a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: The Special Broadcasting Service »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

A world first...

1978 - SBS set up to air multilingual programs and information

As the cover of the second SBS annual report shows, the new broadcaster had ambitious goals - to reach an audience of huge cultural diversity. The development of “ethnic” radio and “multicultural” television was a by-product of the shift away from the assimilation and integration models of Australian society. While immigrants were still encouraged to learn English quickly, in the 1970s it became obvious that broadcasting in community languages would assist communities to gain access to government services and provide a “cultural bridge” to their new homeland. It would also allow ethnic communities the right of access to electronic media which until then had been almost universally monolingual.

Indeed, before 1970, radio stations were prohibited from broadcasting more than 2.5 per cent of program hours in “foreign languages”; today around Australia dozens of radio stations broadcast in over eighty languages for hundreds of hours a week, and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) television leads the world in innovative, multilingual and multicultural broadcasting.

A 1974 report of the Committee on Community Relations supported a decision to remove restrictions on “foreign language” broadcasting and recommended that the ABC consider programming in languages other than English. By the mid 1970s many ethnic organisations were also calling for ethnic broadcasting, and the Migrant Task Forces of 1974 argued powerfully for these services to begin.

In 1975 the Labor Government gave the ABC two new broadcast outlets, one in Melbourne, the other in Sydney. In Melbourne Radio 3ZZ was established as a community access station and was quickly adopted by ethnic groups; by June 1977 it was broadcasting weekly in 26 languages other than English and another 17 from time to time. One month after 3ZZ was established on an access model, radio stations 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne were specifically chartered to serve ethnic communities, using contracted broadcasters. Each began a 12-week trial period with three main objectives, the first of which was to provide government and community information to around one million immigrants unlikely to be reached in other ways; the introduction of Medibank, the national health insurance scheme, was the catalyst for this objective. The stations were also designed to recognise cultures and traditions important to immigrant groups, and to help in the development of Australia as a multicultural society.

Because of overwhelming demand the experimental service was extended for six months and continued to be extended until the Special Broadcasting Service (a Galbally proposal) was established in 1978 and took over control.

In its early days, ethnic radio was volunteer-run and there was little control over programs broadcast, leading to accusations of breach of copyright and inflammatory and even racist broadcasting. The issue of control became a heated one. The programming of Melbourne’s 3ZZ, as a community access station, was controlled by the groups which were broadcasting and in the words of one critic it was “a protest and political indoctrination station”. However its staff were paid ABC personnel. With the change of government in 1975 conservative groups close to the Liberal Party in Melbourne, which had failed to achieve domination of the programming committees, lobbied government to close the station. The ABC Board, never very happy with community involvement, finally decided to close down the station, and Commonwealth Police were called in to evict community members and ABC staff fighting to defend the station.

Radio stations 2EA and 3EA were in a sense controlled because they were established by government, but were staffed wholly by volunteers who decided on programming. Ethnic leaders were concerned to ensure ethnic communities continued to have a say in ethnic broadcasting and debates over its continuation as part of the ABC or as a separate broadcast authority were lively. Finally the decision was taken in 1978 to establish the SBS to provide multilingual radio and possibly television services.

The Federal government set up the Ethnic Television Review Panel in 1979; it recommended a permanent television service to entertain rather than educate, and to promote the concept of multiculturalism. On October 24, 1980, Channel 0/28, later to be called SBS TV, began broadcasting. The ABC had been invited to tender for the service, but its proposals had been rejected on the grounds that they were too expensive and resistant to the multicultural goals of the government. There followed a strenuous debate over the form and structure of the Service, which some government advisers wanted to see as a version of Channel 4 in Britain, a broadcaster “buying in” specialist productions from independent producers.

The relationship between SBS and the ABC remains problematic. In 1986 the Labor government moved for the amalgamation of the two organisations as part of its now infamous 1986 “anti-migrant” Budget. Community opposition to the amalgamation was well-organised and sustained - in the end it did not go ahead, but SBS was set on the road to commercialism with a requirement that it seek sponsorship for its television programs. By the early 1990s it was taking regular advertising as well, and readjusting its programming to reflect its growing dependence on this source of revenue. By 1996 SBS was facing severe financial problems exacerbated by government funding cuts. It began to reduce its coverage of local news and current affairs to concentrate on “foreign” sources and stories.

Further reference:
Ethnic Television Review Panel (Australia) Second report of the Ethnic Television Review Panel: structure and funding of interim multicultural/multilingual television service, Canberra, Australian Government Publication Service, 1979.

Jakubowicz, Andrew et al Racism, Ethnicity and the Media, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Jupp, James (ed) The Australian People: an Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1988.