —What about documentaries? Surely political matter and controversial matters are in documentaries.

Mr Brown —That is the example I have given you. So an initial decision about a series of programs like the The power of nightmares and The new al-Qaeda was made in principle at a level of program acquisition, referred to the then network programmer, referred to me as head of television and, at the time, acting managing director as well. So it is a decision process that takes place at many levels. But, ultimately, under a referral-up process, and depending on the sensitivity or how controversial it is, it will end up in my hands. Another example is the South Park ‘Bloody Mary’ episode, which is something SBS acquired that has considerable sensitivity around it, particularly in the current climate of religious sensitivity. The matter was referred to me and I have deferred broadcast of it. That is a good example.

Senator RONALDSON —But you were forewarned about the sensitivity, weren’t you? You did not acquire this program and say, ‘This is a nice, cute little program,’ and then decide to have a look at it. It came to SBS as a controversial program, so there is no doubt that you would then have a look at it.

Mr Brown —It came to SBS as a pre-contracted delivery of a series of programs.

Senator RONALDSON —Which you knew was controversial.

Mr Brown —Once it was referred to me, I did.

Senator RONALDSON —You did not know South Park was controversial before that?

Mr Brown —I am talking about a particular episode of South Park.

Senator RONALDSON —I take it there is no process in place to refer these matters unless someone makes a judgement that it might be more political or more controversial than something else. Is that right? What are the criteria?

Mr Brown —That is the only way any referral-up process can ever work, whether it is news and current affairs or programming. It is reliant upon people at all levels recognising when a matter is controversial or sensitive and referring it appropriately.

Senator ALLISON —I would like to follow up on Senator Ronaldson’s questions. He gave you good warning that this was what he was going to ask you about today. I wonder whether you have done some sort of summary of the coverage of the Middle East over the last several months since the attack on Lebanon. Did you do that?

Mr Brown —We have not done that.

Senator ALLISON —I apologise for not being a constant watcher of SBS. I usually do not watch any television. Can you advise whether programs—documentaries or otherwise—have been run in recent times about the problems of starvation for many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip?

Mr Brown —I would have to take that on notice.

Senator ALLISON —Could you also look at the current works that are underway, as I understand it, in west Gaza, the effective open-air prisons—as I think Professor Reinhart describes them—that are currently villages, which are having walls built around them. Have you broadcast any material on that issue?

Mr Brown —We have had coverage from Gaza in Dateline in recent months, and we currently have a team in Gaza for Dateline. I cannot say whether or not that specific issue is being addressed.

Senator ALLISON —Can I ask about another one. As I understand it, Israel has frozen the $55 million a month which comes through which it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. It has not handed that over. Has that been the subject of other news or documentaries?

Mr Brown —I do not believe it has been the subject of documentaries, but that sort of information has been the subject of news and current affairs coverage.

Senator ALLISON —Thanks. I have not noticed a great deal—

0Senator Ronaldson interjecting

Senator ALLISON —I did not interrupt you, Senator Ronaldson; I hope you will give me the same—

Senator RONALDSON —But that particular matter has been raised—

Mr Brown —I said ‘that sort of information’.

Senator ALLISON —Chair.

CHAIR —I think Senator Allison has the call, Senator Ronaldson.

Senator ALLISON —Thank you. Could you also provide, on notice as well, what reporting there has been of the post ceasefire in Lebanon with regard to the cluster bombs and the call for Lebanon to ask Israel to provide maps of where those cluster bombs were dropped, because I understand that there are more than 1,000 locations that are not known. Has that been the subject of reporting on SBS?

Mr Brown —I would have to take that on notice. I am aware of that particular story, but I cannot recall exactly what our coverage has been.

Senator ALLISON —Just one other point: housing in Lebanon. As I understand it, not much has been done by way of reconstruction yet. Bridges, ports and so forth have had priority. Has there been any coverage of the need for temporary housing, for housing which, particularly in southern Lebanon, will stop people freezing when the snows come shortly? Has that been an issue that has been covered by SBS?

Mr Brown —I believe that that sort of material has generally been covered by SBS news and current affairs, but, again, let me take that on notice to give you specifics.

Senator ALLISON —Yes. Thank you very much.

Senator CONROY —We were talking about the ad breaks and where the ad breaks could be. In my enforced ad break, I was just looking at your guidelines. Your guidelines identify every single program, I think, that you have produced, as possibly having natural breaks. Maybe it is easier to ask: is there any program that SBS shows that does not have the potential for a natural break?

Mr Brown —I think the starting point is that all programs potentially may have natural breaks but that a case-by-case assessment may identify programs which do not.

Senator CONROY —So that brings me back to my original discussion with you about the act, which does not say: ‘The SBS can put ads wherever it wants.’ We agree on the five minutes; there is no argument. Five minutes is five minutes, and no amount of QCs’ or SCs’ advice is going to get you around that. But section 45(2)(a)—‘that run during periods before programs commence, after programs end or during natural program breaks’—is an attempt to define a limitation, I would have thought. As an intent of legislation, to me that reads as a limitation; whereas what you have put forward in your guidelines is that there is nowhere that there is not potential, albeit on a case-by-case basis, for a natural ad break—which is basically unlimited.

Mr Brown —I do not accept that. I think it is fair to say it imposes a limitation. That limitation is to identify what is a natural program break within any program. But I would have to pose the question back: what does it mean? If it is meant to prevent any interruption to programs, what is a natural break? Clearly parliament had something in mind and then charged the board with interpreting what that actually is, and that is what we have done. It has to mean something.

Senator CONROY —Again, I will read you the act. It says, ‘The SBS may only broadcast...’ So it is setting a limitation. You have now indicated there is no longer any limitation. Every program is fair game.

Mr Brown —I do not think you heard my reply. I said I accept that the wording of the act implies a limitation. But that limitation is to the placement of advertisements into natural breaks. In other words, it requires SBS to specifically identify points in programs which may be considered natural breaks. It does not permit SBS to willy-nilly insert breaks anywhere. But, at the same time, surely the inclusion of those words did anticipate that there would be natural breaks in programs.

Senator CONROY —The word ‘program’ is even underlined in my copy, although maybe it is not in yours: ‘during natural program breaks’. It seems to me your new guidelines attempt to introduce the concept of natural program breaks into every single program you produce. In other words, there is no limitation on any program where you can concoct any reason whatsoever to define it as a natural program break. For instance, clearly from our earlier discussion you are attempting to define that when in the news you move from local news to international news that is a natural program break. I put it to you that that is not break at all. It may be the way that the commercial television stations have chosen a point to introduce a break for advertising purposes, but it is not a natural break. It is not a natural break when you go from international to sport or from international to business to sport. They are not natural program breaks at all. They are quite artificially contrived breaks for the purpose of inserting ads. From my perspective, on my reading, which is obviously different from that of your QC—I am not an SC or QC and you have one who you do not want to show us—clearly you think that the interpretation of this is such that you can artificially create program breaks.

Mr Brown —I do not believe that we can artificially create program breaks. I make two points. The first is that there is not anything in the act that suggests that any particular genre or type of program cannot be considered as capable of having a natural program break. On that point, if it was the view of the government of the day that certain programs must never have a natural program break in them, that might have been expressed. But it is silent on that, so I do not see anything that is at all controversial in saying that, in terms of program genres, the starting point is that they are capable of having natural breaks in them. The second issue, then, is how one identifies that natural break. These are guidelines designed to assist staff in identifying those natural breaks. I have already said that it is quite conceivable that some programs may have no breaks or that the break structure is different from the standard we have expressed because to do otherwise would not have been using natural breaks.

Senator CONROY —I am intrigued by the idea of natural breaks in comedy. Is that when the joke is not funny or he changes the topic? What is a natural break in comedy?

Mr Brown —The guidelines are:

A break may be taken when:

(i) there is an obvious and dramatically significant lapse of time in the action, or

(ii) there is a change of scene, with a significant break in the continuity of action.

That actually deals more with dramatic comedy or situation comedy. In terms of skit comedies, they actually appear as a series of segments and so—

Senator CONROY —Every single gag is a natural break on that definition.

Mr Brown —I do not believe that would be quite correct.

Senator CONROY —What is the difference between a natural break in skit comedy between each skit and when you have chosen to define it or you will be choosing to define it?

Mr Brown —Under the guidelines we have drawn up and from the discussions surrounding them, I would say that a break occurred in a sketch comedy program where one segment was completed and prior to another segment commencing, not a joke within a segment.

Senator CONROY —I accept that. I am not sure the SBS has any particular programs like this at the moment. For instance, I happened to be seeking to doze off through The Wedge last night. Each gag that they do is a separate skit. Sometimes they will last for a minute and sometimes they will last for two minutes. I am not sure that the SBS has a corresponding style program at the moment but, for the purpose of this debate—

Mr Brown —The Weekly Daily Show, possibly, on a Thursday night at 10 o’clock.

Senator CONROY —I accept that. Each gag is each skit. There are quite a lot of skits in these sorts of shows; that is all they are. They are nothing but a collection of skits. By definition, under your ‘natural break’, you could then have an ad after each skit—and I will talk about ‘skits’ rather than ‘gags’, which makes it simpler—and there could be 20 skits in a 30-minute program.

Mr Brown —There are two points there. Firstly, there are only five minutes of advertising permitted. Secondly, part of our guideline 2.2, ‘Placement of breaks’, gives a guideline on how frequent breaks can be. If your point is that there are more natural breaks within a program than SBS may choose to exploit, I would accept that.

Senator CONROY —No, my point is that you have artificially created a definition of ‘natural break’ for the purposes of wanting to introduce ads during programs.

Mr Brown —Senator, we are not alone in this.

Senator CONROY —Table your legal advice. Prove that you have legal advice that says you have not created artificial breaks.

Mr Brown —What I would point to is that the definition of ‘natural breaks’ is a matter addressed by other broadcasters around the world. Although we must make up our own mind, the fact is that the British regulatory body, Ofcom, has invested a lot of work in this and published its set of guidelines about what are natural breaks for broadcasters in the UK. ITV, Channel 5 and Channel 4 in the UK all follow a set of guidelines on how to position natural breaks. That is the case for us as well. Elsewhere, in other broadcasters I have worked for, the term ‘natural break’ is a common expression within broadcasting. I am sure that is how it got in the act; otherwise it would be a strange thing to be invented solely for this purpose. We have sought, in common with Ofcom, to set firm guidelines around it rather than leave it as a simple discretion for individual staff.

Senator CONROY —I think we are about to have a natural break, so I will hold my next question.

CHAIR —We will break for morning tea.

Proceedings suspended from 10.28 am to 10.48 am

Senator CONROY —I was wondering why, after all these years since advertising was introduced, SBS decided to make this policy change now?

Mr Brown —My understanding of the history is that it probably has been a matter that has been under consideration for maybe the last four or five years. So it was not an entirely novel thought. SBS has become dependent on the commercial revenue in order to supply Australian programs. I think the convention has been that all of the funds raised by commercial activities have gone into generating additional Australian content.

Senator CONROY —I am just wondering why you have made this grab for revenue now?

Mr Brown —It was not just revenue; the whole market is changing. The issue of the big breaks between programs in our view is becoming increasingly serious. You can see almost the reverse strategy on every other network, except the ABC, where there are no breaks between programs—the closing credits run seamlessly into the next opening titles. The failure of our promos to effectively reach audiences was becoming an increasing concern. The prognosis for our revenue under the existing model was poor. We envisaged a decline in revenue, because advertisers were simply not willing to pay an appropriate figure for breaks between programs. All these things came to a head, really, and the decision was made to cut a new strategy.

Senator CONROY —On budget night you said:

SBS is disappointed that its total funding, excluding digital transmission funds, in this coming financial year will be $3m less than in 2005-06

I’m concerned that there is a widening gap between the services we should provide our audiences and the funds available for us to do that.

So when you say, ‘things came to a head,’ one of the major factors was that you were unsuccessful in obtaining an increase in government funding.

Mr Brown —I do not think there was a direct link to the budget night decision. The disappointment I expressed on behalf of SBS was genuine—that, in particular, we had not secured the continuance of the sports funding. Detailed work on program breaks had been taking place for the previous year, I think, so it was not any single event. I am concerned and I remain concerned about how SBS bridges the gap between what I believe it should be putting to air and what it can put to air. To that end, it seemed to me and the board that the appropriate step was to make our commercial licence, if you like, through the 1991 legislation work more effectively.

Senator CONROY —Was the decision to introduce ads made in consultation with the government?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator CONROY —Have you received any guarantee from the government that its funding will not be reduced, given that SBS has identified another lucrative source of income?

Mr Brown —No, we have not received any such assurance—nor, to be fair, have we specifically sought one beyond the general hope and expectation that SBS audiences would not be punished—

Senator CONROY —Twice.

Mr Brown —because of this initiative. All of the additional $10 million, which is our forecast—I believe it to be a conservative one, but that is where we have pegged it—goes into local production. Some of it is into news and current affairs but the rest is all to the external production sector. If that were to be cancelled out by a reduction in funds then the additional activity and the additional range of programs that result from that initiative would have to be cancelled.

Senator CONROY —You have said that you think $10 million is conservative. Is there a basis for the $10 million at the moment or is it just a rough guess?

Mr Brown —No, it has been modelled. Basically it comes back to an equation which is around the rate card and the level of discounting that SBS has been forced to do against that rate card. We might say that a slot is available at $100, for instance, but in order to get advertisers into those slots between programs we have had to discount at excessive rates. Our view is that, when the new regime takes effect, SBS will be in a position to resist that level of discounting and to demand a more representative fee from advertisers. That is primarily what is driving the $10 million.

Senator CONROY —Does it make an assumption that SBS will retain its current audience?

Mr Brown —Yes, it makes an assumption that the audience is pretty much flat line. There are potential variables on that. Our hope is that we will be able to grow our audience because, really, that is what it is all about—making more Australian programs, securing more sports events, having a more vigorous and broader ranging news and current affairs service and having promos that connect with the audience. It is really about attempting to deliver more effectively against the charter’s requirement that we reach out to all Australians.

Senator CONROY —If audiences dropped, would you have to reconsider your position?

Mr Brown —I think any review of this decision would take place after some period had elapsed. I will not attempt to deny that audiences will not welcome this. As a viewer, I would not, so I can understand that.

Senator CONROY —Have there been any calls or emails supporting this decision?

Mr Brown —There have been some that say: ‘What’s all the fuss about? We think it is no problem at all.’

Senator CONROY —But no-one has sent a letter or phoned to say thank you?

Mr Brown —No. Actually—

Senator CONROY —Other than Mr Meagher!

Mr Brown —There have been a few people who have commented on the fact that they can now get away from a particularly challenging document at half-time. That is about the limit of it.

Senator CONROY —There have been media reports that you have gagged SBS staff from speaking out on this issue. Is that correct?

