“And that’s goodnight from us”: Challenges to public service media in a culturally diverse Europe.
National Conversations: Public Service Media and Cultural Diversity in Europe (ed) Karina Horsi, Gunilla Hulten and Gavan Tilley, Intelelct, Bristol and Chicago, 2014, Afterword, pp.225-240.
Europe’s four challenges to public service media
Four major challenges confront “public service media in a culturally diverse Europe”; they go to the heart of the very possibility of the survival of the relationships that have underpinned public broadcasting in the post-war period. While public sector broadcasting remains a resilient and important part of the typical media and government framework throughout Europe, its public service dimension may well be facing its most threatening set of problems since inception. Put simply, each component has become problematized, as the post-war view of the public realm has been transformed by the end of the Soviet bloc, the reconstitution of Europe’s populations through emigration and immigration, and global economic repositioning. The public sphere and the public “project” have both been challenged by neo-liberal political agendas and public sector financial crises.Technological change has transformed the meaning of “media”, destroying the verities of highly differentiated twentieth century concepts (broadcasting, the press) and facilitating a convergence of delivery systems and a diversification of content, sources and media consumption opportunities. As Born noted in her discussion of the BBC a decade ago, “each term of the phrase – ‘public’, ‘service’ and ‘broadcasting’ has been cast in doubt, undermined by social and technological changes” (Born 2004:7).
Meanwhile the European commitment to “multiculturalism” as a policy perspective has become fragmented, not only through the formal rejection of the terminology by many governments (the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands), but also from internal conflicts over the the management of diversity, especially that produced by immigration of Muslim populations and others from former European colonies. Increasingly Europe appears to be suffering from an attack of ‘too much diversity’; in many ways key population groups are gravitating to political movements that detest diversity, and reject any mode of governmentality that provides it with support.
Apart from these issues internal to societies but generated by global population movements and diasporic settlement, Europe itself is shaking at the seams, the Global Financial Crisis revealing that the European model of social democracy and welfare capitalism cannot easily survive as a continental norm, while earlier cultural conceptions of Europe (of West, North and South) fit uneasily with the expanded community of the East and South East.
“Public” is used here in two distinct but clearly related ways. Public refers in some sense to the mass of citizenry as reflected in their access to and engagement with the public sphere, as Habermas (Calhoun 1992: passim) has described the space of potentially undistorted communication among the citizenry and other authorised participants: public here means something like ‘civil society’. But public can also mean that aspect of a society that is owned in some way by government. That is public can also mean ‘the state’. Indeed some would argue that the public interest (in the first sense) is best protected by the application of public authority (in the second). But then others would argue exactly the opposite, and there is the nub of the public sector media debate.
This book has laid out the broad picture of northern European broadcasting, essentially framing the debate within the cultural mores of the European North. Such a distinction is important, because the forms of government, the modes of democratic governance, and the conception of the public sphere change quite substantially as the focus moves towards societies which have evinced the greatest economic difficulties: it is the “southern” European countries that are most markedly demonstrating crises in the public sphere – ranging from the decline in the economic market and employment, through crises in public finance, to major crises of state legitimacy. The role of government, its relation to democracy, the patterns of social group representation, all play a role in helping us understand the ways in which culture is reproduced, contested and transformed. For European societies, there are three (sometimes four) major trajectories of social transformation under way, often pulling against each other. The press for a European consciousness, a pan-national orientation aimed to overcome past historical inter-country tensions, presents a ‘universal European’ model of human rights and social well-being. However as economic crises deepen, antipathy to historically hostile nations returns, often through the guise of a local hyper-nationalism. Meanwhile the impact of immigration fragments what had once been imagined more culturally-uniform societies (though often not now for some generations), demanding a governmental response that is both inclusive and respectful of difference, yet confronted by an increasing trans-national network of diasporic communities. In some countries the role of the media in sustaining the distinctiveness of some national minorities through language maintenance and documentation and support for cultural heritage practices (eg regional and traditional ethno-cultural) confronts the media role in building national trans-ethnic identities, that marginalise or contain threatening minority cultures (the Romany being the most dramatic example). Together these currents produce whirlpools of tension within societies, and more broadly across the European project.
