SBS is no longer a diverse public sphere

Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is the nation’s multicultural public broadcaster, and as such, its core mandate is to “inform, educate and entertain all Australians, and in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society” (SBS Charter ). 

Like other public broadcasters, Britain's BBC and Australia's ABC for example, SBS was instituted as a public sphere, the function of which is to uphold liberal democratic values by providing a forum of free speech within which everyone can debate matters of collective importance, as equals, irrespective of their political views. In principle, the explicit multicultural mandate of SBS recognized that such equality had not historically been afforded to those with non-English speaking backgrounds, and attempted to rectify this lack of access to the public sphere by featuring non-white faces and voices. 

Yesterday, I read a couple of articles circulated by SBS on Facebook which seems to indicate that the custodians of the broadcaster have confused the concept of diversity with progressive activism.

The first was about Tim Allen and his recent public statement that Hollywood doesn't tolerate colleagues with conservative politics, comparing the bullying tactics to 1930s Germany. SBS’s response? They ran a clickbait article titled “10 right-wing messages hidden in Time Allen movies and TV shows”. Then they cobble together a bunch of one-liners from his body of work to evidence how he used comedy to trick his audiences in to listening to “right-wing” perspectives. Note: right-wing in this article is synonymous with Trump. For example, they caption one image with the line “The famous 'Home Improvement' fence may have been a metaphor for immigration”, collapsing any distinction between the political context of 1991-99 when the program ran, and Trump’s current mantra to build a wall.

Screenshot from the SBS article

Ultimately, SBS proves the point that Allen is making, which is if you dare to express any opinions as a conservative actor in the US right now, there will be a media witch hunt (which Australian media is also happy to participate in) and future work will dry up. 

While I understand that this is a puff piece and that SBS is entitled to produce within the clickbait genre, I would contend that this article absolutely contravenes the principles of diversity of opinion that are central to the public sphere and their mandate.

The second article is a lot more serious however, and its partisanship a lot more subtle. In their article “Muslim women protest Australian visit of anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali” SBS consistently draw comparisons to controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilder’s and incorrectly refer to Hirsi as “far right”. These a weasel words which are designed to sway the audience into believing that Hirsi’s campaign against Islamic violence against women is actually perpetrating violence against muslims. This tactic is also evident when SBS includes unsubstantiated claims that Hirsi is lying about being subject to these violences including female genital mutilation, insofar as they preface these unsubstantiated claims with phrases like “Doubt has been cast on various elements of Hirsi Ali’s story…”

My favorite statement though is made by Hana Assafiri on behalf of the 270 muslim women protesting Hirsi: “We want to emphasize that freedom of expression, when it goes un-vetted and promotes hate, has a profound impact on women and especially the most vulnerable sections of society”.

This is a stunning statement, though the irony is apparently lost on the SBS editorial staff. The point of free speech is that it IS NOT VETTED, this is the liberal democratic principle upon which SBS’s existence is based, and it is a statement which seems to prove, rather than disprove Hirsi’s point that Islam is not compatible with the values of the West. 

My point however is not whether or not Hirsi is correct, but rather, that SBS seems to have lost its way. SBS should be providing a platform to Hirsi and her protestors without attempting to sway public opinion one way or the other. It is particularly despicable when you consider that Hirsi herself is a victim, or rather a survivor, fighting the oppression of a patriarchal regime, and that the good people of SBS are telling her that her experiences and opinions are wrong.

I spent many years closely analyzing the content produced by SBS throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and my main conclusion was that they were successful at providing a public forum for a diversity of people, with opinions and experiences that could not be reconciled with one another (for shameless self promotion see here, here, and here). SBS provided diversity of opinion as well as skin color and accents. 

SBS seems to forgotten that its constituents have differing political opinions, that not all people from the same country share the same political opinions, they are not all of the same class, and they don’t all necessarily share the same values. The fact that they are assuming that this should be the case strikes me as being exceptionally racist.


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