Mr Brown —No, that is not correct. I have issued no instructions on that matter. Mind you, I would not need to because SBS staff are not permitted to talk on SBS matters under the codes.

Senator CONROY —So was Mary Kostakidis reprimanded for her fairly prominent article?

Mr Brown —Mary and I have had a discussion about that.

Senator CONROY —So it has been pointed out to her that she was in breach of SBS rules?

Mr Brown —In our discussions Mary indicated that she had no intention of making any similar comments, that she had made her one point and that was it. There was no need to reprimand or gag or take any of those actions.

Senator CONROY —So there have been no consequences whatsoever for Ms Kostakidis?

Mr Brown —No, beyond the fact that we have had a discussion and she knows my view and I know hers.

Senator CONROY —She made comments in that article warning that ‘there’s no doubt there’ll be commercial imperatives to make advertising slots increasingly lucrative’ and that ‘commercial imperatives drive’ broadcasting ‘homogenisation’. Do you accept that argument?

Mr Brown —No. That argument tends to suggest that the pursuit of ratings is only driven by commercial interests; whereas, in reality, public broadcasters pursue ratings as well but usually for issues of relevance. When our charter says ‘reach all Australians and reflect Australia’s multicultural society’, there is an implicit requirement on us to seek the biggest possible audience for our content. In a way, we are simply trying to get real commercial value for that audience. While any audience growth will produce additional revenue, that is not the motivation for audience growth; the motivation is to deliver the charter.

Senator WORTLEY —There has been some concern raised about the proposed placement of the news bulletin in the 6.30 to 7.30 time slot, basically being that the news bulletins of the two public broadcasters will overlap. Do you see any problems with that?

Mr Brown —It might have been nice if that were not the consequence, but I do not think it is a particularly troublesome one. At the end of the day, we are two public broadcasters offering viewers a choice of whether they want internationally focused news which has the capacity to deliver greater breadth and depth than the ABC can in its half-hour bulletin. The alternative was to move it to six o’clock to avoid that clash, but my belief is that that would have been very disruptive to SBS audiences, who almost universally compliment us on the fact that our news starts at 6.30. It is seen to be a very positive attribute by our audience, and I was not willing to change that.

Senator WORTLEY —What are the consequences that you can see for either of the broadcasters in relation to your news being in that time slot?

Mr Brown —I am not sure there are any real consequences. Viewers have choice—I think Australian viewers are blessed with having two public broadcasters and those who like public broadcasting are making a regular choice between watching a documentary on the ABC or a documentary on SBS. So I do not think the idea of choice poses particular challenges for either organisation. I am sure there will be occasions where some people will behave differently on a given night—they might go across to the ABC because there is a story that they are aware of that they want to see covered by the ABC, or they may choose to remain with us because they are interested in the material in the second half-hour of our program.

Senator WORTLEY —There have been claims that the more revenue generated by advertising the less you can expect from the government. How do you respond to this? Has that been a concern?

Mr Brown —I think I have characterised it as being a risk. Clearly, it will be unsatisfactory from SBS’s point of view and its audience’s point of view if the commercial revenue were offset by a reduction in government funding. That has not been the pattern. SBS has garnered about $30 million a year of commercial revenue; there has not been a consequential confiscation of government funds. I think the point I made earlier is relevant as well: this money is tied to a particular activity for the benefit of Australian audiences. To confiscate it would be simply to require us to slash the service that we provide.

Senator WORTLEY —Former Prime Minister Fraser has been quoted as saying:

The fact is this Government simply doesn’t put enough of the national wealth into our public institutions such as SBS or, for that matter, the ABC.

Would you like to comment on that in relation to this advertising?

Mr Brown —As the recipient of government funding, it would be unlikely that I would ever take a position that I have enough. I think that is evidenced by the fact that we lodge a triennial funding bid which invariably seeks additional funds for additional services. I think the issue, though, is that, unlike the ABC, SBS was granted a de facto licence to supplement government funding through its own activities. I think SBS is doing the right thing by maximising its commercial revenue. We will continue to press government for additional funds for additional services, and if we can secure both I think the audience will be much the better for it.

Senator WORTLEY —But, if you had secured adequate government funding, then perhaps you would not be embarking on the path that you are moving along with regard to the advertising.

Mr Brown —It is very difficult for me to answer because the issue goes back to 1991, when the funding model was changed. I was not here then, so I do not know what the prevailing view was or whether there was a sense that no government would be able to afford to fully fund both public broadcasters. I simply do not know.

Senator WORTLEY —You were quoted on Lateline as saying:

If we didn’t do something, we’d simply be going backwards. We’d be in a situation where we’d be cancelling shows, restricting our investment in news and current affairs, and I'm not prepared to see that happen and neither is the board.

That was following the budget.

Mr Brown —It may have been following the budget, but it was more particularly following the announcement of our decision to change our commercial model. By that, I mean that the prognosis for the current model was so poor that there would be a declining revenue, almost inevitably. What I particularly want to avoid is that vicious cycle of losing revenue, cutting programs and losing audience—which in turn loses you revenue. Once we got on that spiral, I saw a very poor prognosis for SBS. Some of the money that we are securing through this added initiative is only allowing us to keep up to speed on our investment in local content, because costs are going up.

Senator WORTLEY —Would you agree with comments by the head of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, Voula Messimeri, who said:

We do regret that SBS feels that the only way that they can produce material that enhances their ability to meet their charter is through continued and increased revenue raising through commercial enterprises ...

Mr Brown —I think that is beyond my responsibility to comment on. I simply go back to the fact that as managing director I have an act and a charter. The act provides for the means of part-funding the delivery of that charter. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the management or board of SBS to turn its face against making the best use of that licence, because all of it translates. SBS could have another $100 million and there would still be issues about not affording this or that. The cost of international programs and sports rights are going up. My belief is that SBS should be doing considerably more in the local production sector as well.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr Brown, noting some of your answers that you gave earlier, can I ask you about a joint SBS TV and Film Finance Corporation film called The President Versus David Hicks. I will quote from the promotional material for this film:

... what motivated this young Australian cowboy to become a freedom fighter for Islam.

I think I heard you saying earlier that you would not expect Mr Hicks to be described as a freedom fighter, but here he is being described as a freedom fighter by your organisation. He is known to have fought with terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban and al-Qaeda but this material casts him as a freedom fighter. As I understand it, you were the head of SBS TV at the time of the film, which was two years ago. Did you sign off on this promotional material characterising David Hicks as a freedom fighter? How does that stand with the evidence you have given this morning, which is clearly contradictory?

Mr Brown —Perhaps I can go back to your first question, which relates to the previous answer I gave Senator Ronaldson. I believe I was quite specific in saying that I would not expect journalists or producers of news and current affairs to use that term. I do not believe there is any inconsistency or contradiction in terms of that answer and my current position. With regard to the issue about whether I saw or approved that promo, I did not. I do not usually approve promos.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —As I understand your answer, this morning you told us that you do not think he should be described as a ‘freedom fighter’.

Mr Brown —I did not say that, Senator. My answer, when Senator Ronaldson said—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr Brown, I distinctly heard you. I would appreciate it if you could go back and have a look at the—

Senator ALLISON —Chair, the witness is unable to answer questions under these circumstances.

CHAIR —Yes. Senator, you must let the witness answer and you must let them finish answering before you make a comment.


Mr Brown —In answer to the first question, I want to correct you on how you represented my answer, because my recollection is that I specifically said that I would not expect reporters or producers in news and current affairs to use that label. What you have raised is not a news and current affairs matter. So my answer to that first question posed by Senator Ronaldson does not apply to the circumstances.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Oh, I see! So you are just saying that, if it is under news and current affairs, you cannot use it, but if you use it in other contexts it is permissible. That is basically what you are saying. That is a question of double standards, Mr Brown.

Mr Brown —That is not what I am saying. I am simply putting the record straight in terms of your representation of my answer. You represented me as saying that I would not accept that label being used in any circumstances. I said my answer specifically related to news and current affairs. What you are trying to do is point out that I hold a contradictory or double standard position. I do not accept that. I am quite happy to deal with the substance of the matter you are putting in front of me, but not in relation to a previous answer which I do not think applies particularly to the circumstance you are describing.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Perhaps I could ask you in the context of the description of Hicks as a ‘freedom fighter’, given that the families of Australian victims of terrorism might be highly offended that nearly $150,000 of Australian taxpayers’ money went into this project which cast him as a freedom fighter.

Mr Brown —I am not sure that the program did cast him as a freedom fighter. I am sure you have seen the program, but my recollection of the program is that it was wide ranging and that it was done particularly through a father’s point of view. I think everyone understood that and that it was a particularly agonising issue. What you are quoting to me is not the script of the program. I think I am right in saying that what you are quoting to me is a promo or a publicity sheet.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am quoting the promo. I will give you copies of all the material that I refer to this morning, Mr Brown. I have it in writing here in front of me, so I will give it to you and you can have a look at it for yourself. If you wish to add anything further, please feel free to do so. The material that I have in front of me clearly states that this young Australian cowboy is ‘to become a freedom fighter for Islam’.

I want to ask you now about a reference to Hicks during an SBS radio report by Karen Ashford, a South Australian correspondent. Karen Ashford reports that ‘David’ has had contact with both his American military lawyer and his father, Terry. I am going to allege here that this use of cosy first-name terms—SBS is very good at cosy first-name arrangements—this use of his first name demonstrates that you are siding with him.

Mr Brown —I think that is a long bow to draw, Senator. I do not particularly favour first-name usage in that sort of circumstance, and I am not sure that it automatically means that SBS is on the side of David Hicks.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Perhaps if we can now turn to what the other public broadcaster says. There is a document in their news and current affairs style guide which has a reference to the use of first names. I know you are going to say, ‘That is their document, not ours,’ but I want to quote the section that says: ‘Avoid referring to people by their first names because it creates the impression that we sympathise with the person.’ For all its faults, the ABC at least has this in its style guide; what about SBS?

Mr Brown —That is the ABC’s view. I probably agree with it; I do not have a problem with that. But my answer stands: I do not believe it is particularly appropriate to use Christian names in that circumstance and in many others. There are occasions where the use Christian names is not problematic—for example, for sportspeople and the like and in non-controversial areas. In controversial areas I believe it is probably not appropriate, but that does not necessarily—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Would you consider including that?

—It is mainly about perspective and perception. I think that is why you find it in the ABC guidelines. It wishes to avoid the perception that there is a cosy relationship with or a feeling of support for the person being interviewed. It does not follow that the entire organisation is on the side of somebody who is referred to by their Christian name.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Clearly the ABC, as a public broadcaster, has seen fit to included that. My question to you is: given this sort of sensitivity, would you give some consideration to including something similar in your codes of practice that you appear to follow?

Mr Brown —It seems more like a style issue to me. I do not believe it is appropriate for that to be a code of practice issue. We have more in our codes than the ABC do. The ABC tend to use guidelines; we tend to use codes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Do you have a style manual?

Mr Brown —No, we do not.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —You do not.

Mr Brown —We have guidelines.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you did?

Mr Brown —No. We have editorial guidelines.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Would you consider including it in your editorial guidelines?

Mr Brown —I will consider it.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Good. Thank you. I want to note that you have admitted an error. We received some answers to questions on notice. One of them was an answer to question 250 from the last estimates in which you concede—

Mr Brown —What was the number again?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It is 250. You concede that you were wrong to report that Hicks had recently become a British citizen. These are just three examples; there are more. The concern that I have is that you are allowing yourself in these three examples—and there are many others—

Mr Brown —What were the other examples?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —to be seen as siding with David Hicks, who is an accused terrorist and who has fought with terrorist organisations involved in the deaths of Australians.

Senator ALLISON —Chair, can I interrupt here? David Hicks has not been charged with being a terrorist. He has not been before even the kangaroo court that the United States has set up. It is inappropriate—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Senator Allison, I did not interrupt—

CHAIR —We will have a little order. Please go through the chair, Senator. I think you should stick to simple factual questions and perhaps not make comment. Please proceed.

Senator ALLISON —Chair, on that point of order, if SBS is being accused of taking sides, I would argue that the senator is also taking sides in assuming guilt where no charge has been laid and when no finding has been brought against David Hicks. I would suggest this line of questioning is not particularly useful.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The point—

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I will not pursue it. Senator Allison, if you had been listening to the questioning, you would know that it was about his British citizenship.

Senator ALLISON —I have indeed.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I now move on—

Mr Brown —Senator, you asked me a question, and I could not quite understand it. You mentioned three mistakes. You referred me to question 250.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —No, I just referred to these examples in which I think you are siding with David Hicks.

Mr Brown —What were the other two?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I had previously referred to them in the questions that you—

Mr Brown —Okay. There is the one in the questions on notice. The question on notice error, which we have acknowledged, was a reference to David Hicks as a British citizen when, as you pointed out, that was not a complete process. He had won a legal battle on the road to becoming a British citizen but had not achieved that status. Frankly, I cannot accept that making an error of that type, regrettable as it is, reflects that SBS has a position in support of David Hicks.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I will provide you with further material, and I would like you to carefully consider it in light of everything that you have said this morning about Mr Hicks. The basic assertion that I am making is that SBS is siding with Mr Hicks. I have given you some examples. I would like you to carefully look at the material that I will provide to you and look at it in that light. That is the gist of my questioning. I will move on.

0Senator Allison interjecting

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Thank you, Senator Allison. Mr Brown, I would like to take you to 3 August 2006—and I think part of the problem at SBS is that you have a rather equivocal view of terrorism—when you state:

Israel and the US laid the blame squarely at the feet of the so-called terrorist organisation.

You are referring to Hezbollah as a ‘so-called terrorist organisation’. Given what we know and what we have heard for years and years, how can SBS still refer to Hezbollah as a ‘so-called terrorist organisation’?

Mr Brown —Was that on a World News Australia program?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It was SBS radio, on World View. I will provide it for you. Here we are. What is Hezbollah? It is a ‘so-called terrorist organisation’.

Mr Brown —Our policy on the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ is that it is not for SBS to assign that label but to permit any quoting of that.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —There was no quote. This is on SBS radio, on World View—no quote, no nothing.

Mr Brown —I will look into that.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Could you please look into that. It is really just typical of the sort of stuff that you are promulgating.

Senator ALLISON —Chair, could I also make a comment about this?

CHAIR —If you have a point of order, you can make a point of order.

Senator ALLISON —Hezbollah is not regarded as a terrorist organisation in many countries. So it would seem to me to be quite appropriate for a rider such as this to be applied.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr Chair, if I have to sit here and listen to Senator Allison lecturing me—

CHAIR —I said Senator Allison could make a point of order.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I did not interrupt her.

CHAIR —Senator Fierravanti-Wells, I said she could make a point of order and I presume she must be going to do so.

Senator ALLISON —I have done that.

Senator RONALDSON —It was not a point of order.

CHAIR —It was a comment more than a point of order.