Such tensions are evident in the chapters contributed for this book. Sarita Malik rightly points to the three complementary meanings of “representation”, to argue for greater focus on these issues in public service media in the UK. She firstly identifies the representation of the existence of diverse audiences in the strategic orientation of media planners and programmers. Put simply, how do the people who make the media imagine the society that is consuming it? What roles do they expect, assume, or desire media products will play in ameliorating (or intensifying) the wider social tensions implicit in the complex diversity of contemporary Britain?
The media offer but do not necessarily deliver the opportunities for relationships that might produce a more integrated and inclusive society (if indeed that is the goal of the public sector) – but how should this best be done? Here representation in texts becomes crucial: who are the key characters in the social narratives, from whence comes the authoritative voice? Are the stories targeted to audiences within their own ethno-cultural cocoon, essentially geared to sustaining separate communities? Or are they more explorative of the synergies of modern society, where cultures interact to produce innovation and insight into difference and its feasible accommodations? Are minorities as has long been recognised, most notable by their presence as threat or as sportspeople, or as marginal characters?
How are the diverse communities represented among the creators of media content in the public sector? Have they been so excluded and their narratives so marginalised, that they along with the mass of diasporic communities are seeking out and finding opportunities to tell their stories to each other on their own terms? Have the public sector media been so beholden to the states that support them, that they have lost contact with the new populations of the nations they are expected to service?
Karina Horsti acknowledges the difficulty of this nexus of issues in her discussion of the wider European context. She charts the ways in which various trans-European and national public broadcasting bodies have sought to articulate the diversity question, including the implicit limits they set to where the discourse might lead. As multiculturalism (associated wrongly I would suggest with claims that it seeks to facilitate separation of and antagonisms between ethno-cultural groups) has been overwhelmed by increasing concerns for social cohesion and the threats of home-grown terrorism, so more emphasis has been placed on the control element in media practice. The media increasingly provide the ‘field’ for the ongoing battle over meaning and identity in Europe, with many parties involved, from the most extreme anti-immigrant (captured graphically on Norwegian TV via the murders of Anders Breivik in 2011) to those who support the diverse presence, to the minorities themselves in all their varieties and internal inconsistencies.
Horsti focuses on the tension between anti-racist strategies in media development, and those seeking to enhance the acceptance and viability of cultural diversity approaches and rhetorics. She suggests that this transformation has been accompanied by and provided support to a number of features of wider European social conflict. The down-playing of racism as a societal problem was achieved through a focus on it as a characteristic of neo-Nazis and extremists, who could be corralled through effective legislative tactics, rather than a quality of post-colonial metropolitan societies, which in fact defined much of the European environment. Cultural diversity talk re-directs attention to the distinctiveness and qualities of groups, rather than the power relations that constrain and often discriminate against them. The onus thereby shifts to their failings and difficulties in assimilating, rather than to the structures of power and the limits on opportunities available to them. Rather than the race question calling up an examination of the wider society and its inequalities, it reduces the focus of attention to the apparent inadequacies of the minorities. Furthermore the development of more race-aware discourses in management has not delivered very much more in terms of career opportunities in the media for minorities. Indeed the state media are ever more embedded as part of the defence of privilege by long-established ruling elites, who today confront new challengers who seek to share their privileges, in this case the freedom to communicate and disseminate values and ideas, as widely as possible.
We are led then to consider how public service media both might fit the ideals of democratic egalitarian inclusive and responsive theory, and be understood as a strategic space for maintaining dominant discourses and their associated material interests. Tarlach McGonagle posits as the underlying dilemma of the relationship between media and democracy that of access to wider public debates through media, and the much deeper challenge of citizen (and non-citizen) involvement in creating media. In Europe the Commission and the Council have significant roles to play in framing the goals and governance processes of public sector media, viewing the media as tools through which wider social goals can be pursued. Yet clarifying, guiding and successfully implementing rules for such a range of countries, traditions (and societal idiosyncratic prejudices) has as yet escaped the bureaucratic forms – which are the most troubled now by the advent of citizen media and the dissolution of the dominant limited broadcast model.
