Minister responds to petition

The Minister responsible for SBS, Senator Stephen Conroy wrote to Save Our SBS on 26 August 2008 in response to the petition that we gave to his staff on 8 April 2008. Senator Conroy apologised for his late reply and wrote.

SBS is one of Australia’s most important public institutions.

The Australian Government recognises the importance of its role as a national public broadcaster, catering for diverse interests in the Australian community and reflecting Australia’s culturally diverse society. Issues of funding and independence are crucial to a vibrant and relevant SBS.

The Government provides an overall level of funding for SBS, but has no power to direct it in relation to programming matters. Parliament has guaranteed this independence to ensure that what is broadcast is free of political interference. Internal SBS programming decisions are the responsibility of the SBS Board and Executive.

Under the provisions of the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991, SBS is empowered to air up to five minutes of advertising per hour. The Act limits advertisements to the periods before or after programs or during natural program breaks.

As you know, in 2006, the SBS Board approved a change to the times and manner in which advertising could be shown which had the effect of allowing in-program advertising.

This was a significant change from past SBS practice, and I expressed concern about this change while in Opposition.

When I became Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, I wrote to the SBS Board requesting a copy of its legal advice in relation to this matter.

SBS has provided me with a report of that legal advice and it is clear that the SBS Board believes it is acting legally by reinterpreting the clause in the Act that refers to ‘natural program breaks’.

In relation to increasing total funding to SBS I note that Triennial Funding Submissions from both the ABC and SBS are due later this year. These will be considered in the context of the 2009-2010 budget, with funds then allocated for the three year period from 2010-2013.

I intend to consider the report of SBS’s legal advice in relation to in-program advertising in the context of SBS’s Triennial Funding Review, the results of which will be made public at the time of the 2009-2010 budget.

In line with its election commitment, the Government plans to introduce a new Board appointment process for SBS and the ABC.

The new SBS and ABC Board appointment process will ensure that Board members are appointed on the basis of merit. Candidates will be considered by a panel who will select Board members from a shortlist.

This method would be similar to the ‘Nolan rules’ system of Board appointments which is used by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Further, under the new Board Appointment process, the Chairmanships of SBS and the ABC will be held by persons nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

Under s17(2) of the SBS Act, the Governor-General needs to ensure that the Directors collectively:

• possess an appropriate balance of expertise, including an understanding of Australia’s multicultural society; and
• that the Directors collectively comprise persons with a diversity of cultural perspectives.

The Governor-General must also ensure that there is a Director who ‘has an appropriate understanding of the interests of employees’.

This will not change under the new SBS Board appointment process.

The Government is moving quickly to implement these arrangements to ensure greater transparency, accountability and public confidence in the national broadcasters.

Thank you for bringing these important matters to my attention. I trust this information will be of assistance.

Stephen Conroy
Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE
26 August 2008

The petition that was handed to the Minister had called for

  • an immediate end to SBS interrupting programs for advertisements
  • full funding for our tax payer funded multicultural public broadcaster
  • an amendment to the SBS Act to prohibit ads on SBS
  • a  new system of SBS Board appointments so that the Board would be appointed on the basis of merit with a strong commitment to multiculturalism and SBS independence, with assurance that the Board would be independent from the government of the day and without commercial influence.

Despite the petition and very strong public sentiment that SBS-TV ought not interrupt programs for commercial breaks, the practise has not stopped.

References:

NO ADVERTISEMENTS OR SPONSORSHIP ON SBS PETITION Save Our SBS Inc

Pre-election promises for SBS: 2007 Promises made before the November 2008 federal election.

A chronology of advertising on SBS by Darce Cassidy.

Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 Portable Document File

SBS Codes of Practice 2006 Portable Document File

(SBS) Guidelines For The Placement of Breaks in Television Programs September 2006 Portable Document File

Special Broadcasting Service Amendment (Prohibition of Disruptive Advertising) Bill 2008 (Bill Number 08050) presented by the Australian Democrats to prohibit SBS-TV from interrupting programs for advertisements is a bill not law.

The regulator of broadcasting is The Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA).

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