Mr Brown —I was trying to address the general matter. I will look into the use of that particular term. But I was really addressing the issue of SBS policy on the use of the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’. That is, in common with many other broadcasters, who wrestle with that issue—we have had communication with a number of other broadcasters on this matter—we do not use the label. That is not to say that SBS is saying that organisations are not terrorist. That is a matter for the viewer to form a view on. But to use the label and to start making judgements individually places SBS in an invidious position. It is a fact that people throw the labels ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ around in order to score political points. That is understood. SBS should not be in a position of determining whether an act of any organisation is deemed by SBS to be a terrorist act. You will be aware, even in the latest conflict with Lebanon and Israel, that the Syrian government described Israeli actions as being acts of terrorism. SBS does not label those acts in that manner. But it will report the Syrian President as making that allegation, as it would report Israeli quotes about the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I think Senator Ronaldson has more detailed questions on that later. Can I generally say, Mr Brown, that I had a look at your responses to questions put on notice and I have to say that the answers were sadly lacking. I certainly provided very detailed and considerable material, and I have to say that some of your answers were lacking.

Mr Brown —If you would like to point them out, I am quite happy to address those.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I will be making comments in relation to those. I just make the general comment at this point in time. I am taking you to some questions but I will be providing you with some other material, and the ones that I am particularly—

Mr Brown —But if there is something deficient in the way we have answered your questions on notice that is of concern and if you can identify them, I am quite happy to address them now.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I certainly will. I just make the general comment. I want to take you to your written answer in relation to question No. 254 from the last estimates. You were asked why, in a wire copy published on your website, an Israeli spokesman’s word ‘terrorist’ had been deliberately changed to ‘militant’. You replied, ‘SBS accurately reported the original source material’ from the website. How can you have done that when the word of the Israeli spokesman was ‘terrorist’ and you deliberately changed that to ‘militant’?

Mr Brown —I do not believe that it was our position that we had changed the words. My understanding of this issue from the preparation of this response was that that word was used by the agency which supplied the material to us. If there was another word used, we were not aware of it.

Senator RONALDSON —That means that, if you get it from an agency and it is totally incorrect, that just lets SBS off the hook, does it?

Mr Brown —No, if—

Senator RONALDSON —That is what you are saying.

Mr Brown —I am not saying that at all. It has not been demonstrated that it was used. You have claimed that. The agency reports in a different way. We have simply reflected that.

Senator RONALDSON —You used the expression—

Mr Brown —Let me—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —No, when I—

Mr Brown —Let me answer this, please.

CHAIR —Let Mr Brown finish.

Mr Brown —I do not have anything to hide here. If SBS makes mistakes, it will acknowledge them.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It makes a lot of mistakes.

Mr Brown —What I would say in relation to this and other matters that SBS has to address is that we have set up a robust complaints system. We did that in the face of criticism some two or three years ago, some of it from this committee, which we accepted. I personally accepted that our former complaints system was not robust enough. We had positioned people who were responsible for making decisions about programs as the people responsible for defending against a complaint against those programs. That was inappropriate. We therefore introduced an audience affairs manager, somebody who is separate from the program-making and decision-making processes. If complaints are lodged with that person, if they demonstrate that there is an inaccuracy and a breach of the codes consequently, then appropriate action will be taken. I have made the point before that many of these points that are raised late through this process do not go through the formal process where they are tested by the audience affairs manager in an objective manner.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —If I have not gone through your complaints section, I have had other things on my mind. Rest assured that I will probably be using your complaints section a lot more regularly. Having said that, on the last occasion I actually provided you with the material that led to my question in relation to question No. 254. I provided you with information. It was there. I will provide it to you again. Could you please have another look at it in black and white and then come back and answer the question again, if you would not mind. That is the point of my complaint. I actually provided the material to you.

Mr Brown —Certainly.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I want to take you to a story that was published on 14 June about Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual head of the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiah, who as we all know are responsible for the deaths of almost 100 Australians in the two Bali bombings. You refer to him as the alleged spiritual head of the Jemaah Islamiah militant group.

Mr Brown —Sorry, what program was this?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —This is on 14 June. You refer to him on SBS world news—again, I will provide this to you—

Mr Brown —So this is television: World News Australia.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —You refer to him as part of a militant group, yet here is the same report on Sky News online referring to ‘the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah’. Did your reporters change ‘terrorist’ to ‘militant’ or do you regard Jemaah Islamiah as a militant group rather than a terrorist group?

Mr Brown —What you have quoted is two different news organisations using different language. I do not necessarily think it follows that somebody has changed anything here at all. I can tell you what I would suspect has occurred because this is not a quote. If this was a quote and it was changed from ‘terrorist’ to ‘militant’, I would accept that is inappropriate. If, however, this is an SBS journalist avoiding using labels from SBS then that is in keeping with our position.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I will provide you with that and perhaps you might have a look at that as well. Staying with what I have to say is your rather selective use of loaded language, can I ask you about your answer to question No. 256 from the last estimates. You were asked why you adopted the language of one side of the conflict in the Middle East—namely, describing Hamas’s campaign of terror against Israel as ‘armed resistance’. Your justification was:

... the language used may coincide with that commonly used by the individuals or organisations concerned.

But that it is only when it comes to Hamas and not Israel. What is your comment in relation to that?

Mr Brown —What was the issue with Israel?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It is No. 256.

Mr Brown —I have the answer and I have read it, but you said we had a different standard for Israel.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —You refer to Hamas’s campaign of terror against Israel as ‘armed resistance’. Isn’t that the language that they are using and you are siding with them? You are using their language.

Mr Brown —My understanding of this answer is that, while those words are used by that organisation and similar organisations, it is not an inappropriate use of words on its own anyhow. Your point was that we did not do that for Israel. I am not sure that is the case; I would have thought that there would be occasions when describing Israeli activities that we may coincidently use their words as well.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Please feel free to provide them to me because I could not really find any. If you can I would be most grateful. We will return to the Middle East shortly, but first I want to ask you about the relationship between SBS radio and one Salef Saqqaf, described as a ‘45-year-old Jordanian born freelance journalist’. I have a document here which describes his employment with al-Jazeera based out of Sydney. I will provide this to you, if you could have a good read of it; it is certainly very enlightening. As you may know, al-Jazeera has been described as ‘the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood’, which is a kind of godfather organisation for other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. I will quote from an article by Tunisian intellectual Dr Khaled Shawkat, from the Netherlands based Center for Promoting Democracy in the Arab World:

Al-Jazeera’s current media direction is no longer to aspire to compete with the BBC or CNN in professionalism, independence, and courage; rather, it has become [a channel] affiliated with a political, religious, and ideological organization that strives to spread its views amongst the Arab public ...

I want to also quote another report about al-Jazeera and its expansion into places like Australia:

Al-Jazeera is favoured by Bin Laden and Al Qaida for issuing terrorist threats against the United States Australia and other western countries ...

Al-Jazeera ‘reporters’ throughout the world and the Middle East are well placed to ask ‘trick’ questions at public and media conferences. Some of these ‘questions’, may be in the form of  requirements for bin Laden and Al Qaida and used for intelligence counter intelligence or targetting  purposes as Al-Jazeera has a valuable quality in information collection: access. For example, a senior manager and two other Al-Jazeera staff were recently exposed as agents of the Iraqi intelligence service.

That was under Saddam Hussein. The report went on:

In the context of Al-Jazerra’s relationship with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the al-Jazeera upgrade in Australia is more than symbolic; it is a subtle extension of extremist and prospectively, terrorist interest in Australia.

Al Jazeera’s form of Taqiyya television has three operational purposes: Pre-terrorist attitude formation or conditioning amongst Australia target audiences; strategic disinformation aimed at Western governments, the US and Israel in particular and rationalisation (‘explaining’ or ‘contextualising’) terrorist acts ...

Mr Brown —Could you tell me who that quote was from?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —That was from another report about al-Jazeera and its expansion. I will provide this to you. I will now ask you the question—

Mr Brown —It is hard for me to respond to that. I would like to respond because—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I have not asked you the question yet; I am just putting that by way of background. The same document states that since 2003 Mr Saqqaf has been the Australian head of al-Jazeera based in Sydney. I note from the same document that he also engages in occasional work for SBS radio. I would like you to look at this and get back to us about just what sort of involvement this fellow has with broadcasting on SBS. I am very concerned about this quote which has been attributed to him:

I don’t think the Australia media is covering all aspects of this conflict in Iraq. … That has been the same with the Palestinian issue.

…            …            …

‘It’s easy to say. “Oh look; Iraq (has) lots of mass destruction weapons.” For Arab countries, mass destruction (is) something they’re proud of. And when Iraq started (becoming) a country which had mass destruction weapons, around 15 or 20 years ago, they think: “yes, it’s our right”. It’s a (source of pride), because they want to compete with Israel’

I ask that you do some research and tell me what sort of relationship this gentleman has with SBS and if it is true that he does occasional work with SBS radio. What sort of occasional work does he do with SBS radio or, if he no longer does it, what did he do in the past?

Mr Brown —Can I go back to the quotes that you made. You are building a case, really, of condemning this person because of their involvement with al-Jazeera and you have described al-Jazeera through a series of quotes. Clearly the validity of that position is tested by its authorship.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am just raising these issues; I am not expecting you to give me an answer today.

Mr Brown —Yes, but I would like to try and at least address some of these points today. I agree that al-Jazeera is a highly controversial area, but I have read lots of articles which would take a different perspective—that within the Arab community al-Jazeera is seen as a moderating voice. From time to time I see al-Jazeera content online and I have to say that I have seen the most powerful representation of a challenge to fundamentalist Islam and the role of women on al-Jazeera. They are not an organisation that avoids interviewing critics. I have seen some most powerful interviews along those lines. You put up al-Jazeera and you portray them using a series of quotes from an unidentified person. I do not think that is particularly fair. You then use that to link it back to somebody who may have done some work for SBS to portray them in such a bad light. Surely there has to be some rigour to the source of this information that you are putting in front of us.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Well, Mr Brown, I am not expecting you to give me an answer today. I am simply referring to it. I will provide it to you. I would like you to investigate it and then you can come back to me. That is what I am asking. I am not expecting you to give any considered response on this issue; I am simply laying the facts out and then you can investigate them. All I want to know is: what is this person’s connection with SBS? It is a pretty simple question.

CHAIR —Could you take that on notice, Mr Brown?

Senator ALLISON —I have a point of order, Chair. The senator is referring to a document none of us has—and the SBS does not have. It might be useful if that is circulated now so we can all be in the picture.

CHAIR —That is a fair point.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Sure, I am happy to circulate it. The question I want answered is: can you find out whether this fellow does have links to the Muslim Brotherhood and whether he has been promoting those sorts of views in the time he has been working on SBS? Also, if he has done work on SBS, has that been monitored? Are you aware of what this fellow is saying? If he has done work on SBS, what language has it been broadcast in? The reason I am raising this is that we know of earlier examples at SBS of a fellow who was head of the Tamil program and who was apparently working at the same time as the international head of fundraising for the Tamil Tigers—a terrorist organisation. There was also this guy evidently using the Croatian language program to raise money to buy weapons for the Croatian army during the Balkan wars. That is why I am asking this question, Mr Brown. I appreciate that this may have been before your time, but SBS does have a history with these sorts of people. That is why I am asking the question.

Senator ALLISON —I have a point of order, Chair. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is making unsupported assertions—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Senator Allison, if you—

CHAIR —Senator Fierravanti-Wells, Senator Allison is asking a question.

Senator ALLISON —I not asking question; I am raising a point of order about the assertions that are being made, which seems to me are unfounded and unreasonable and should not be part of an estimates process.

CHAIR —Presumably they will be taken on notice by SBS and answered.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Senator Allison, if you care to go back through estimates transcripts going back a number of years you will see the detailed questioning and the material that was provided in relation to this allegation. You will also see the subsequent action that was taken by SBS in relation to both the issues relating to the Tamil program and the Croatian issue. Perhaps in future, if you do wish to make those assertions, go back and have a look at the transcript in the first place.

CHAIR —That is an answer. Let us confine it to that.

Mr Brown —I am concerned about the fairness to individuals who may or may not work for SBS. I think if there is going to be an allegation placed against somebody who is an employee of SBS, it needs to be substantiated. I remind you, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, that you put a question to us on notice where you accused one of our journalists of being a propagandist. I do not think there was any evidence for that. You thought that he was a pro-Hamas propagandist. We replied to you and said that, actually, he is a Jewish journalist with family in Israel and is deeply offended by this. I do not know what recourse we have to put the record straight unless in this forum, where you put points to me about our journalists and give me a chance to respond to it.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I do. You are fully entitled to.

CHAIR —Senator Fierravanti-Wells, that is a legitimate issue. You must be able to substantiate allegations.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Yes, I have provided documents and Mr Brown responded to the questions that I have raised. End of story.

Senator ALLISON —Where is the document, Chair?

CHAIR —We have concluded this segment.

Senator RONALDSON —Chair, I have a point of order. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is quite entitled to put scenarios to this witness, substantiated by matters that she is going to circulate, whether Senator Allison likes it or not.

CHAIR —The point that is being made is that allegations should be substantiated. I think that is a fair point in relation to the reputations of the people involved.

Senator ALLISON —On that point, Senator Fierravanti-Wells said that she had a document and was happy to circulate it.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am happy to circulate it.

Senator ALLISON —I am just asking whether that can take place now.

CHAIR —We have already asked her to circulate it.

Senator RONALDSON —And she said she will.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —There it is.

Senator CONROY —I understand that SBS has good news for cricket fans?

Mr Brown —That is correct.

Senator CONROY —Tell us all about it.

Mr Brown —It is nice to have some good news. We were delighted to announce overnight that we have secured the rights to the Ashes for free-to-air audiences for 2009. That will allow us to repeat the success of last year. We have also secured the rights to the one-dayers surrounding that event. So we have ensured that that particular event remains on free-to-air television.

Senator CONROY —Fantastic. Congratulations. Before I move on to a couple of other areas in sport, I did notice that there was some publicity—and I note you have already mentioned South Park once today—and that there is some controversy around a forthcoming South Park episode to do with a betrayal of Steve Irwin?

Mr Brown —Yes, I do not know much about that one. The South Park I was referring to was one of a previous series called ‘Bloody Mary’. I only know what I have read in the newspaper briefly about it. It is not something that is subject to an offer from SBS at this stage.

Senator CONROY —Sorry, ‘it is not something that’?

Mr Brown —It is not something that is subject to any sort of contract with SBS at this stage. The series that is going into America is still a year or so away from even being shown to us for consideration. So I could not indicate our view on that.

Senator CONROY —Is good taste an SBS criteria—or bad taste is not?

Mr Brown —It is a very vexed question in terms of comedy, because satirical comedy is almost inevitably in bad taste—bad taste used for effect. That is not to say that we are not sensitive to points where we believe a line may be overstepped.