Bi-cultural nations have additional issues when they try to address incoming minorities or indigenous communities. Belgium with its French/Flemish hallmark dichotomy and a big multi-generational immigrant descended population provides a valuable case study in how these tensions are exposed, explained and resolved (or not). For the Flemish national group, state broadcasting has historically been a key defender of its cultural space against feared French attempts at hegemonic expansion. Alexander Dhoest points to the self/other dichotomy that also exists, between “us” (auto) and “other” (allo) populations. Given the struggle by Flemish for their own identity, they are not well armed to recognize other identities within their space as legitimate. Moreover once driven towards multiculturalism as a philosophy by political pressures, they now find a changing European discourse that seeks to abandon both the term and its implications. As the public broadcaster was driven towards a more corporate identity, it was also asked by government to both support Flemish identity, and service all communities. However despite the rhetoric it appears that most diversity comes from outside Flanders, in imported programming. The need to defend Flemish identity appears to trump the effective integration of cultural diversity.
One of the consequences of the shift to the Right in some European nations (documented so clearly in the Dutch context by Isabel Awad and Jiska Engelbert) has been a focus on the public broadcaster as the heartland of political correctness, and in particular, support for multiculturalism. Hardline Rightist parties talk of multiculturalism as a catastrophe, focusing on the transfer effects of ‘native born’ taxpayers supporting immigrant and alien (usually Muslim) welfare dependants. However while the public sector organisations may give space to those who support multiculturalism, as is evident elsewhere in Europe the practice is marginal. That is, the look and feel of the media organisations’ public output does not reflect the application in toto of the multicultural agendas they are accused of promoting. Nevertheless, they are being subjected to significant funding reductions, often in the name of testing their alleged preferences in the marketplace of audience choice. Given the Reithian tradition of claiming to give the people what they need rather than what they want, the Dutch scenario is probably the most dramatic case of attempts by political groups to fracture the whole public service edifice through the application of public prejudice about diversity. Thus those who would defend diversity within the public sector are forced to make a business case – that is, that diversity issues, perspectives and participation increase audiences and generate revenues.
The Dutch example has some other peculiarities – it is ‘pluriform’, in order to reflect the historic compromise between the pre-immigration forces in Dutch society. Thus the religious/political silos are protected from having to address cultural diversity, while the cultural diversity issues essentially are bundled within one silo, which has become more integrationist as it has repositioned itself in seeking working class Right wing viewers.
Ireland’s rise and fall as the economic tiger of Europe brought with it (or rather – huge immigration) a huge inpouring of immigrants, and then some very fractious inter-cultural relations as the economy soured. Gavan Titley argues that Irish national broadcasting was caught up in the middle of these complex social movements, and like many parts of Europe was confronted with challenges it could not easily resolve. Inheriting tensions between the Irish and English speaking populations, laying claim to broadcast for the whole of the island of Ireland (including the UK section), the national broadcaster was admonished not to discriminate against any part of the society. Faced with over 200 nationalities, this was clearly an impossible task, an impossibility compounded by confusion over whether diversity programming was for the minorities, or for everyone to understand every minority. Ultimately many of the initiatives that flowered through the Tiger period came to an abrupt halt as the economy crashed, and the diversity in the population also plummeted. As for many other European responses to the crisis of multiculturalism, Irish national broadcasting went to a ‘mainstreaming’ rationale.
Sweden has been affected by similar pressures to those elsewhere in Europe – economic in relation to finding and building audiences, and socio-political in terms of advancing a more integrationist national agenda. Gunilla Hultén shows that while initially Sweden was seen as a landmark in the building of a multicultural polity in Europe, recent anti-immigrant movements and economic problems have reshaped the national broadcaster as a much more low-key advocate. Indeed multiculturalism has dissolved to be replaced by a broader diversity rubric. While there has been a small attempt to recruit minority-background journalists and broadcasters, the results have been limited. One of the issues, remarked on elsewhere, remains the reluctance of many ethnic communities to send their children into media, especially if they have achieved tertiary level education that would see them move into high paying and powerful professions. The reluctance of course is intensified by the lack of role-models, and the systematic racism that minorities believe is spread through the media.
Where European countries are at least bi-cultural (Belgium and Finland) many of the media institutions have had to deal with a structural reality of ethno-cultural difference for generations. In Finland where Swedish has its own broadcast network, and the Sami have Indigenous rights, such accommodations have been well tested and are constantly negotiated. Even though there is only a fairly small proportion of foreign-born residents, the nationalist tendencies evident elsewhere in Europe have also been allied with anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim sentiment. Whereas traditionally the public sector has presented anti-immigrant attitudes as racist, damaging and deplorable, more recently a ‘rational’ discourse based on environmental and social cohesion arguments has garnered widespread support.
