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Skrzynski could have done more

The first two Directors ever appointed based on merit to the SBS Board of Directors were SBS’s Chairman, Joseph Skrzynski AO, and Director, Elleni Bereded-Samuel. Their term on the SBS Board is due to expire next month.

The Skrzynski story

In the lead-up to his five year anniversary, Save Our SBS concludes our series on the historic first ever merit-based appointments to the SBS Board. 

Last month we profiled Bereded-Samuel. Now Joseph Skrzynski

Skrzynski entered the world of broadcasting five years ago with experience as a viewer, listener and financier.

To those in the industry it is perhaps the biggest open secret ever that at the interview that led to his appointment to the SBS Board of Directors, Mr Skrzynski was asked – if unsuccessful would he accept a position on the ABC Board instead. Skrzynski’s response that he was only interested in SBS was telling of his passion to steer the broadcaster in the right direction. It may also have landed him the gig. Competition was tough. That was five years ago.

Some nine months after his directorship began, Skrzynski was elevated to the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors. Save Our SBS publicly welcomed him. At the time, we issued a media release saying:

Mr Skrzynski is well qualified to lead Australia’s multicultural broadcaster. He arrived in Australia as a refugee from Poland after the Second World War. He has held Board positions with the Australian, Film Television and Radio School and the Australian Film Commission and is a former Chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust. He has been recognised for mentoring Australian filmmakers and his support for Indigenous scholarships.

By all accounts, he seemed like the ideal person to chair SBS. But our media release at the time also cautioned him, outlining areas he would need to address:

Despite his qualifications and experience Mr Skrzynski faces a daunting task in getting the SBS, and particularly its television services, back on course. The pursuit of advertising income has lead to a decline in programs in languages other than English (LOTE) during the most popular viewing times. Moreover the decision to interrupt programs for advertisements, while it may have generated more income has upset both audiences and the government.

Post 2006, Skrzynski was as concerned as much as the next person at the increasing commercialisation of SBS and very low occurrence of LOTE programming in prime time. He did not want to see SBS suffer. In this sense his eagerness to attain a position on the SBS Board – given his experience on other Boards – is not just understandable, it is to be admired. He genuinely wanted SBS to be better.

There is no doubt that Skrzynski was aware of the challenges facing SBS before he was appointed Chair. In the period before he became Chair, he witnessed public criticism of his predecessor, Carla Zampatti. On her retirement in 2009, she was described as overseeing 10 years that marked perhaps the most destructive era in the multicultural broadcaster’s 34-year history. The public expectation on Skrzynski to put SBS back on track and right past wrongs was acutely clear.

The Polish born financier ‘got it’ that SBS needed more funding and had been all but starved of sufficient funding over the years. To top it off, the broadcaster had a debt to government of $23m.

Joe, as he is respectfully known by those around him, was eager to put SBS back in the minds of the politicians and secure more funding. But it was not until 2011 and the appointment of his chosen Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, that Skrzynski’s call for increased funding came to the fore. At the drop of a hat he was more than happy to jump on a plane and accompany Ebeid to Canberra or wherever the politicians were, to put the case that SBS needed and deserved a much bigger share of public funding. The two worked well together.

To their credit – and support from the public campaigns of Save Our SBS, especially in the years leading up to and in 2012 – SBS secured the most significant public funding increase ever, 27 percent over four years.

Under his chairmanship, SBS had virtually wiped their debt to government by the end of last year.

There is no doubt that in his five years at SBS, Skrzynski has made a significant contribution, perhaps more so than many that preceded him. But there are also important things he has avoided.

Despite all his good intentions, Skrzynski has failed to adequately engage with the community at the level he ought to have. Although the debt is down, his disengagement has led many to believe he is out of touch with community views.

On the flip side, soon after he became Chairman, Skrzynski ordered an internal review of SBS and Save Our SBS was invited to make a submission. That, and an amicable face-to-face follow-up discussion occurred.

However, five years after Skrzynski commenced at SBS, the broadcaster now appears more commercial than when he became Chairman, has less LOTE programs than previously and according to a 2013 study of 2044 viewers – the largest evidenced based study ever undertaken of SBS viewers – is now less faithful to its Charter than it was; largely a consequence of in-program advertising breaks. Advertisers now take precedence over audience. As Chairman of the Board, Skrzynski could have done more to ensure that the very things that concerned him some five years ago were improved upon.

Other than a select few, Skrzynski sees little point in face-to-face discussion with the community but instead prefers to influence, rather than be influenced.

He was reported as a “major donor” to the activist organisation GetUp and is credited in their Annual Report. Reportedly, Skrzynski donated $137,500 to GetUp.

If his plus side is finance, his minus side is an aversion to personally engage directly with the community he serves.

Although – in the era of another management – Skrzynski met with Save Our SBS and extended invitations to SBS social functions with a seemingly genuine welcoming attitude, in recent times, he has consistently been too busy to meet with the peak body most concerned with SBS. His office has repeatedly (with little notice and great inconvenience), cancelled every confirmed meeting with Save Our SBS in the last couple of years.

Under the SBS Act, the Board is required to be aware of and respond to community views. It sets the tone and establishes a certain culture when the Chairman himself avoids a key stakeholder. His inactions in this regard have undermined any former good. Save Our SBS believes this to be so serious that in our opinion, Skrzynski should now gracefully depart, rather than reapply for, or continue in the position.

When he took the Chair, Skrzynski was determined that the Board would no longer be a rubber stamp for management, that being a public criticism that preceded his time. He increased the number of times per year the Board would meet and the duration of each meeting significantly.

Public records do not reveal the content of Board meetings. However, Senate Estimates, in the period of the former management, indicate that Directors are not always in agreement with each other nor apparently with every management proposal (a healthy sign during debate), yet paradoxically, one thing that remains is a Board that waits for the broad direction of SBS to be led by management rather than the other way around. Such is not entirely out of the ordinary for a Board management relationship. The question of whether or not this is a sign of a fair Chairman or one abdicating responsibilities, or a Board believing their management is better informed to lead than they, is for others to answer.

Joseph Skrzynski declined an invitation to be interviewed for this story.

 

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