Senator CONROY —Going back to sports funding, it is noted that on budget night you said you would have $3 million less. That was the loss of the sports funding money that you previously had?

Mr Brown —We had received a special payment of funds to support our sports policy for one year and we had made a submission under our triennial funding to have it continued for the next triennium. We were unsuccessful in that.

Senator CONROY —You were seeking $15 million over the next three years?

Mr Brown —That sounds correct.

Senator CONROY —Will you have to cut any current SBS sports as a result of this—the Tour de France, one of Senator Coonan’s favourites?

Mr Brown —The Tour de France is contracted for some period ahead, so it is unlikely to be affected. Look, we have to make tough decisions about what we can and cannot do all the time. Sometimes those decisions are taken out of our hands anyhow, because we do not continue to own a property that we previously did.

Senator CONROY —The other matter that I want to raise with you is the fact that SBS lost the rights to broadcast Socceroos internationals for the next seven years. This was a disappointment to millions of soccer fans around the country. What sort of coverage has SBS given to Socceroos matches since you have had the rights?

Mr Brown —We have had the rights to Socceroos matches for the last two years, and we have covered all games live and in full.

Senator CONROY —Socceroos matches such as World Cup qualifiers are not on the antisiphoning list, are they?

Mr Brown —No, they are not.

Senator CONROY —Do you think that it would have made a difference to the outcome if they were on the list?

Senator Coonan —You are asking him to speculate about something. How can he do that?

Senator CONROY —You do not have to be bullied by the minister, Mr Brown. You are entitled to answer your questions.

Mr Brown —When any sports event is on the list, it has to be offered to free-to-air broadcasters rather than simply to a pay broadcaster. In this case we were in negotiations with the FFA for the rights to these events, but it is clear from the publication of the amount that pay TV paid that we were a very long way away from securing those rights. That does not include the A-League. The A-League was already contracted to pay TV anyhow.

Senator CONROY —Do you think it is an anomaly that Socceroos matches are not on the list, given that rugby league and rugby union test matches are on the list?

Mr Brown —I think SBS is on the record as stating that it has lobbied for the inclusion of Socceroos matches on the antisiphoning list.

Senator CONROY —How many people watched the Australia-Uruguay qualifier in Sydney?

Mr Brown —I cannot recall.

Senator CONROY —I understand that it was in the millions.

Mr Brown —It might have been. It was certainly SBS’s highest rating program ever.

Senator CONROY —Did you say that you have been involved in lobbying to have the Socceroos’s World Cup qualifiers put on the list?

Mr Brown —We have made representations to the government from time to time, probably even predating me, that in our view they should be on the list.

Senator CONROY —What response was received? Obviously an unsuccessful response.

Mr Brown —We have been unsuccessful in achieving that.

Senator CONROY —Minister, in 2001 the Australian Broadcasting Authority told the government:

... soccer is a sport with a growing following in Australian audiences generally and matched Rugby Union in the level of interest in television viewing ...

The ABA also said:

... consideration should be given to listing international soccer matches involving the senior Australian representative team, in a similar way that international ‘test’ matches are covered for rugby union.

Can you explain why the government decided not to list Socceroos World Cup qualifying matches?

Senator Coonan —I think it was before I was in cabinet. The list is now settled until 2009.

Senator CONROY —So Australian soccer fans will now have to pay $600 a year to watch the Socceroos’s campaign to qualify for the next World Cup. Are you happy with that outcome?

Senator Coonan —I am responsible for the administration of the antisiphoning list. The list is settled. There are always representations from many bodies to add things to the antisiphoning list. I am currently having a look at the list, and I am not going to make any further comment.

Senator CONROY —I am not asking where you are going with the list. The fact is that the rights for them have been purchased for the next seven years, which means any Australian soccer fan who wants to watch the Socceroos qualify for the next World Cup will have to pay $600 a year for the Foxtel subscription. I am asking: are you happy with that?

Senator Coonan —Whether I am happy is not really a matter for supplementary estimates. I would say that I think that there is a place for sport being shown on free-to-air TV. We are very committed to that. As to what goes on and off the list, that is a matter that has to be reviewed as the list gets either bought up or not bought up, and we will review it again in 2009 to see whether the rationale for it continues and what it should look like. But, as far as the current arrangement goes, free-to-air TV could have bought it. There was no prohibition on free-to-air TV bidding for the rights. I think we have to ensure, insofar as we can, that free-to-air TV have an opportunity to bid where they see it appropriate.

Senator CONROY —Minister, just to confirm the discussion that Mr Brown and I were having, are you aware that, according to Roy Morgan Research, almost 8.5 million Australians—that is, 51 per cent of the population aged 14 and above—watched the second leg of Australia’s World Cup qualifier against Uruguay last November?

Senator Coonan —I think you are counting yourself a few times, Senator Conroy.

Senator CONROY —I was watching it live.

Senator Coonan —I think it is extremely popular, but it is not on the list and of course the rights have now been purchased.

Senator CONROY —But doesn’t that demonstrate that these matches are of national significance and importance, which is the basis for the list?

Senator Coonan —That is not the only basis for the list, of course. The rights have now been bought and, as I have explained to you, the list is settled until 2009, broadly speaking. That is when we will have a look at the ongoing rationale. I think there will be one. I really do like to see Australians able to see sport free-to-air, but you cannot put everything on the free-to-air list. There are obviously a lot of issues, as you would be well aware, in how the sports rights work.

Senator CONROY —But last year you told this committee that national significance and importance was your criterion for deciding whether events should be listed.

Senator Coonan —Yes, that is certainly true for the ones that are listed. They would be listed if they did not have that criterion and others.

Senator CONROY —Your predecessor, Senator Alston, put the final qualifying matches for the World Cup on the antisyphoning list in 2001. Why didn’t you continue his policy?

Senator Coonan —I was not responsible for the compilation of the current list, Senator Conroy.

Senator CONROY —But 8.5 million Australians are going to miss out now, on your watch.

Senator Coonan —They will not miss out, Senator Conroy, in that there are those who actually do enjoy sport on pay and the 2010 World Cup is on the list.

Senator CONROY —Only after we campaigned to get it put back on after you dropped it.

Senator Coonan —That is what you say, Senator Conroy.

Senator CONROY —It is a fact.

Senator Coonan —We only put things on the list that we think are appropriate. You would end up with all sport on the list if everyone who made a representation about it was able to persuade the government. Clearly, we have to strike a sensible balance. I think this is a very sterile argument, if I may say so, simply because the rights have been acquired by pay, the free-to-airs were able to bid if they wished and the list is settled until 2009, when it will be reviewed.

Senator CONROY —Can I put it to you, Minister, that there are many Australian football fans who do not think it is a sterile argument.

Senator Coonan —It is a sterile argument if the rights are sold, Senator Conroy. I do not know how more gently I can point that out to you.

Senator CONROY —They have only been sold because you let them be sold by not insisting they be on the list.

Senator Coonan —That is an absurd thing to say, and you know it.

Senator BOB BROWN —SBS has done a fantastic job in expanding the range of options for Australian viewers with its rollout to people who have not had SBS in the past. This topic may have been covered earlier this morning, and I am sorry if I was not here for it. What percentage of Australians still cannot receive SBS, and what is being done to fix that up?

Mr Brown —Television?

Senator BOB BROWN —Both television and radio, but television first.

Mr Brown —There is another rollout of transmission to population centres of between 3,000 and 5,000 currently under consideration. When that is achieved, that is really as far as SBS intends to go in terms of analog reach.

Mr Broderick —We currently have scheduled for 2006 about 57 new sites for analog and digital television, including self-help, around Australia. We are in the process of negotiating a further 70 sites for digital television throughout Australia, which should take our digitisation of the analog network to conclusion. I think it would be in excess of 98 per cent, but I would have to take it on notice.

CHAIR —Are there other questions for SBS?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Yes, I have more questions. Recently I was made aware that one of your journalists, Max Civili, from the Italian program, was a guest speaker at a fundraiser for the New South Wales Greens. The involvement of an SBS journalist in a Greens party fundraiser does not exactly surprise me, but could you tell me whether you have a procedure in place for journalists who do wish to speak at political fundraisers; whether permission is required and, if so, from whom, how often this sort of thing happens; and what was the nature of Max Civili’s address. I understand that the function was on 7 October. If you are not able to answer here, please take that on notice and get back to me.

Mr Brown —I can answer. In that particular instance the journalist did not seek permission, under the mistaken belief that that was not required as he was appearing in a personal capacity. He was unaware that his involvement would be promoted as that of an SBS journalist; in fact, he was not perceived as being there in a personal capacity. It is our view that that did create a conflict-of-interest situation. That has been taken up with the journalist concerned, and he has been counselled appropriately. In terms of a general application, that would be the way we would view any involvement of any of our editorial staff in the political process.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Could you provide us with a list of people who have spoken at fundraisers in, say, the last three years and let us know whether this is quite a frequent occurrence of SBS staff?

Mr Brown —I can, and I hope it will be a very short list.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am sure it will be. At the last estimates you conceded that there had been a failure to adequately manage an online forum about Vietnamese nurses, which resulted in the site being hacked with multiple pornographic references of Asian school girls and so forth. I have to say they were quite disgusting, and I am not going to repeat them—I think I provided them to you on the last occasion. You have informed us that, as a result of this episode, you have taken steps to make sure that your management of this kind of forum is more professional. Do you want to comment on that and the steps you may have taken in relation to that?

Mr Brown —I am not in a position to specifically address that.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Perhaps you might take that on notice, thank you. Perhaps the people responsible for this sort of pornographic hacking may have been at least partly inspired by some of the late night content that SBS sends to air. SBS’s description of The Film Biker, on 15 October, said:

Gregory then meets the beautiful Anna ... and falls in love with her. When he discovers that she works as a prostitute, he decides to save her. However, his job is threatened as multiplexes drive film bikers and projectionists out of work and the couple are forced into a seedy amateur porn movie in order to make money.

All from your documentary series.

Mr Brown —What was the name of that film?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It is called The Film Biker, and it was advertised on SBS in TV What’s On. It was promoted on 15 October. There is another one from your documentary series, When sex goes wrong, with such insightful gems, for example, in episode 6:

... individuals recount their most disgusting experiences during sex.

Can you explain to me how this and similar programs conform to SBS’s charter? Why should I and millions of other taxpayers subsidise porn on SBS?

Mr Brown —I do not accept your assertion that it is porn, because SBS operates under the classification guidelines that other broadcasters do. We do not broadcast porn.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Might I withdraw ‘porn’ and say ‘highly unsuitable material’?

Mr Brown —Certainly. Whether it is suitable or not is very much a subjective judgement. The first one you mentioned, The Film Biker, I cannot say I am familiar with it, but we carry a wide range of films from around the world. It is accepted that the breadth of material that SBS covers and brings to air is sometimes challenging for some audiences. You asked me how it conforms to the charter. I cannot say the matter of sexually explicit content is reflected in any part of the charter. The charter really deals more with the obligations of SBS, under its primary objective, to inform, educate and entertain all Australians. There are supplementary requirements, one of which is that we show programs in the language of preference, and The Film Biker—I am not sure what nationality it is, but there is a possibility it is a foreign language movie, in which case it conforms to that.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It was from the Philippines.

Mr Brown —There you go. The test is not really how an individual program fails the charter. It is more a question of how the totality of the services that are available across all of SBS make sure that the charter is given effect.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —But surely the content of what goes to SBS must, in some way, conform to the charter. I really find that those sorts of films—I would like you, if you would, to go back and comment on this as to how this forms part of the charter. That is your starting point. I really do not see how what you are showing—these are just two examples; I am sure there are others—conform to the charter. That is my point, but you can prove to me otherwise.

Mr Brown —I understand the point you are making. You are really addressing a classification issue. Are you addressing a classification issue?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —No, I am not.

Mr Brown —You do not think these things should be shown?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am just asking how they fit into SBS’s charter, and where it fits into SBS’s charter.

Mr Brown —Can I be clear on this: this is not a view that this material should not be shown; it is a view that it should not be shown on SBS.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —From a personal perspective, I have my own personal view on that. My question to you is: how does it fit in, how does showing this sort of material on SBS conform to its charter? That is my question. In the same vein, I want to take you now to your answer to question 265. That was the question I asked about Stripperella and another program. I have to tell you that your argument that the SBS charter these days includes supporting the production of a striptease comic voiced by Pamela Anderson is really questionable. Again, where does SBS get this from the original charter? Why should taxpayers be funding what is really, quite frankly, totally inappropriate material?

Mr Brown —Let us put this into context. Stripperella is an American adult animation series. I think we put 10 episodes to air, so we are talking about five hours of content. It follows a tradition on SBS to promote adult animation to a degree that no other broadcaster does. Whether it is Japanese animation like Ghost in the Shell and Champloo or South Park or bro’Town, the New Zealand one which is currently on air, the fact is that this is a commitment by SBS that has been going on for some years and is not contrary to the charter. What is more, that commitment to embrace adult animation led SBS to invest in Harvie Krumpet—the only network to win an Oscar for its production. This is all part of the same mix.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Yes, but Harvie Krumpet is not quite in the same vein as Stripperella.

Mr Brown —That is a subjective view. I do not allow myself to run through programs and make a selective view on the ones I like and the ones I do not like. I maintain a stream of content, some of which, personally, I may not bother to watch. I do not think you can challenge our commitment to the charter by isolating five hours of adult animation out of a tradition on SBS that has been running for many years, that SBS has produced thousands of hours of and that has culminated in SBS being the only television network in Australia to win an Oscar.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The point I am getting at is that Harvie Krumpet is not in that same vein. Why should taxpayers’ money be used, in effect, to fund what is just smut? I mean, really! Where does it fit into the charter that this sort of stuff should go to air? I mean, really! How is it informative to the benefit of all Australians?

Mr Brown —It is not informative; it is entertaining.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —For the benefit of all Australians?

Mr Brown —That is also in the charter.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It also qualifies for the benefit of all Australians. I would like a comprehensive answer. I would like you to go back and look at some of this stuff and identify how it conforms to the charter and why lots of taxpayers’ money should be used to subsidise this sort of stuff on television.

Mr Brown —I am not sure that I see—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —We will agree to disagree on that.

Mr Brown —Are you lumping Stripperella in with the others? Is it the continuation of the same line that this is distasteful content?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am. I will move on from smut and pornography to the issue of far-left-wing bias. In a report on Mexican elections on your Dateline program, a left-wing candidate is referred to as a ‘leftist’ but the conservative candidate is referred to as ‘right wing’ twice. My question to you is about the differing styles. This is a Dateline transcript of ‘The Great Mexican Standoff’ on 30 August 2006. Can you have a look at that? I think there is basically a bias one way. Could you have a look at that and answer that on notice?