In Finland as elsewhere in Europe a combination of economic, technical and political factors drive this opening up to populist hostilities as a supposedly legitimate expression of public concern as documented by Karina Horsti. Media convergence and the eruption of Internet alternatives to the national broadcaster, economic cut-backs in funding to the public sector, and economic competition from immigrants for scarcer jobs (often combined with prejudice against them for being welfare dependants) erodes the standing of public media, reduces its resource-base, and further marginalises diversity as a mainstream pre-occupation.
Norway has become the location of the case par excellence of European racism. The murderous attacks in Oslo by Andreas Breivik in 2011 in support of a notion of White European culture horrified the world. They were rationalised by the perpetrator as a response to the pervasiveness of multicultural values in contemporary Norway, for which in part he held the media to be responsible. Gunn Bjornsen suggests that something rather different was happening – that cultural diversity was not a feature of primetime mainstream broadcasting. As is evident elsewhere in Europe (and indeed in Australia), the national broadcaster’s obligation to support Norwegian identity and culture confronts it with choices about what such a task means when the society is poly-ethnic and increasingly tense around cultural boundaries. While the state recognizes diversity, racial discrimination is reinforced by media stereotyping, it has not yet produced effective strategies to fully incorporate cultural diversity into its programming and employment practices. While indigenous broadcasting is corralled in Sami Radio, legislative requirements direct the broadcaster to take account of and employ linguistic and national minorities – who had in the past been mainly from long established ‘foreign’ groups. Over the decade from 2001, the broadcaster was changed in two important ways – firstly it paid increasing attention to the communication needs of newer minorities especially from Pakistan, while also adopting affirmative action in recruitment. Secondly it moved away from programs for minorities to a far greater focus on “integrationist” priorities, communicating about diversity to all Norwegians. This emphasis on “multiculturalism for all Norwegians” may well have fuelled the sentiment for Breivik’s dramatic confrontation with the realities of the diverse society.
While the well-established democratic countries of Western Europe have had to struggle with variations on the common theme of sustainable poly-ethnicity within a constitutional and human rights framework, the Estonian case demonstrates the issues that arise when a former empire (Russia) withdraws from a colonised state. Apparently having abandoned the colonial state to its own devices, the enduring presence of Russian-speaker citizens will raise challenges for the national broadcaster of the emerging nation and its significant Russian minority. The new Estonian state thus confronts three inter-related challenges to its authority and legitimacy: Russian as the prior official language, the language of the large quasi-imperial neighbour, and the widespread lingua franca of the Russian diaspora; a government goal for Estonian culture, language and national world-view to be inculcated among all Estonians; and the economic rationalism imposed by the European Commission as well as local political decisions.
Europe’s public service and sector media reflect a somewhat common history of an unresolved set of tensions between expressed policies that foreground human rights and the recognition of minorities within a framework of social inclusion, which are nevertheless constantly tested against increasing hostility to immigrants, opposition to multiculturalism, ethno-nationalist reassertion, and a critique of cosmopolitan perspectives on social issues. These socio-cultural conflicts are framed by political and economic concerns with crisis and free-markets, and the reduction in state expenditures.
An Australian reflection
Australia shares many of these challenges, though without the continental imperatives of the greater Europe project; it has responded to them in its own historically-determined ways (Jakubowicz 2006). In particular, the movement of economic power from North America and Europe towards the east and south – China and India, and South America, has been to Australia’s shorter-term overall economic benefit. These changes have been accompanied by major changes in the makeup of the immigrant intake, with increasing numbers of new residents coming from Asia to a country that two generations ago prided itself on its ‘Whiteness’.
Even so fiscal crises affecting government are also apparent, especially as scarce public resources are reallocated towards ‘pump priming’ mass employment options, and away from infrastructure and services. All of these factors have been occurring as media forms converge and questions of media freedom and responsibility press into greater public view.
