On 2nd March 2017 SBS published the final selection criteria for SBS Radio services following the public consultation that closed on 11 December 2016. The only changes made to the draft criteria relate to allowing SBS flexibility to increase the number of high needs languages to more than 15, if funding permits; taking into greater consideration the English language proficiency of new arrivals and older migrants; and reducing the weighting of household income as a secondary indicator in the review process.

Given the minor and inconsequential nature of these changes, SBS failed to address the fundamental flaws and serious issues with the draft criteria as well as the lack of process transparency that the Maltese Community Councils of Victoria and New South Wales had pointed out in an elaborate joint submission they made to SBS last December.

In its Media Release SBS confirmed that it received more than 600 submissions, representing 85 languages, during a period of public consultation which gave people and organisations the opportunity to provide feedback on the criteria that were being proposed.

SBS claimed that the submissions received were taken into consideration in finalising the criteria published today.” The criteria will now be used, in conjunction with the 2016 Census data, to determine which languages will be provided by SBS Radio services.

SBS stated that it will determine how the languages will be delivered across AM and FM radio, digital radio and digital television, online and podcast services, taking into account factors including audience listening habits, the need to support audience demands for anytime, anywhere news and information via digital platforms, and the changing demographics of Austra-lia’s diverse communities.

In the Media Release SBS Director of Audio and Language Content, Ms Mandi Wicks, is quoted as saying that SBS is “committed to ensuring the language services we deliver reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia today. We are also committed to ensuring the SBS Radio Services Review is a robust and transparent process. We have listened to the many people who have provided valuable feedback, and today we have released the clear criteria that will help inform which languages SBS will need to deliver to meet the needs of contemporary multicultural Australia – from the largest communities, to high needs and emerging communities – with a revised schedule to be announced later this year.”

The Maltese community leaders are very disappointed with the slight modifications to the draft selection criteria, which could only be described simply as tinkering around the edges. In their submission they had called for an overhaul of the criteria, as in their view, they are fundamentally flawed, grossly inequitable and unfairly disadvantageous to communities of medium to small size. The criteria required a complete makeover to ensure a fairer and more equitable distribution of radio broadcasting hours among the communities.

The key issues raised in their joint submission included the following:

  • The current allocation to the six largest languages in terms of population size of 14 hours per week or 2 hours per day air time is way too high and overgenerous resulting in insufficient air time left over to be allocated to the remaining communities to meet their information needs.
  • The draft criteria were based on the flawed assumption that the information needs of a community are commensurate with the size of its population.
  • Under the draft criteria, the high needs of communities, which exceed the arbitrarily set threshold of 25,000 to qualify as a ‘large’ community, are not taken into account at all. This is a major flaw as all communities must be subjected to the ‘high needs’ test as part of the determination of the number of hours to be allocated to them.
  • To make an overgenerous allocation of program hours to ‘large’ communities simply on the basis of their size without applying the ‘high needs’ test to them is to discriminate against the remaining communities who are required to jump the ‘high needs’ hurdle before they can qualify for any program hours.
  • In the draft criteria there was too strong a bias in favour of size and not enough importance given to other determining factors listed in the criteria for ‘high needs’ communities, particularly, that of ageing.
  • Basing eligibility to radio broadcasting hours so heavily on census data relating to the number of persons in a community, who stated in their census form that they speak their native language at home, is a flawed and unfair way to allocate radio time. Much more emphasis should be placed on the specific needs of a particular ethnic community.
  • The draft criteria do not take into account the fact that the larger ethnic groups have many other non-SBS sources of information in their own language, including direct ongoing broadcasts from their country of origin.
  • The draft criteria do not take into account the size of the ethnic community audience actually listening to their respective SBS Radio programs when allocating the number of hours to the various communities.

The MCCV and MCCNSW had also proposed that the same set of criteria should be applied to all communities regardless of the size of their overseas-born and/or language speaking population in Australia. Moreover, communities with a large proportion of elderly members over 65 years of age, who are not internet savvy and are unable to benefit from the use of the SBS digital platform services and social media, should be compensated with more radio air time.

The final version of the criteria published by SBS address none of these important issues and valid concerns.

In their submission, the MCCV and MCCNSW also complained about the complete lack of transparency in relation to the methodology that will be used to apply the criteria in allocating the number of radio broadcasting hours to communities. In their view, the criteria document itself should include clear information on the methodology. The final criteria just published by SBS do not provide such information.

Over a number of weeks, the MCCV made several attempts to elicit more information from SBS about the methodology that was used for the last review made to the radio schedule in 2013. However, to date, SBS has not been forthcoming with the requested detailed information.

The last review of SBS Radio was conducted during 2012-2013, and it was the first major review of the radio services SBS provided to communities that had been undertaken in 18 years. At the time, SBS committed to reviewing its schedule in line with the release of each Census. The result from the current review will serve audiences from late 2017 until the next Australian Census in 2021 prompts the next review in 2022.