Mr Brown —I am not sure of the point. Are you saying that calling someone ‘right wing’ is more pejorative than calling them a ‘leftist’?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —No. I want you to read the article. I believe it is very skewed left-wing bias. It is not balanced reporting. I want you to have a look at it, and I want you to comment on it.

Mr Brown —Can I be clear that you consider ‘right wing’ to be a pejorative label?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —No, I am just saying that you are emphasising one more than the other and you are not being balanced in your reporting. But please have a look at it and then get back to me. From the questions to you at the last estimates, we canvassed Dateline and its very biased anti-American and anti-Israeli stance. The pro-Arab sentiments of George Negus, I think, are quite well known both from his work on the program and from his book about Islam. I do not believe it is the role of the Australian government to fund this kind of counterculture, which is a far-left view of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, and which is promoting anti-American views amongst Australian communities.

Senator ALLISON —Chair, I raise a point of order. The senator keeps on making assertions which are not well founded. Can I ask you to direct her to ask questions rather than make long speeches with very dangerous assertions about individuals and about the SBS?

CHAIR —Can you document any allegations for you to have made that point?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Yes. I want to quote from the Dateline program on 28 June this year which included an item which I would describe as a left-wing, pro-civil liberties brigade attack on the government’s much needed counterterrorism laws. Patrick Emerton, from Monash University Law School, stated:

... the Liberal Party of Australia fostered the doing of a terrorist act, namely the invasion of Iraq, but we know that no member of the Liberal Party of Australia is going to be prosecuted for being a member of a terrorist organisation.

I will provide this to you, because I think you need to have a look at it. It is an entry in the guest book.

Mr Brown —Is it the guest book or the program we are talking about?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It is a series. It is basically a Dateline program that went to air on 28 June. It was a Dateline transcript called ‘The National Interest?’

Mr Brown —Do you accept, though, that there is quite a difference between material that may appear on the guest book, which is really just Australians representing their views freely as a consequence of viewing the program, and, considering this question was prefaced by talk about George Negus, what George Negus has introduced inside the program?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The point I am making to you is that I have quoted from this program, and on this program Patrick Emerton was interviewed and made this assertion. Again, I will provide it to you. I am using it as an example of what is happening on Dateline and what I perceive is bias.

Mr Brown —But that example is not bias, is it. If you are talking about an interview subject, bias can only be demonstrated if it is the case that Dateline consistently goes to people of one point of view who represent them and there is no balancing point of view ever put on the program. To pull out a single quote, not made by George Negus, as I understand it, but by a guest on the program, cannot be a demonstration of bias.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The point I am making is that I am going to provide you with a transcript from Dateline where a person called Patrick Emerton was interviewed and was put up to be an expert. He makes this quote and basically there is reference to a pro-civil liberties brigade. The point I am making is that at no time during that transmission was it mentioned that Patrick Emerton has also written other material and that he was part of a gathering of a far-left-wing organisation called Now We The People. The point I am making to you is that you have used this person on your program and there does not appear to be a counterbalance but you have not disclosed what this person’s other interest is. I would like you to look at it.

Mr Brown —I will take that on notice.

—I now take you to question No. 243 about the online poll that you conducted to mark the 10th anniversary of the Howard government. The question asked was: ‘How would you rate John Howard’s decade in power?’ The options were:

1. A job well done

2. Leadership that plays on fear

3. Time for a change

4. I don’t care

Where did you get this idea that the Prime Minister’s leadership plays on fear?

Senator BOB BROWN —It might have come from me, for a starter.

Senator ALLISON —It is pretty obvious.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I just want to put it to you: isn’t this just simply another example of SBS taking its particular left-wing stance on the war on terror and counter-terrorism protections?

Mr Brown —As we responded to this, there was one negative reference to the Prime Minister, which you have emphasised, which was offset by a positive option. So there was a plus and a minus and a neutral one—‘I don’t care’—and one regarding time for a change, which was driven at that stage, back in March, by much publicised leadership issues of the day.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —But surely the slant of the questioning is heavily biased in one direction.

Senator CONROY —Oh, stop it!

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I am asking Mr Brown for an opinion.

CHAIR —With respect, he has given an answer and said that there were options there.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I will move on then, Chair.

CHAIR —If you would, yes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Senator Brown has some questions, so I will let Senator Brown ask his questions and then I will come back.

Senator BOB BROWN —I can begin by asking why SBS was so biased that it did not put a similar question about me, as the Leader of the Greens, or about Senator Allison, as the Leader of the Democrats, or, indeed, about Mr Beazley. Why did SBS have this right-wing bias that it only asked the question about the Prime Minister?

Mr Brown —It was the Prime Minister’s 10th anniversary.

Senator BOB BROWN —But it was the 10th anniversary of my being with the Greens, so why not a similar question?

CHAIR —Obviously not a high public profile point.

Senator CONROY —Cut it out, Senator Eggleston.

Senator BOB BROWN —Unlike Senator Fierravanti-Wells, I do not watch Stripperella, but I do want to ask the minister about the fact that Australians pay for commercial television through advertising revenues—and we therefore have an interest in what goes to air generally—which is part of the bailiwick of politicians. Minister, do you have any concerns that SBS is going outside standards that are set by commercial television in Australia if you think that SBS has at least the consideration for viewers in setting its standards that commercial television has in Australia? If not, what is the difference?

Senator Coonan —The free-to-air commercial television stations operate according to certain standards, which are well known and are enforced by the authority. The national broadcasters operate in accordance with their charters. My interest in that is very much that they should observe in broad terms what their charters require them to do. I have a responsibility to ensure that they are properly funded, and I consider that I have a responsibility to ensure that complaints mechanisms work appropriately so that people who do not think they are observing their charters or who want to make some complaints have a mechanism to do so. So it does differ from the standards that the free-to-airs observe. It is a very different type of arrangement. I think that both the national broadcasters have an obligation to be fair. It is part of what I think taxpayers require in that they want fair and accurate reporting, and that is a balance.

Senator BOB BROWN —Do the commercial operators have an obligation to be fair?

Senator Coonan —The commercial operators have an obligation to observe their codes of conduct and their standards.

Senator BOB BROWN —But I am asking about fairness.

Senator Coonan —You can have a look in the standards to see whether you think there is any requirement to be fair.

Senator BOB BROWN —I ask you to take this question on notice. Would you do a comparison between commercial operators in Australia and the ABC and SBS to see which has the greater or lesser content of violence going to air, and of sexually explicit material, because that is what Senator Fierravanti-Wells is bringing to the fore here today, and report back to the committee on that comparison, both on the quality and time that that sort of program is going to air?

I am hearing here that, in some way or other, there has to be a restriction clamped on SBS on this occasion, and it is coming for the ABC, which ought not be put upon the commercial broadcasters, and yet both are funded by the public. If there is any difference in the approach we should take to restrict SBS and ABC in a way that commercial broadcasters ought not be restricted, what is it? Does experience show that the commercial broadcasters have been tighter in their censorship of violence, which I am much more concerned about, or of the sexually explicit material which Senator Fierravanti-Wells has been taking so much time to ask you about today?

Senator Coonan —Any broadcaster in Australia has to comply with classification guidelines, Senator Brown. So, first of all, that is a standard requirement for all broadcasting. Because the national broadcasters are publicly funded, they have charters to observe which obviously the free-to-air broadcasters do not. But free-to-air broadcasters have both standards and codes of conduct that enable people who are offended by any content, or who would otherwise wish to complain, to complain to the regulator.

So it is not really an exercise that I could or should undertake, because they are very different types of organisation. One is a commercial organisation that can, within limits, do what it likes. It can advertise; it has a lot more freedom than the national broadcasters to do what it wishes so long as it does not infringe classification guidelines or, indeed, its own co-regulatory arrangement. It has a co-regulatory arrangement where it voluntarily observes a lot of the codes of conduct. They are about to be reviewed, starting next year, I believe. They are developed in consultation with the regulator and do involve some community consultation. It is just a very different type of broadcasting if it is a commercial broadcast supported by advertising, but it still has to comply with the classification arrangements, as do the national broadcasters.

Senator BOB BROWN —The point I am making here is that the Australian public at large pays for both the public broadcasters and the commercial broadcasters. What I am asking you to give to the committee is an assessment of the difference in the restrictions on what can go to air. Already you have told the committee that there is less restriction on the commercial sector.

Senator Coonan —No, I have said they are different. The commercial sector does not have to comply with a charter. What I can do is answer questions about whether or not the national broadcasters comply with the charter. Those questions can be put to me, but I do not see that trying to do some sort of comparative exercise in something that you really cannot compare is an appropriate task to ask me to do in supplementary estimates. I just cannot see that it is something that I could usefully do. But you most certainly can have, and I will produce for you, the codes of conduct and standards. I can produce all of the classification codes, and that will give you some opportunity, if you wish to pursue this point—and you are entirely free to do so—to make your own comparisons. Otherwise it is a value judgement.

Senator BOB BROWN —No, it is a very important thing, you see, because it goes to the heart of democracy. A democracy is only as healthy as the information which the voters in that democracy get. I could make out a very strong case to say that, in some areas of commercial broadcasting, there is a huge, unremitting right-wing bias which attacks the fundamentals of democracy because it is not balanced. We are having an attempt here to paint the public broadcasters as in some way nonperformers when it comes to obligations to be fair to the public. I am saying the public put much more money into the upkeep of the commercial broadcasters than of the public broadcasters. What I want to know is: what is the difference in standards that apply to both in our democracy? We are also getting mores brought up by Senator Fierravanti-Wells. We are effectively hearing an attack on SBS as being licentious. I want to know if that is fair to SBS, given the performance of commercial broadcasters. Let me give you one example. I was in San Francisco last week. Due to jetlag I woke up at 12.30 am; I thought it was six o’clock or something—you know what it is like, Minister.

Senator Coonan —You need to take some melatonin; it is the great mainstay of travellers.

CHAIR —Try being a Western Australian coming to Canberra regularly. But can you proceed to your question, please?

Senator BOB BROWN —It is about across-the-board violence. I turned from one program to the next. It is a culture of violence which worries me a great deal. I would like an assessment of how that is going in Australia. I believe there is more violence, more sex and more political bias on those high-rating commercial programs than there ever is on the public broadcasters. I would like an assessment of that. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is asking you to do a lot of work, Minister, in assessing the performance of SBS. I am saying: let’s extend it across the board. Will you do that for us?

Senator Coonan —I cannot. To start with, the free-to-air broadcasters are not supported by an appropriation of the parliament. It does not arise. Their remit, other than their codes of conduct—

Senator BOB BROWN —The public pays for them.

Senator Coonan —I can produce the codes of conduct but I cannot do the exercise that you are seeking, Senator Brown. You can do it for yourself. You are certainly welcome to. You are welcome to make any comments, subject to the committee’s indulgence, that you wish, I would think, in terms of what proposition you might want to put. But it is not a proper exercise to be trying to compare something that does not really arise in supplementary estimates.

Senator BOB BROWN —It is a fundamentally important exercise for our democracy.

Senator Coonan —I am not saying it is not fundamentally important; I am saying it is not a proper task to ask me or the department to do, because anyone can watch free-to-air television and, if they do not infringe their licence conditions, the standards, the codes of conduct or the broader classification scheme which applies to all broadcasting, that is not something we can make value judgements about. I can produce for you the codes of conduct. You can then make a judgement if you wish about whether you think they are infringed, and there is a complaints mechanism to follow with the regulator.

Senator BOB BROWN —The point from me, however, unless you can countermand it, is that they have more violence, more sexually explicit material and more political bias than the public broadcasters. Would you countermand that?

Senator Coonan —I am not in a position to answer that sort of question, if indeed it is one that you can properly ask me, Senator Brown. I am trying to deal genuinely with your inquiry, as I always do. I do not just dismiss something you are trying to put to me.

Senator BOB BROWN —I am very serious about it.

Senator Coonan —What I am saying is that, without evidence that you want to produce to me, it is simply an assertion and I cannot agree or disagree.

Senator BOB BROWN —I will just finish by saying that Senator Fierravanti-Wells is asking you and the good people from SBS to produce that evidence. I am saying it is fair that we ask for that across the board.

Senator Coonan —But I cannot do that across the board, and I should not do it if it is not part of supplementary estimates. The taxpayer funds SBS. The taxpayer funds the ABC. They have very specific obligations under the charter, and that is why they are properly a subject for probing during estimates. That is why we are sitting here. The free-to-airs do not have to turn up. They do not have to answer any questions about it. They operate within a regulatory environment where the regulator will turn up. You are entitled to ask the regulator questions, and I will certainly produce the codes of conduct if that will help you.

CHAIR —The regulator appears later this afternoon, later in the program. If you want to come back and ask ACMA their opinion about these matters, that would be an appropriate time. But it is not appropriate at the moment.

Senator BOB BROWN —I just ask the minister once again—

CHAIR —You have already put the question.

Senator RONALDSON —Chair, this is an absolute nonsense argument. You have made your point, Senator Brown; let’s get on with it.

Senator BOB BROWN —I ask the minister again: will you do an assessment?

CHAIR —Senator, you have asked that for the third time and the minister has answered it twice.

Senator Coonan —I really do not have a different answer, Senator Brown.

Senator BOB BROWN —So the answer is no.

CHAIR —That is not what the minister said.

Senator Coonan —It is not no; it is a matter that is not appropriate for estimates.

CHAIR —The minister said that it is not appropriate and also that SBS is a public broadcaster. I think Senator Wortley has a question.

Senator ALLISON —I have a point of order. If Senator Brown’s question has been ruled out by the minister as being inappropriate to be asked and answered then so should the questions that were put by Senator Fierravanti-Wells.

CHAIR —If I might answer that: the essential point is, as the minister said, that SBS is a public broadcaster, part funded by the federal government, and therefore it is appropriate that they are questioned at estimates. It is not appropriate to ask questions in relation to the free-to-air broadcasters, except to the regulator, which is ACMA. When that part of the agenda comes up, you are quite welcome to ask that question.

Senator BOB BROWN —I have a point of order. Would you produce a ruling to say why it is not appropriate to ask about broadcasting services in the way that I have before an estimates committee? I think you are wrong. I think it is quite proper of me to ask the minister at this junction the questions I have put, and I stand by them.

CHAIR —You may think that, but I think it is appropriate to be asked of the regulator. The minister has answered this question three times, and I think we will leave it at that and move on. I call Senator Wortley.

Senator WORTLEY —I think my question is to Mr Ingram. How many vacancies are there currently in SBS radio? Where do the vacancies occur? How long has each position been vacant? And when does SBS expect to fill those vacancies?

Mr Ingram —If you do not mind, I will take that on notice.

Senator WORTLEY —Thank you.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —In a report on SBS world news on 3 August, you had a story headlined ‘Prison ships to hold refugees’, which referred to a federal government plan to temporarily hold illegal fishermen and asylum seekers on a ship in Australian waters. These people are not refugees, yet your headline said clearly ‘Prison ships to hold refugees’. As we all know, you cannot be a refugee until you are assessed to be one. Surely this is just an attempt to put a negative, demonising spin on the government’s proposal.