The public service media (broadcast – there is no print, though with convergence this distinction is dissolving) tradition in Australia is based on the Reithian priorities of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) yet has operated since its inception, originally as the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1929 then as the wholly-Commonwealth owned Australian Broadcasting Commission (in 1932), as a minority broadcaster in a competitive commercial environment. The commercial framework was recognised by the reconstitution of the Commission as a corporation (ABC) in 1983, even though it still does not carry paid advertising. The system bifurcated in 1980, when a specific multicultural broadcaster was established (the Special Broadcasting Service SBS), carrying paid advertising since about 1989. The two agencies report to the same minister but have their own boards. The ABC Board does not usually contain people of non-European or Indigenous background, whose segregated participation by regular government practice but never pronouncement is confined to the Board of SBS.
Australia’s reassertion in 2011 of multiculturalism as a central organising principle for government came at the European nadir of formal support for the term and its associated policies. Whereas Europe’s announcement of multiculturalism’s failure was accepted by Australian commentators as an accurate reflection of the outcome of three decades there of very criticised immigrant settlement management practices, the Australian experience was deemed to be exceptional and fundamentally different to the European models that were held in such disdain(Jakubowicz 2013). Australia, it was argued, had managed to avoid many of the problems of Europe, in part through luck, and partly through planning. Yet while Australian governments were celebrating the success of the Australian model, the realities were, not unexpectedly, more complicated, less successful and more fraught with tensions. Indeed the public service media provided an apt demonstration of exactly how these contradictions were being played out.
The first major wave that established multiculturalism in Australian political life crested quite early, in the late 1970s. In a very short period Australia abandoned its racially-based immigration policy, White Australia, that had been its standard for three generations, then moved on the establish a series of multicultural institutions. One of the most significant of these was the Special Broadcasting Service, a multilingual and multicultural broadcaster created when the national broadcaster, the ABC, proved reluctant to take on the demands of government for it to become a more pluralist and representative venue for Australian diversity (McClean 2013).
The separation of the multicultural from the national initiated a rather curious framework for diversity in public sector media. On the one hand the ABC charter 1(a)i requires that the ABC “contribute to a sense of national identity … [and] reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”. Whatever else it does, the ABC is also instructed by the Parliament “to take account of the multicultural character of the Australian community” (2(a)iv). Now these charter obligations were introduced after the creation of SBS, and after the adoption of multiculturalism by the conservative Coalition government under Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister. So the relation between SBS and the ABC was in a sense designed to be fraught, though the expectation might have been that the ABC, once its charter obligated it to accept multiculturalism, would become more amenable to and more capable of responding to these priorities. However this was not to be, and despite numerous inquiries in the 1980s and attempts to amalgamate the organisations by political fiat, the bodies remain separate, with SBS resolutely defending its independence and the ABC somewhat reluctantly responding to what it sees as ‘mainstream’ elements of multiculturalism (for instance, the modern Australian TV drama series The Slap, that involves a multicultural cast in a typical suburban and primarily English-speaking setting).
In effect the division between the ABC and SBS, while never mandated, has become in practice the representation of two Australias. The ABC’s Australia through its radio and TV arms, and fairly much in its on-line text services (eg The Drum), channels the values, attitudes and debates of English-speaking middle-class Australians, who may be of non-Anglo background (though not in the proportion of longer-established groups). With the advent of digital cable TV, the ABC has created additional channels for more esoteric (usually BBC and archival content) and children and youth programming in English. Only in ABC OPEN, a digital sound and image project that supports citizen production, does one witness some of the cultural diversity of Australia; paradoxically, even though OPEN seeks out minorities, its brief is restricted to non-capital cities, so the places where most newer immigrants live have no access.
SBS on the other hand, shaped in part by how the organisation perceived the role of the UK Channel 4, and forced in part by its complementary audience requirements (multilingual radio and multicultural television), has developed a different perspective. SBS has created three additional outlets, one which is free to air and provides access to less popular materials (eg much of the daily newscasting from across the world in original languages, more minority interest cinema), and two special interest pay channels, Studio (music and the arts), and World Movies (including the only regular R rated programming on Australian cable).
Taking its multicultural brief seriously, SBS has focused on forum, reality TV and documentary productions that involve people from minority communities in ‘mainstream’ issue debates(McClean 2013). It has been particularly successful in its “Go Back to Where you Came from” series, where English-speaking Australians (some of immigrant origin) are sent to places from where Australia’s refugees originate. The participants will include some who are opposed to accepting refugees, and others who are in favour. The on-air, social media and newspaper discussions of the attitudes and the experiences have been profoundly important in influencing wider public opinion, even though the broad debate on these issues has become increasingly heated and public attitudes quite divided.
