Category Archives: Australia

Australia’s going to Austria for Eurovision

In other news this week…

Australia has been granted a wild card entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, being held in Vienna at the end of May. It’s been a long held aim of the SBS MD  Michael Ebeid, as the channels been the official broadcaster for the past thirty years. For the past few years the lobbying has got more intense and the pleas have got louder and more desperate. Finally, a few days ago came this announcement by the co-presenter of the show for SBS Julia Zemiro (who’s also rockin’ the dirndl look in the pic above)

It brings in some of the biggest audiences to SBS each year, and having an Australian act in the finals in the Austrian capital  will send that audience into overdrive. I guess the Aussies were just waiting for it to take place in a country with a name a bit like theirs.

Eurovision very much belongs on SBS now, since it was first broadcast in 1983. Electric Pictures made a doc shown on SBS called The Secret History of Eurovision  in 2011, with Mark Atkin and Phil Craig as producers.

For most it’s a celebratory show, an excuse for dressing up in silly wigs and having a party. Last year, Australian songstress Jessica Mauboy was the interval act in the second semi-final – with every cultural stereotype present and correct on stage before she sang. She’d get my vote to be the entry this year. There’s also talk of Kylie, or Guy Sebastian to have a real chance of winning…but be careful what you wish for.  The Guardian’s music critics came up with Nick Cave.

But there’s been a fair bit of debate in a slow news week (since Tony Abbott survived his leadership challenge). Coming so soon after the budget cuts to SBS and ABC, how much is it going to cost for Australia to take part? What if Australia actually wins and has to pay for the following year’s competition? (which would have to be held in Europe in any case). Is it making a mockery of the European identity of the show?  Here’s one writer who’s not in favour…

The links between Australia and Europe are strong of course, and it’s probably right to see Eurovision as an affectionate way of linking some very far away places.  We’re pretty Euro  on SBS.  We do food programmes in which chefs travel to their home countries. Quite a few country house shows. And a lot of mostly Brit history with  British presenters like Neil Oliver. Crime series from Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France. Plus we see people in Lycra pedalling over Europe in the Tour de France, the Vuelta, and the Giro d’Italia. Next to all that Euro content, America is much less visible (though the commercial channels more than make up for it).

Plenty of broadcasting challenges await – Should we be less tongue-in-cheek about it now that we’re actually in the show? how will Australians vote,  given that it’ll be taking place live at 6am East Coast time? (SBS will be broadcasting as every year with a time delay on Sunday evening). What type of act will best represent Australia today? And, again, do we really want to win?

I’m looking forward to seeing how our coverage looks and sounds this year. I’ll be watching from Copenhagen, and feeling just that bit more Aussie…

 

What happened on my first day at SBS

I arrived for my first day of a visit to SBS, based in a nondescript business park in the north of Sydney, at 9:30am on Monday 15th December.  I’m working from London as their content consultant.

The SBS logline - Seven Billion Stories
The SBS logline – Seven Billion Stories

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Half an hour after I got there and started introducing myself to my new colleagues, there was a sense that something was going on – programming changes were being discussed, questions being raised about whether some of our trails were appropriate in the circumstances. What’s happened, I asked?

A gunman had just taken a number of people hostage in the Lindt cafe in Martin Place, central Sydney. The pictures shown by Channel 7 – whose offices and studio were 30m away across the street – showed people with their hands up against the window, holding up a flag with Islamic writing on it. For the rest of the day, a sense of dread hung over the city. Nobody knew what was going to happen – or for most of the day who was behind the attack – but they all knew that it was a story which would have a big impact. It was being talked about as the first ‘terrorist attack’ on Australian soil. There was talk of Islamic State, and of more than one gunman in the cafe.

At SBS, like in all other broadcasters, the news took centre stage. Contingency plans were put in place, the news department did calm coverage – in contrast to some of the media, like the Daily Telegraph (nothing like its sober equivalent in the UK). Overnight, two hostages and the gunman died as the siege came to a bloody end.

Dealing with such events is what public broadcasters are there for – adding context, asking questions, and staying with a story when events move on. A station like SBS even more so, since we’re there to talk about social cohesion and Australia’s immigrant groups.  I didn’t see enough of our non-news coverage last week to know how we responded, but It’s critical that we are part of this particular ‘national conversation’.

Community hatred is so easy to foster, and once it takes root can spread very fast. As an antidote, by the early morning of the day after the siege, the hashtag #illridewithyou had started for people to offer support to anyone wearing religious dress (like a headscarf) who might be shunned by their fellow travellers on Sydney public transport. It went viral, as people searched for glimmers of humanity after the tragedy. It also showed a refusal to blame an entire community for the actions of one disturbed individual. (Not everyone agrees it was the right approach – read this considered article on the hashtag).

I went to Martin Place on Friday, four days after the attack, and saw the carpet of flowers, together with notes and a few stuffed toys – especially poignant as one of the two hostages who died was a mother of 3 – outside the cafe.

How Australians respond to this story matters. Beyond the immediate response of Australians to grieve for the hostages who died, and pay their respects, there was a debate about Australia’s strict gun laws and bail laws – thankfully it doesn’t look as if there are any changes to gun laws in prospect. And, whether we like it or not, a debate about Islam and multiculturalism. The gunman used the flag, held up against the cafe window, to lead many to think that this was somehow an ‘Islamic attack’. We now know that this Iranian cleric Man Haron Monis had a history of violent offences and was acting alone.

And I know that SBS has a part to play in the debate which Australia is having about race relations. On January 4th we’re showing the first doc in a series called The Great Australian Race Riot, made by Essential Media, showing that the well-known Cronulla riots of 2005 were not isolated incidents. I’m looking forward to that, and know I need to acquire more programmes that can raise awareness of these issues. I’m very aware of the challenges of bringing them to a television audience, but that’s what SBS is there for, isn’t it?