Mr Brown —I will take that one on notice. I am not familiar with that story.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Thank you. In your answer to question No. 243 about a budget night poll where you suggested to your audience ‘I dislike the way Indigenous health has been ignored’, despite an additional $137 million in spending on Indigenous health bringing the annual total to almost $600 million, your defence relied on criticism of the budget from the Australian Medical Association. It seems somewhat appalling that you take your editorial cue from the AMA. In your answer to question No. 244, you said your failure to include references to spending on Indigenous health was ‘an oversight’. This was one of the areas which I would have thought SBS would take a particular interest in, given its charter specifically refers to Indigenous issues, yet it is very clear in this poll that you wanted to foster an impression that the Howard government was deliberately ignoring Aboriginal health. Isn’t that simply another example of putting the worst possible spin on what the government was doing?

Mr Brown —I think we responded to question No. 244 with the acknowledgement that the reference to Indigenous health spending was an oversight. But, with regard to our particular obligations to Indigenous matters under our charter, we went on to say that most of the Indigenous spending announced in the budget was included. You can go through coverage of emerging events of that type, and I would suggest that in virtually every media outlet you will find something that was overlooked or slightly inaccurate. That is inevitable. But I do not accept that you would assign to that oversight some sort of motive of a left-wing conspiracy.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —It just seemed very specific, given the material that was there and given that you particularly slanted the question to say ‘I disliked the way Indigenous health is being ignored’. You were the one that made the assumption in trying to draw people out without even bothering to see. If you are going to ask and you are going to run and seek opinion in relation to that, one would assume that you would inform yourself at the very least of what evidence is available to back up your assertion that, allegedly, Indigenous issues had been ignored.

Mr Brown —I take responsibility for the oversight in this case.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —We will look for the next coverage. I want to take you back to Dateline. In answers to questions from the last estimates you defended the guest book for this program. I think the guestbook reveals not only that you encourage anti-American sentiment but also that it is used to promote the most wild conspiracy theories. I have a two-page list, which I shall place on notice, but here are just a few examples: ‘The US used a micronuc in Bali to carry out the Bali bombings’; the now all too familiar 9/11 conspiracy theories; ‘John Howard is about to declare martial law’; ‘The bankers forced John Howard to add two battalions to the Army’; and ‘Israel has become poisoned by depleted uranium and French nuclear testing in the Sahara and should be nuked to save the Mediterranean’. This is not a guestbook in the normal sense, where viewers exchange ideas about the Dateline programs. This has really become a little taxpayer funded nest for people to basically come out with the most outrageous things, and you are just allowing them to stay on your guestbook. Can you explain that?

Mr Brown —Surely some of the extreme conspiracy views are easily recognised by audiences. It seems to me that their appearance on the guestbook does not give them any greater credibility than if they were uttered in the pub. They are simply a single person’s expression, and I think Australian audiences are well able to determine for themselves what is absurd, and if somebody expresses an absurd view it is recognised as such. What you are asking me to do is to go through every presentation across SBS and delete stuff.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —My question goes to two things. If you do look at the guestbooks, you can see that there is quite a robust exchange—in fact, bullying in some instances—of different views. So much for tolerance and harmony! I am going to put these on notice, but it really goes to the question of your responsibilities in relation to the guestbook. Does somebody monitor this? What sort of procedures do you have in place? ABC has a moderator and there is some sort of procedure in place. The question is about putting the examples to you but also asking you what procedures are in place to deal with some of the most outlandish things: how long you leave this stuff on there and that sort of thing. So it goes to not only quantity but also is a quality issue.

Mr Brown —I will take that on notice.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I want to now go to the coverage of the Middle East. It is my personal opinion, which I think it is probably shared by others, and I believe that you have had complaints in relation to the coverage of the recent conflict—

Mr Brown —The Lebanon-Israeli conflict?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Yes. I want to take you back to some of the questions from the last estimates. You were asked why the Dateline program—Dateline again!—broadcast misleading representations of a woman called Marian Farhat. You had a promo for the program that stated that her three sons were killed by the Israeli military. You were asked why you had neglected—and this is 253, if you are looking for it—to mention that they had been killed whilst carrying out terrorist attacks against innocent civilians. You answered that in a short promo it is not always possible to ‘convey the full complexity of such a report’. Why didn’t the promo simply say that she had three sons who were killed while carrying out terrorist attacks? The thing that concerns me about this is that SBS’s promo, instead of simply stating the facts, was deliberately biased against Israel. That is my concern. You are creating a misimpression about what the program was really about.

Mr Brown —I do not think there is any evidence of deliberate bias. Promos are prepared by the promos department. I think the point we have made is that in the space of a 10-second message it is not possible to get all the information across. It is worth recording, though, that in the story itself we said: ‘Mariam Farhat, the so-called “Mother of the Martyrs”, featured prominently in the Hamas election campaign. Farhat is featured in a campaign video farewelling one of her sons as he prepared to attack Israel, killing five before being killed himself.’ There is no suggestion here that we avoided the full explanation of these circumstances. What you are choosing to isolate is the promo. The promo is not designed to provide a full information to the audience. It is designed to provoke an interest from the audience to watch the full item. I would have to say, Senator, that the version you have put forward is equally possible.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I would have thought the fact that she has had three sons killed by the Israeli military carries a distinct impression—

Senator ALLISON —But they did kill them.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Senator Allison, I am just asking Mr Brown about a promo and the impression that was sought to be created in getting people interested in watching this program, or otherwise. That is the gist of my question, Mr Brown. You do not agree that it does create an impression? Or do you agree that perhaps the promo could have been a little more explicit by the usage of a couple of extra words?

Mr Brown —No. I think that the version we have used, and the version you have just offered, could equally have featured in a promo. It is not intended to communicate a bias.

Senator RONALDSON —Mr Brown, do you believe that the SBS coverage of the Lebanon-Israeli conflict was biased?

Mr Brown —I think I have already acknowledged that two or three shortcomings were identified through our complaints procedure.

Senator RONALDSON —But, apart from that, you believe that it was otherwise balanced?

Mr Brown —Apart from that, yes, from what I saw. I did not see everything, but my general sense of the coverage was that it was balanced.

Senator RONALDSON —You yourself have just said that you did not monitor, so you cannot make an informed decision. Was anyone monitoring it?

Mr Brown —News and current affairs coverage is monitored by news and current affairs, so it is between the director of news and current affairs, the executive producer of news and the executive producers of the various programs.

Senator RONALDSON —Did you ask them the question?

Mr Brown —The matter came up, obviously, in the course of discussion about complaints. There were 17 complaints during the course of the conflict. I have already indicated that two were upheld and three were partially upheld.

Senator RONALDSON —How were those complaints given? I understand that if you complain via email it cannot be treated as a formal complaint; is that right?

Mr Brown —That was the case. People are then usually directed to make a written complaint, so that would be a fair comment about this particular circumstance. But you should be aware that that was a matter specifically addressed in the latest review. As of 4 October, under the new codes, complaints can be lodged via email. They can be lodged online, so they were not required to lodge by letter. People who make a complaint that appears to be formal via email or by telephone are usually advised to go to the online page where they can just fill in a form to make a complaint. So there was electronic complaint lodging available even pre 4 October. Post 4 October there is both online and email complaint lodging available.

Senator RONALDSON —And those complaints will be given formal status as appropriate?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —What review, if any, was done by news to determine whether there was balanced coverage?

Mr Brown —There was no overall review. The course of a war is a series of events unfolding day by day. The test for news and current affairs is twofold for an event of this nature. Firstly, there is the political rhetoric—that is, the justification, the claims and the counterclaims that inevitably surround a conflict of this type. A news organisation has a responsibility that those points of view are fairly expressed and that they are done so in a balanced manner.

Secondly, there is the coverage of the event itself. Wars are not football matches; they are not 40 minutes each way, so there is not the same balancing requirement in the context of coverage of events. If more is happening on one side of the border than the other, then you will see a greater degree of coverage of that than the other side. You would be aware that media organisations around the world have been dealing with this issue of how do you do balanced coverage of a war—the events, not the debate. It is vexatious, because in one area you have got massive casualties, in another area you have got lesser casualties. Do you therefore say, ‘Well, we’ve got 100 dead in a bunker, but we haven’t got a matching three-minute report from what’s happening in Israel,’ even though not much that day was happening in Israel. Of course the answer is that you do not do that.

Senator RONALDSON —Even if these people were in bunkers because the sirens had gone off and there were missiles coming in, that is not newsworthy?

Mr Brown —No—

Senator RONALDSON —Oh, and that is a really flippant comment about it not being a football game.

Mr Brown —I genuinely believe that to be the case.

Senator RONALDSON —It has been terrific spin for the last two hours, Mr Brown, but let us get down to tintacks. You are obligated and your news and current affairs department are obligated to provide a level of balance. I asked you whether you believed it was balanced.

Mr Brown —And I told you yes, I believed it was.

Senator RONALDSON —You said it was. I then asked you whether you had monitored it, and you said no.

Mr Brown —I said I had partially monitored it. I said I had not seen all of it, so I have seen some of the coverage.

Senator RONALDSON —No, in response to a question from Senator Wortley, you said that you had not monitored it. They were your words. You are now saying you partially monitored it.

Mr Brown —No, let me make it clear. I see some of the coverage, the news and current affairs department sees all of it.

Senator RONALDSON —Had you monitored it or not? Or do you partly monitor it?

Mr Brown —It is probably inappropriate to call it ‘monitoring’. I view material whenever I can, and given the scale of coverage of an event of this type over the time that it ran, I could not claim I have watched most of it.

Senator RONALDSON —Just for the record, monitoring is your expression and not mine.

Mr Brown —Yes, I accept that. I am not watching every night’s news from a monitoring point of view.

Senator RONALDSON —Do you know how many SBS staff were in either Lebanon or Israel?

Mr Brown —No, I would have to take that on notice. It is not very many; we do not have the resources to deploy large groups.

Senator RONALDSON —So a lot of it came from other sources, including the BBC?

Mr Brown —The sources that we have available to us are the BBC, ABC America, CNN and the agencies that provide raw footage for compilation back here, plus some deployment of our own people.

Senator RONALDSON —It would be fair to say that the main source would be the BBC?

Mr Brown —It would be a large source. I am not sure if it was the main one, because agencies probably are greater.

Senator RONALDSON —So it was a large source.

Mr Brown —Yes. I certainly saw a reasonable level of BBC coverage.

Senator RONALDSON —Are you aware that recently BBC staff have revealed that they believe the BBC is biased?

Mr Brown —I am not aware of that position.

Senator RONALDSON —One of the BBC’s most senior journalists, Andrew Marr, has stated publicly that the BBC is not impartial or neutral, and that certainly came through in their reports. There are also reports about a recent BBC diversity summit, the outcome of which was if Osama bin Laden wanted a platform to explain his views, the BBC would give it to him. Would SBS do that?

Mr Brown —It is hard for me to deal with hypotheticals of that type. The thing is I am not quite sure where we are going—

Senator RONALDSON —I know where I am going. Would you, or would you not?

Mr Brown —We take the BBC feeds and we make a selection from those. We have a responsibility to make sure that what we put to air is as accurate as we can possibly be confident of.

Senator RONALDSON —I have asked you a question; what is the answer?

Mr Brown —Put the question again.

Senator RONALDSON —You know exactly what the question is.

Mr Brown —No, I would like to hear it again, exactly, so I am absolutely clear about it.

Senator RONALDSON —If Osama bin Laden came to SBS and said he wanted the opportunity to present his views, would you give him that opportunity, as the BBC would do?

Mr Brown —Yes, I believe I would. Given the opportunity to cross-examine Osama bin Laden on what has happened in this world in the last few years, damn right I would. I would personally be asking to do the interview myself.

Senator Coonan —And we would all probably watch.

Senator RONALDSON —What would you ask him?

Mr Brown —I would take him back over the series of events and ask him for a possible explanation as to why he believes that is justified. You take a devil’s advocacy role, as you would with any leader in a similar situation, whether it is a leader of a movement that is terrorist in nature or any other movement. This is the stuff of journalism. Are you suggesting that we would turn down an interview with a leading world figure, whether they are right or wrong, and an opportunity to explain to the world and challenge this person on what has happened—

Senator RONALDSON —Would you ask him whether he was a terrorist or ran a terrorist organisation, for example?

Mr Brown —Yes, but I think that would emerge in the course of a normal interview anyhow, because an explanation of what he was doing would surely lead to that conclusion.

Senator RONALDSON —If he said that it was, would you then describe al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation the next time you were referring to them?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator RONALDSON —You wouldn’t?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator RONALDSON —So you have a known terrorist acknowledging that they are a terrorist, but you would still take a neutral position in relation to the description of that organisation as al-Qaeda?

Senator ALLISON —It is a really hypothetical question, and it is hard to see where Senator Ronaldson is going on this issue.

Senator RONALDSON —Mr Brown has answered half of it, so he can answer the rest of it.

CHAIR —Senator Allison has made a point. It is hypothetical, but it is up to you, Mr Brown, whether you choose to answer. It is against standing orders.

Mr Brown —We use self-description. So if part of the self-description is that they are terrorist then, in terms of quoting them as saying that, that is perfectly acceptable under our guidelines. But if, in the course of the interview, that was the language he used then it would be perfectly correct to use that language back to him in the course of that interview.

Senator RONALDSON —We have used the word ‘terrorist’. Are you talking—

Mr Brown —If it is a self-described terrorist organisation, then that would be the label that I would use.

Senator RONALDSON —In any report? Would SBS then use the word ‘terrorist’ in any report after that?

Mr Brown —If that organisation was continuing to describe itself as ‘terrorist’, then yes. As long as that was the case, that would be a legitimate claim.

Senator RONALDSON —So you would instruct your journalists to refer to them as terrorists in any future news reports, documentaries—

Mr Brown —As claimed, self-described, whatever the correct language is.

Senator RONALDSON —What is the SBS policy with respect to the characteristics of a terrorist organisation? What would qualify Hezbollah to be described as a terrorist organisation?

Mr Brown —We do not have a criteria of the type that you are suggesting, because our policy is one of neutrality in terms of labelling. We leave it to the audience to determine whether or not that is an act of terror or the organisation is terrorist one—unless it is a claim by a third party or a self-description by that organisation. That is not to say—and I want to make this point clear—that SBS are therefore denying that these are terrorist organisations. It is simply saying that we, in common with other broadcasters, adopt a neutral position in these circumstances—and I have explained why. To do anything other than that would simply invite a situation where there would be an endless debate about who is on the list and who is not, and there would be many people insisting that organisations that you do not believe are terrorist should be on the list, and SBS would have to respond to that. I do not think it is appropriate for journalists and producers to be daily put in a position of having to make a judgement of that type. I think if I made that judgement I would be sitting in front of this committee having to explain every single one of those labels and how they were used. Therefore, it is our policy to take a position of neutrality in terms of labelling.