One example of how SBS has addressed the diversity issue can be found in its 4 season documentary series, “Once Upon a Time in…”. Seeking to solve the audience issue of limited interest in multicultural topics, the channel decided to merge two genres, crime and social documentary. Aware that public interest in on-screen crime stories leads the programming of most broadcasters, SBS shaped a brief that used crime and populism as a tool to bring audiences to engage with more serious questions. The first series, “Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta”, was broadcast in early 2012 to both critical and audience acclaim. It drew on the arrival in Australia of Vietnamese refugees in the immediate wake of the end of White Australia, and in parallel to the development of multiculturalism. While the first refugees arrived in 1975/76, by 1990 there were tens of thousands (arriving through orderly departure and family reunion) in suburbs like Sydney’s Cabramatta (‘Vietnamatta’) which previously had only known European immigrants. Cabramatta had however become known as a drug haven and site of murder, assault, extortion and heroin overdoses.
The three part series asked, “how did this place turn into the drug capital of Sydney, and how come today it is renowned as a generally peaceful tourist destination full of restaurants, shopping and cultural events?”. Working from an original paper by this author (Jakubowicz 2004), the production team worked up a theme: “when immigrants first arrive, all is chaos, and in chaos the first thing to get organised is crime.” Recognising crime and criminality exist and gain rapid public notoriety, recognising that the majority of victims are within communities, the producers sought out families where drugs and crime had come close to the heart. Interviewing in Vietnamese and in English, ex-crims, druggies and their parents, local police, politicians and academics, the documentary rooted the wider social reality through the pain and tensions within families. It also looked to the Vietnamese to tell their own stories and provide their own interpretations. Allied to the TV broadcast, the program had its own website, blog, and community story-telling project. How to explain the turn-around? The focus was put on a Vietnamese Australian local politician, who pressed for inquiries into the quality of policing in Cabramatta. How could an Australian community, and the Vietnamese asserted this is what they were, citizens and participants, be thus abandoned by its police?
Three versions of the TV documentary were shown – in English with English subtitles for Vietnamese speaking participants, in Vietnamese and sub-titled in Arabic (online). A wider community project was initiated in which local people offered their own narratives of life and how things had changed. the programs were available on line for replay, and out-takes of interviews were available on line. The program averaged over 600,000 through a Summer period, with over 800,000 watching the opening night; on average 50,000 people watched the Vietnamese version (about one quarter of about 220,000 Vietnamese speakers nationally). The online site drew 30,000 unique visitors in the first week, while there were over 100,000 online views of the streaming video. While SBS remains a minority audience broadcaster, normally drawing about 5% of total audience (the ABC gets 12-20%), for this series and those from the same ‘multicultural documentaries’ stable, the register stood above 10%.
While the Vietnamese story was challenging enough, including as it did the assassination of a local politician and serious corruption, its successor tackled an even more difficult issue: the conflicts associated with Sydney’s Lebanese community. While the Lebanese are both Muslim and Christian, both groups have been touched by public images of criminality, violence and extremism. Lebanese immigration dates back to the ‘Syrians’ of the nineteenth century, though Muslim arrivals were primarily generated by the chaos of the 1976 Civil War period. Since that time Lebanese Muslims and Christians have become increasingly important political players in Sydney’s changing environment, providing both a focus for anti-multicultural sentiments, and a driver for an increasing response by the political system to ethno-cultural diversity. A series of rapes and murders associated with crime and drug figures in the community have exacerbated public hostility. However unlike the action by reformist Vietnamese to clear out the criminal gangs, the Lebanese communities have become their targets, trapped between mainstream racism on the one hand, and stand-over tactics, drug trafficking, and extortion from ‘Leb’ gangs on the other.
The popular media in Australia have traditionally addressed these issues in a very sensational manner, playing up the perceived threats to and fears among the wider population. While public sector media have undertaken some investigations into organised crime and corruption, they have not really sought to understand the social dynamics that lie behind the tabloid headlines. Thus documentaries that tell the story from within the Lebanese communities, leavened with insights from police, politicians and the odd academic (including the present author) have been rare. Even so comic representations of ethnic groups do appear in more socially edgy melodramas such as ‘Housies’ (about a multi-ethnic public housing estate and its denizens).