Senator RONALDSON —I find that a most extraordinary statement—that you are prepared to remained so-called neutral in the face of overwhelming evidence of terrorism and that you would not use the word ‘terrorist’ to describe an organisation.

Mr Brown —We are neutral in terms of labelling but not neutral in terms of the scale and detail of our coverage. My view is that Australians can easily make up their minds about this information. They have it presented to them. It does not need to be labelled in order for an Australian to form a conclusion about what that act or that group is. I have already explained why. I have heard you cross-examine the ABC on this point and force some concessions there. I know that there are some areas where it seems pretty clear-cut that it is a terrorist organisation and an act of terrorism, but to adopt a policy that says, ‘Oh, that’s easy; we’ll stick labels on them,’ starts to then gradually shift along the line where it is less and less clear-cut. Whether in Aceh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka—

Senator RONALDSON —You do not accept the ABC’s concession?

Mr Brown —After all of the discussion which I witnessed here and the following newspaper comment, I am not actually sure exactly what the ABC position is.

Senator RONALDSON —Aren’t you?

Mr Brown —No.

Senator RONALDSON —I will tell you. They acknowledged they were terrorist organisations and that they should be described as such.

Mr Brown —I hope it was said here, because I saw subsequent newspaper comment and articles which demonstrated that they did not have that same view.

Senator RONALDSON —Watch this space, because you will be sitting about 10 feet back when those people are sitting about 10 feet forward and that matter will be discussed with them as well. So that I am absolutely clear, do you believe Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation?

Mr Brown —I am not going to comment on my personal beliefs on these organisations. I am quite capable of making my own mind up about what is a terrorist act and who is a terrorist, but I do not need to share that. Certainly, as the editor-in-chief of an organisation that has a position of neutrality in labelling, it would be wrong for me to put my own personal labels on those organisations.

Senator RONALDSON —Where does the label ‘militant’ come from? Is that neutral? Has anyone in your organisation referred to Hezbollah as a militant organisation?

Mr Brown —It is possible; I could not say for certain.

Senator RONALDSON —Is ‘militant’ labelling?

Mr Brown —Yes, it is a form of labelling. It is less politicised—

Senator RONALDSON —So you are saying they should not be called militant either?

Mr Brown —No, I am not saying that. I am saying that in terms of the use of the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ we have taken a position, and have done for some years, not to use that label. There are other labels, like militant or democrat—

Senator RONALDSON —Come on, militant and democrat are not in the same genre. That is a stupid comment to make.

Mr Brown —I am just saying that there are lots of labels that one could use in association with coverage of world affairs.

Senator RONALDSON —Why is militant labelling but terrorist is not? You tell me.

Mr Brown —I suspect because of the politicisation of the term and the way in which it is used to create support for the opposition to that position, and it does not really matter which side. You can see it quite clearly demonstrated in the Middle East. Israel will claim that the organisations arrayed against them are terrorist organisations. Syria, as we saw the other day, said that the Israel defence force was a terrorist organisation.

Senator RONALDSON —Are you aware of what Australia describes Hezbollah as?

Mr Brown —It is on the list of terrorist organisations.

Senator RONALDSON —They are described as terrorists.

Mr Brown —It is the Australian government list, isn’t it?

Senator RONALDSON —Let me finish. We have Australians overseas fighting organisations such as Hezbollah, described by the Australian government, and the US, Canada and the UK, as a terrorist organisation, and you think it is okay to remain neutral in relation to this issue? You are comfortable with that?

Mr Brown —I am comfortable with the position we have, in common with other broadcasters, to adopt a neutrality in terms of not labelling groups ‘terrorists’.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —But, Mr Brown, the ABC conceded here that they now refer to Jemaah Islamiah, Hezbollah and Hamas as ‘terrorist organisations’. You are quite out there on your own, you know, on this issue.

Mr Brown —I do not believe we are.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —This is the point of what Senator Ronaldson is talking about. SBS is putting itself right out there separate to everybody else. This is what the ABC told us on the last occasion. This is the information that we have. Why can’t SBS adopt the same position? What makes you so different?

Mr Brown —I do not believe we are different. I believe if you look—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Why aren’t you adopting the same position?

Mr Brown —I can finish the answer? Simply, we do not model ourselves specifically on the ABC in that every time the ABC changes its codes and practices we do likewise. In the same way, it does not model itself on us every time we change our codes and guidelines.

Senator RONALDSON —If an organisation takes credit for killing civilians, how would you describe them?

Mr Brown —That they have ‘claimed responsibility’. That is how I would describe it.

Senator RONALDSON —What?

Mr Brown —Senator, you can go round and round on this. You are trying to get me into a position where I say, ‘Yes, they deserve to be called a terrorist in that situation.’

Senator RONALDSON —No.

Mr Brown —What I am saying is that we have a position of neutrality here. I keep making the point: that is not to deny that these may be acts of terror or they may be terrorists, but to leave it to the Australian audience to reach that conclusion. You seem to think that somehow, if we put a label on it, that carries greater authenticity to the audience.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —But, Mr Brown, you source material where it specifically refers to ‘terrorist’, but you refer to it as ‘militant’, because that is the particular impression that you want to make. That is the concern that we have here. SBS does not like calling terrorist organisations ‘terrorist organisations’; you want to call them ‘militants’. That is the concern that we have.

Mr Brown —We do not change—and I know that you have a few questions—

CHAIR —We will have to finish after you answer this question, because we have now reached one o’clock. If you would like to answer that, we will conclude.

Mr Brown —I just wanted to make the point that we do not change quotes where third parties or even the terrorist group itself uses the term ‘terrorist’. I know that there is a question on notice concerning that and we will see whether that is the case or not on notice.

Senator RONALDSON —If one of your—

CHAIR —No. We are two minutes overdue, so we will adjourn.

Senator RONALDSON —Just very quickly. I will give Mr Brown a chance to think about it on the way back. If one of your journalists accuses someone of committing war crimes, is that neutral?

CHAIR —You consider that and answer it after lunch, Mr Brown, because we are adjourning.

Proceedings suspended from 1.02 pm to 2.09 pm

CHAIR —We will resume. Mr Brown you were considering your response to Senator Ronaldson.

Senator RONALDSON —I will get to that in a second, Mr Brown. Has SBS ever described something as ‘a terrorist attack’?

Mr Brown —I do not know the answer to that. I would have thought that probably they have at some stage. This editorial guideline has been in operation for about three years. Clearly, if it were acknowledged as a terrorist attack by the perpetrator, then that would be in accordance with the guideline as well.

Senator RONALDSON —On Thursday, 11 September, the Insight program referred to terrorist attacks in the United States.

Mr Brown —Was that Jenny Brockie, somebody else on the Insight team or a guest?

Senator RONALDSON —It was the presenter. This report was from Miriam Jones, so take it as a presenter. On Dateline, 30 October 2002, 2½ weeks after the Bali bombing, she reported:

Indonesia is counting the cost of the terrorist attacks.

So SBS has used the expression ‘terrorist’.

Mr Brown —I think that one you just quoted would have pre-dated the guideline. My recollection is that the guideline came into effect in 2003.

Senator RONALDSON —That is all very well. That does not make the guidelines right, and that is my exact point. If a terrorist act is performed, who is it performed by?

Mr Brown —I suppose it is axiomatic; it is a terrorist.

Senator RONALDSON —Exactly. Why would SBS remain neutral in relation to the expression ‘terrorist’, when you acknowledged clearly—as you should—that a terrorist act is performed by terrorists? Why would SBS not be prepared to label someone as a terrorist if they have performed a terrorist act?

Mr Brown —I can only repeat the position that I have expressed before—that SBS has adopted a policy of neutrality of labelling of terrorists and terrorism to avoid the very vexed question of the way in which that label is used to position oppositions. As I think I said before, whether it is in Sri Lanka, Aceh, Indonesia or, more particularly, the Middle East, there are lots of occasions that the term is used where, I am sure, you would disagree with that labelling. So to position SBS so that it has to make the judgement about what exactly is an act of terrorism and who is a terrorist, and after a lot of consideration and discussion with other broadcasters around the world, we adopted the position of neutrality in terms of labelling so we are not requiring our journalists to make a day to day judgement on this issue.

Senator RONALDSON —When did you say that policy was changed?

Mr Brown —At the earliest, it was late 2003. It might have been 2004.

Senator RONALDSON —I notice that George Negus referred to the word ‘terrorism’ on 27 July 2005. You said before lunch that the expression ‘militant’ is similar to ‘democrat’. Can I ask you a question? In SBS’s view—

Mr Brown —I did not say that. I did not say it was ‘similar to’; I just said there were a number of different labels and I cited two examples. I do not particularly align them together.

Senator RONALDSON —Come on, Mr Brown! A lot of people are listening to this. You quite clearly used the word ‘militant’ in the same description as the word ‘democrat’.

Mr Brown —I plucked two examples out of the air and said there were lots of labels that one could use which are not restricted. This is the only labelling that I am aware of where there is a policy position. Whether the labels were ‘extremist’, ‘militant’, ‘feminist’ or whatever, I was just plucking examples out of the air. I was not aligning those.

Senator RONALDSON —You have had time to think about it over lunch, I suspect, Mr Brown.

Mr Brown —I had not thought about that at all.

Senator RONALDSON —When I objected to that, you did not respond in that manner; I invite you to look at the transcript. Given that you have now changed your evidence to this committee, I put it to you that a democrat would not fire rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas and then claim credit for it. I put it to you that a democrat would not be committed to the destruction of a sovereign state. You had the opportunity to clarify that before lunch had you wanted to do so and you chose not to do so.

Mr Brown —I am quite confident that the transcript of these proceedings will show exactly what I meant, which was to pluck two examples out. Nothing that I said, Senator, allowed you to link those two as though they were the same.

Senator RONALDSON —Your evidence to this committee still is that you believe the word ‘militant’ is not a label?

Mr Brown —No. I did not say that.

Senator RONALDSON —It is a label?

Mr Brown —It is a label, as is democrat, as is feminist—as all those descriptors of people and their behaviour are labels.

Senator RONALDSON —But you said ABC staff are not allowed to label people.

Mr Brown —SBS. No I said we have a neutrality on labelling people ‘terrorists’.

Senator RONALDSON —Oh, so it is just ‘terrorists’ that they are not allowed to refer to!

Mr Brown —That is the response I have previously given.

Senator RONALDSON —On SBS World News on 16 July, for example, Jeremy Bowen referred to Hezbollah as a ‘militant group’. Is that labelling them?

Mr Brown —It is a label, obviously. I do not understand your confusion there, Senator.

Senator RONALDSON —Is that a label?

Mr Brown —Yes. And in using that label there is nothing that runs against SBS editorial guidelines. The only editorial guideline relating to labelling relates to terrorism and terrorists. I am sure I have been clear on that point.

Senator RONALDSON —I do not think you have been. So it is only that one word—

Mr Brown —Two.

Senator RONALDSON —that is not allowed to be used because it is labelling. Is that right?

Mr Brown —Why don’t I read out the editorial guideline so that it is absolutely clear, and this is the only one that relates in this area.

Senator RONALDSON —I would be very pleased.

Mr Brown —The guideline states:

SBS Television journalists will not label a group or individual as a “terrorist”, or incidents as “terrorism” or “terror” except in circumstances where:

Directly quoting individuals using the words “terrorist”, “terror” or “terrorism”.

Individuals or organisations describe themselves as “terrorists” or as being responsible for acts of “terrorism” or “terror”.

The term is applied to the reporting of general issues such as “anti-terrorism” measures or “anti-terrorism” laws.

Senator RONALDSON —What date was that?

Mr Brown —That was dated in the second half of 2003.

Senator RONALDSON —So we have Mr Negus, who in July 2005 referred to ‘terrorism’.

Mr Brown —He may, of course, have been referring to ‘terrorism’ in a general sense.

Senator RONALDSON —Did you say that guideline was dated from mid-2003?

Mr Brown —Mid- to late-2003.

Senator RONALDSON —Do you think this Insight program of 11 September was before or after that?

Mr Brown —The Insight program would be after it, wouldn’t it? It was the second one you quoted which sounded to me that it might have been before. You quoted one from 2002, but I think the Insight one was 11 September of this year.

Senator RONALDSON —No, it was 2003.

Mr Brown —2003? I am not sure.

Senator RONALDSON —So your view is that the expression ‘militant’ is not a label that is unable to be used by SBS journalists?

Mr Brown —That is correct.

Senator RONALDSON —I put it to you, Mr Brown, that the generally accepted use of the word ‘militant’ would be that it is a label—

Mr Brown —I agree.

Senator RONALDSON —and, in the context of terrorism, another description of organisations of that genre. Quite frankly, the defence that it is not in the SBS guidelines is meaningless.

Mr Brown —I can only repeat that the guideline emerged after a debate about requiring journalists to make a judgement on what were highly charged and politicised terms—‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’. As a consequence, this guideline emerged. It is not unusual. It is similar to the one the ABC had, although I think you said that that is being changed. That same guideline does not apply to any other labels.

Senator RONALDSON —I asked you a question before lunch about whether it would be appropriate for one of your reporters to accuse another country of committing war crimes. What is your response to that?

Mr Brown —Apart from the issue of defamation, which obviously comes into play, there is not anything in the editorial guidelines that would prevent a journalist from making that point in an interview or making that allegation in an interview. But I would have to say that there is nothing to stop a journalist in the course of an interview from asking a question of the person being interviewed about whether or not they are a terrorist. It is not the same as labelling. To take a position in an interview, to ask questions, to seek information and, on occasions, to play a devil’s advocate role and put points to interviewees would not, in my view, contravene this guideline. If somebody was involved in something which it might be reasonably concluded was an act of terrorism and we were able to interview the alleged perpetrator, then in my view it would not wrong to say in that interview: ‘Was this not an act of terrorism and are you not a terrorist?’

Senator RONALDSON —I did not ask you about that; I am talking about war crimes. Is the following an objective presentation of the issue? It is George Negus interviewing Efraim Halevy on 12 July 2006:

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr Halevy, do you accept the fact—again of reliable and responsible commentators—that what has been going on in Gaza in recent days, including the bombing of the power plant and collective punishment of the Palestinian people, amounts under Geneva Conventions to a war crime?

Do you think that is balanced? Do you think that is an objective presentation of the issue—‘Mr Halevy, do you accept the fact ...’?

Mr Brown —I think it is a reasonable question. If it were stated by the presenter as a fact, that would be different. I think we have to be careful to acknowledge the distinction here. It is a standard current affairs journalistic process to put points to people being interviewed and sometimes to put them strongly to force an explanation out of somebody. There is not anything inherently wrong in playing a devil’s advocate role in that situation.

Senator RONALDSON —Come on, Mr Brown, this is not playing the devil’s advocate—‘Mr Halevy, do you accept the fact ...’

Mr Brown —The response to which was probably, ‘No, I don’t’ and a very vigorous denial. That is the issue, isn’t it, really? What does the audience leave this exchange with? A view that the question was inappropriate or a reflection on the fact that a very strong answer came back that put things firmly on the record?

Senator RONALDSON —The response could only deny the fact as alleged. The fact was not substantiated by the interviewer. The interviewer put it as a fact and then asked for a response. Of course, having heard the words ‘Do you accept the fact,’ the listener is going to think that it is a fact. Do you think that is appropriate? If you do, just say so so we all know exactly where we are coming from.

Mr Brown —I do not have an issue with that question.

Senator RONALDSON —You do not have an issue with that line of questioning?

Mr Brown —No, I do not. It is a line of questioning that I and many other journalists have used over the years to put a position.

Senator RONALDSON —That something is a fact?

Mr Brown —To put to somebody ‘do you accept?’ is a standard journalistic question.

Senator RONALDSON —Exactly. But the phrase ‘do you accept the fact that’ is entirely different from ‘do you accept’, is it not?

Senator CONROY —It is poorly phrased, Rono.

Senator RONALDSON —Is it different or not? He has answered his own question, I think.

Mr Brown —Let me answer it. I am trying to recall the exact wording of the question as you read it out, but it seemed to me that the fact that he was alleging was the fact that assertions had been made. Isn’t that right?

Senator RONALDSON —Sorry?

Mr Brown —You have the question there. Isn’t the fact that he is alluding to the fact that assertions were made by well-known commentators, or something like that, not the fact that this happened?

Senator RONALDSON —He asks:

... do you accept the fact—again of reliable and responsible commentators—that what has been going on in Gaza in recent days, including the bombing ... amounts under Geneva Conventions to a war crime?

If you think that is justifiable, we know where we are going on this. On 5 April 2006, there was a reference on Dateline to terrorist acts.

Mr Brown —In what context?

Senator RONALDSON —It states:

ETA has waged a horrific campaign on the Spanish state for decades. It has killed over 800 people in terrorist acts over the past 20 years.

Is that okay?

Mr Brown —I suspect not.

Senator RONALDSON —You will be doing something about it?

Mr Brown —I will take it on notice.

Senator RONALDSON —Are you aware that Dateline often refers to an organisation called Human Rights Watch? Indeed, the Dateline website provides links to Human Rights Watch.

Mr Brown —In association with specific stories? There is surely not generally a direct link from Dateline.

Senator RONALDSON —I am advised that Dateline currently provides links to the Human Rights Watch website in the US, so I suspect there is. Dateline says that Human Rights Watch:

... is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. Human Rights Watch researchers conduct fact-finding investigations into human rights abuses in all regions of the world.

On 26 July, Nadim Huory, the Human Rights Watch representative in Lebanon, was interviewed by Mr Negus on Dateline. I will give you this quote from Mr Negus. He says:

It would appear the Israelis feel as though they have a free hand.

Is that an objective or an impartial comment?

Mr Brown —It is hard for me to judge the quality of an interview and the appropriateness of a question without seeing the entire interview. That may have been said in response to something that the interviewee said.

Senator RONALDSON —It was not a response; it was a direct question. Do you think that is appropriate?

Mr Brown —Questions flow from answers. I would rather take that on notice and have a look at the totality of the interview.

Senator RONALDSON —On the 26th, as I said, Mr Negus interviewed a Human Rights Watch representative from Lebanon who described the actions in Lebanon as war crimes. On 5 August, in a report from Israel, the director of Human Rights Watch said that ‘lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime’. I will repeat what he said: ‘Lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime.’ Why would that war crime not be discussed by Dateline when the Human Rights Watch item from Lebanon some weeks before was given substantial airplay?

Mr Brown —I do not know whether it was or was not. Again, I will take that on notice. If these points are about the way in which Dateline covered the Lebanon-Israeli conflict and you are selecting pieces from it, I think it is more appropriate for me to look at the programs that you are pointing to so that I can give you an informed view on the appropriateness of what was carried out.

Senator RONALDSON —I am mindful of the time, unfortunately. I have a final question in respect of terrorism: irrespective of the Australian view of Hezbollah, that does not in any way guide the way SBS will treat an organisation? I just want that clarified.

Mr Brown —That is correct. The guideline does not permit that.

Senator RONALDSON —Who changes guidelines?

Mr Brown —In this particular case, this guideline was produced by the Director of News and Current Affairs and approved by the senior executive.

Senator RONALDSON —In 2003?

Mr Brown —Yes.

Senator RONALDSON —Has it ever been reviewed?

Mr Brown —There was a small review—some minor adjustment to clarify the policy regarding references to terrorism and terrorists applying equally to references to terror. But that was more a semantics argument. I do not think there has been a substantial review.

Senator RONALDSON —‘Campus watch’ was due to be screened on 25 October.

Mr Brown —What was the title?

Senator RONALDSON —‘Campus watch’, on Dateline. You are not aware of ‘Campus watch’?

Mr Brown —I am sorry, I did not recognise the label. This is a story that was due to go to air last week but it did not. It was displaced by emerging events. I think it is due to go to air this week.

Senator RONALDSON —Replaced by what?

Mr Brown —Some breaking story, I cannot remember exactly. Something happened that pushed it out. That is quite standard on Dateline.

Mr Meagher —Solomon Islands, I think.

Senator RONALDSON —Nice to hear from you!

Mr Brown —That is quite standard.

Senator RONALDSON —Did you have reporters in the Solomons?

Mr Meagher —I think it was simply that the developments in the Solomon Islands coinciding with the Pacific Islands Forum meant the decision was made—a pretty ordinary editorial decision—to cover some circumstances there for that program. It is fairly standard.

Senator RONALDSON —How long was the ‘Campus watch’ item?

Mr Meagher —I am afraid I do not know.

Senator RONALDSON —How long was the Solomon Islands item?

Mr Meagher —I watched that episode of Dateline, and I think about two-thirds of the episode was taken up with a piece from the Pacific Islands and then an interview with Hugh White. The rest of the program was a journalist with Australian troops in Iraq, reporting on the way in which troops were carrying out their duties while on active service in Iraq.

Mr Brown —At the end of the program it was acknowledged that the item you are referring to had been deferred a week.

Senator RONALDSON —Has there been any change to that item since it was first published on the website?

Mr Brown —I do not think the whole item has been published on the website.

Senator RONALDSON —No. Since it was advertised, have there been any changes?

Mr Brown —Not that I am aware of. My understanding is that its deferral was simply to make room for another more topical story. As I said, it is quite common within Dateline to have items that are shifted for a week because of something else emerging.

Senator RONALDSON —That is all from me at the moment.

CHAIR —We have a short period more for SBS.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr Brown, did I understand your answer previously? Perhaps you could clarify whether you have done an assessment of SBS’s coverage of the recent Middle East conflict. Did I understand that your answer was, no, that you had not?

Mr Brown —That is correct.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Perhaps I might refer you to an assessment that was done and was published in the Australia/Israel Review. As you can appreciate, they would take a very key interest in this matter. I want to pick up a number of points that they have made, and I want to ask your opinion as to whether that criticism is justified under the circumstances. They state:

Undoubtedly the media coverage of Israel’s war against Hezbollah could have been greatly improved ... By a mile, the worst outlet in the electronic sphere was SBS-TV News.

What they didn’t say is often as important as what they did. Ross Cameron reported on July 29 that “UN peacekeepers have abandoned two more border observation posts...The first was abandoned when a UN soldier was wounded, the second after four UN soldiers were killed by an Israeli air strike.” The wounded soldier was hit by Hezbollah small arms fire, as the UNIFIL press release of July 28 explained, but Cameron neglected to mention this.

Is that a justifiable criticism of that sort of coverage?

Mr Brown —I cannot recall that report.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I have a number of them.

Mr Brown —I can see that, but really, as I understand it, these are not matters that you have personally verified; these are allegations made by AIJAC or a Jewish lobby group?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —They are relying on documents which have been received—

Senator RONALDSON —It does not matter who it is from—

Mr Brown —I am only trying to be clear on it.

Senator RONALDSON —it is just a matter of answering.

CHAIR —Let Mr Brown make his comment.

Senator RONALDSON —It is totally irrelevant who they are from.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The article from the Australia/Israel Review continues:

The UNIFIL release—

which obviously comes from the United Nations—

also mentioned “frequent incidents of Hezbollah firing from the vicinity of the [UNIFIL] positions” as have other UNIFIL releases, but Cameron did not see fit to mention this either. Similarly, Vesna Nazor covered the incident in reports on July 26, 27 & 28, but also failed to mention these crucial facts.

So you have what appear to be official documents from the United Nations being released that your journalists are failing to admit.

Mr Brown —We have the claim of the article that that was the case. That has not been verified. The point I would make is this: if indeed these shortcomings were known to this organisation, why would it not lodge a complaint through the formal complaints process and have it properly assessed? It is possible—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr Brown, the point is—

Mr Brown —Could I just finish?

CHAIR —Let Mr Brown finish.

Mr Brown —It is possible that there is more mileage to be gained by creating a newspaper headline than having it tested by an objective scrutiny. If you put those on notice, we will look into them. But I would have preferred—and I think it is for everyone’s benefit—that those sorts of complaints were made through the formal complaints process.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I understand that—

Mr Brown —Maybe some of them have. I may be wrong.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —That is my point. I understand that your organisation did receive complaints about the coverage of the conflict. I am asking you whether the criticisms are justified. It went on:

SBS-TV News has made extensive use of reports from Lebanon by BBC reporters—

which Senator Ronaldson referred to—

which have focussed at great length on the suffering of Lebanese civilians and destruction of the country. They often make little or no effort to provide context for the Israeli actions by, for example, explaining that Hezbollah was firing rockets at Israel from the bombed areas. Indeed, at times they do the opposite. Ian Pannell, on July 23, surveyed the damage in the Bekaa Valley and stated, “the damage we saw was not to Hezbollah, but to the people and the economy of the Bekaa Valley.” Given the well-documented Hezbollah practice of hiding its weapons in and even firing from civilian property, it is hard to see how Pannell could possibly have been so sure.

Mr Brown —Those sorts of complaints do feature amongst the complaints that have been made. As I have already said, most of the complaints were not upheld. They were not, in the opinion of the Audience Affairs Manager, have validity. I have to say that, when you are reading that out, the shortcomings that have been claimed there are not ones that I observed watching our news coverage. I think the actions of Hezbollah in launching rockets were well documented. I can recall specific reports that address the issue of the claims that Hezbollah was hiding behind civilians inside Lebanon and therefore triggering civilian casualties. I can remember that being well covered as well. I cannot specifically respond today on a day by day basis, but I can give you a general assurance, based upon my viewing of what I saw and of the complaints process that I have overseen, that many of the points made there were covered by SBS television news.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Perhaps I could go on.

Orla Guerin, long time and oft complained about BBC Middle East correspondent ... Walking through Bint J’Beil, site of the heaviest fighting of the conflict, she intoned, “The damage here is absolutely incredible. I haven’t seen a single building that isn’t damaged in some way. Many have been flattened, many have been singed. This town has really been wiped out.

Mr Brown —I think that was the report on which complaints were upheld.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Okay. Thank you. There was another one:

Ross Cameron consistently referred to Haifa as “Israel’s second largest city” and on July 29 to Israel’s “two biggest cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa.”

He obviously does not accept that Jerusalem is part of Israel, but perhaps we can allow him the odd mistake. I will put the rest of my questions on notice. Thank you.

Senator RONALDSON —I have a couple here. Nick Lazaredes of the SBS Dateline program filed a report on the war in which he showed only damage in Lebanon and spoke only to Lebanese and to Franklin Lamb, whom he described as:

A former congressional aide and international law expert ...

Professor Lamb was extremely critical of Israel. That is not surprising, given that he is a research associate of an organisation called If America Knew, which is an organisation dedicated to stopping American support for Israel. Lazaredes did not mention that. Do you think that, if he was aware of it, he should have mentioned it?

Mr Brown —Again, I will take that on notice. I would like to look at those specific reports that you are talking about rather than isolated sentences. I will form a view and respond directly to that.

Senator RONALDSON —All right. On 21 September Mary Kostakidis announced:

Three Palestinian men, reported to be goatherds, died in an Israeli missile attack after approaching an area from where two rockets had been fired into Israel.

In actual fact, the Israelis had said that these two men were seen handling a rocket launcher. Again, there was no mention of that. On SBS news on 5 October, Prue Lewarne, speaking over scenes of Palestinians crying over covered bodies said:

It is scenes like this that fuel Hamas popularity on the Arab street. Two Palestinians killed after an Israeli air strike.

What she did not mention was that they were Islamic Jihad members.

Mr Brown —Or possibly it was claimed they were. Most of these sorts of issues tend to revolve around claim and counterclaim. However, to respond to the particular point you have raised, those sorts of complaints may well be the ones that have gone through the objective complaints system. I hope they were, because if they are serious they should be dealt with that way. So it is entirely possible that they have already been assessed by SBS and have been demonstrated not to have been well founded. Alternatively, if they have not gone through the formal complaints process and you are tabling them for questions on notice, then I am happy to respond to those.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —The general problem with your coverage—and these are a very small number of examples—is that they are just typical—

Senator RONALDSON —They are the tip of the iceberg.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —of an attitude by SBS of always putting an anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish stance on issues. That is the basic complaint: your lack of balance on these issues. You always prefer a situation that really does put the most negative light on issues. That is the general complaint, Mr Brown.

Senator RONALDSON —Absolutely.

Mr Brown —With respect, Senator, that is not the general complaint.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Can you let me finish. That is the point that we are making. You can sit here and you can disagree with me all you like. We have put questions. We have put examples to you. I appreciate that you will disagree with them. We hope that you will give them at least some consideration and not take this Senate into contempt and treat us with contempt. Perhaps you will provide us with a better standard of answer than what you have provided on questions on notice in the past.

Mr Brown —Let me respond to the first point that you made, which was about ‘the general complaint’. What you are really referring to is the complaint from a particular part of our audience, because the complaint from Palestinian and Arab areas is not the same as ‘the general complaint’ that you are referring to. You would be aware that we receive complaints and petitions delivered to our Melbourne office and protest marches from the other side of the conflict and not from the Israeli side of the conflict. So I do not think it is appropriate to characterise the complaints that you are handling and quoting from Jewish publications as being ‘the general complaint’, because I think they are quite specific.

Secondly, I do not believe there is anything that suggests that I would hold this committee in contempt or do anything other than give you a frank and forthright response to the points you have made, including acknowledgement of shortcomings, if that is demonstrated.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Brown. I think that concludes your appearance.

 [2.46 pm]