A rather different ‘break-out’ at SBS has been the major success of the very low budget Sunday morning music program, ‘SBSPopAsia’. Sourced from music channels in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia, it features endless boy and girl bands singing romantic ditties to very boppy music. SBS has tied this compilation programming to a Twitter and facebook feed, and garnered something like 50,000 ‘likes’ since launch in January 2011. The program runs on SBS TV free to air, on YouTube and online and on digital radio. The facebook page takes song titles in Chinese script and the programmers have access to the multi-lingual translators’ pool operated by SBS. SBS has also trialled a specific Mandarin broadcast news service of its own, which generated Australian material to contest the ceaseless pressures from Chinese-generated media and news that flood through satellite and on-line feeds. The broadcast version was not successful, but an online version persists.
Australia and Europe in dialogue on diversity
The Australian example (and the focus on SBS might well distort the failings of the other national broadcaster, and the very poor response to cultural diversity that operates on the commercial free to air and most of the cable channels) does serve to highlight the transformations that are occurring in most advanced western capitalist societies. Most of such societies are now fully embedded in globalisation, with its accelerated flow of culture, capital and people across borders that are becoming less and less of a barrier. Mobile populations are increasingly diasporic, dragging with them their cultural artefacts and forms of belief and daily life. Their partly assimilated children adopt syncretic forms of traditional and contemporary cultures, producing manifestations of belief and creativity that bypass the old modes of governance and control.
Where the media are charged with recognising and engaging creatively with these changes as part of the contemporary modernity of these complex societies, what had been bizarre or deviant instead becomes reprocessed and integrated into current narratives. Interestingly in the Australian media the programs that are most likely to promote cultural diversity as a societal good can be found in reality TV, where people of colour, of odd shapes and sizes, and of new eclectic creativities, can emerge as cultural heroes. While such appearances have so long been part of the US imaginative domain as today to be almost unremarkable, in Europe and Australia people who are evidently not of the heritage cultural group are unlikely to emerge as key public figures from whom the population seek security and certainty.
Increasingly too, as the SBS and ABC cases demonstrate, the media convergence process has shaken the very bases of public service media. ‘The Australian’ newspaper, flagship of the Murdoch News Ltd corporation in Australia, carries video on its website sources from other companies in the News stable; its columnists blog, and its material ends up in radio. Specialist journalists are bought in, and it soon becomes impossible to distinguish what is ‘print’ and what ‘video’ or ‘online’. Similarly the ABC now delivers online text that appears on smartphones, tablets and computers, with its radio national talk programs embedded inside facebook and Twitter. Whereas SBS has both public funding and advertising-generated income, the ABC depends on government funding and program sales. As more conservative political groups take aim at the public spending on public service media, the pressure also increases to justify investment, demonstrate diversity, and deliver audiences.
Australia’s political landscape is changing rapidly as new generations of voters reflect the cultural diversity of recent decades of Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigration. Their integration into Australian mores depends in part on how they use the media, and how therefore the media sees and reflects them. As the tensions in European public media demonstrate, the transformations in global populations, the huge displacement of refugees and economic immigrants, and the pending pressures from environmental, political, economic and social crises, suggest that the public media have an increasingly important part to play. They will need to explain, interpret, engage with, and inform many different people, and do so in ways that remain respectful, authoritative and effective. The evidence suggest that, unless they seriously rethink their roles in maintaining social cohesion and ensuring communication rights, they will have their work cut out for them. Given current regimes and modes of dealing with diversity across Europe, the apparently failing faith in public service media from some of their erstwhile supporters, and the many enemies hoping to bring them down, the public service media will need to reframe both the meanings of “public” on which they depend.
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Calhoun, C. (ed) (1992) Habermas and the public sphere. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.
Jakubowicz, A. (2004) “Vietnamese in Australia: A Quintessential Collision” at https://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/vietnamese-in-australia-a-quintessential-collision/
Jakubowicz, A. (2008) “Australia” in Schaefer, R. (ed) Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society, London: Sage.
Jakubowicz, A. (2013) “Comparing Australian multiculturalism: the international dimension”, in Jakubowicz, A. and Ho, C., (eds) ‘For those who’ve come across the seas’: Australian Multicultural policy and practice. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Press.
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