COMMUNITY BLOG – Prof. Maurice Cauchi, MCCV President
Starting from April next year, the Maltese language programs on SBS will be reduced from 8 to 2 hours per week. There is no doubt that this will produce a considerable degree of hardship and deprivation to the many thousands of persons who regularly listen to these programs.
The reason for this drastic change has resulted partly from the need to include a number of community languages not previously covered by SBS, so that the total number of languages covered will increase from 68 to 74. It is certainly desirable that communities who have no access to a radio program in their native tongue should be provided with some opportunity to enable them to listen to news in their own language.
However, one questions the criteria and their application for distributing the remaining number of hours among the many communities clamouring for them.
SBS summarised the final selection criteria in a media release issued on 30 November as follows:
- Large Languages Criteria: population of approximately 20,000 or greater
- High Needs Languages Criteria(using ABS 2011 Census data for languages spoken in Australia):
- Threshold requirement – population must be greater than 1,000
- English language proficiency (weight = 40%)
- Recentness of arrival (weight = 30%)
- Ageing (weight = 15%)
- Household resources and unemployment (weight = 15%)
SBS also took into account any immediate need in the form of a significant increase in the population of a language group through Australia’s Humanitarian Program.
In its communication to SBS last April, the MCCV had argued that the criteria practically ignore the needs of ethnic groups who now belong to the fast-ageing group and do not need less radio just because they are old. If anything, they need it more. The weighting for this group (originally proposed at 10%) is unjustifiable. Raising it to 15% was simply inadequate.
While these criteria may appear objective and acceptable at first sight, on closer examination it becomes apparent that they are subjective, inequitable and discriminatory.
Three broad community groupings
An analysis of the actual hours allocated to the various communities appears to show that communities broadly fall into three distinct categories:
The first group consists of communities with a population of speakers greater than 100,000. These include the well-established communities, particularly Italian and Greek, as well as the more recent communities, like Arabic, and also Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese. All these communities have been awarded the lion’s share of the programs, each being allocated 14 hours per week.
The second group consists of communities with a population ranging between 50,000 and 100,000. These include communities like Macedonian, Croatian, and Polish who have been allocated between 4 and 5 hours each per week. In the case of Spanish with 117,499 speakers, the number of hours allocated is 7 hours per week.
The third group consists of communities with a population below 50,000. This includes Maltese, and also, Dutch, Hungarian, Portuguese and Russian. These are now allowed only 2 hours per week.
Lion’s share not justified
One would question how the needs of the bigger communities justify the allocation of the lion’s share of the available time on SBS radio. In effect, six communities (Italian, Greek, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese) now command over one-third (34%) of the total hours available with the other 68 communities having to divide among themselves the other two-thirds.
How can one justify the need for a handful of large communities to each have two hours of radio time every day, when so many other smaller communities have such a glaring need for radio time and are allocated only one or two hours per week? The lack of justification for such disproportionate allocation of radio time becomes more blatant when one bears in mind the fact that the large communities are very well supplied with their own ethnic newspapers, often available on a daily basis, and in some cases also a 24-hour radio station and other media facilities in their language.
Apart from the newly arrived communities, whose need is without question, it looks as if the distribution of hours by SBS has been settled almost entirely on the basis of size of the community as determined by an analysis of the 2011 Census data. Such an overwhelming reliance on census statistics to dole out hours of radio time is just untenable. The many other criteria which were meant to provide a guide for distribution of radio time have been given far less importance than should have been the case.
SBS does not appear to have had any real appreciation of the needs of particular smaller communities before going ahead with the publication of the new schedule. For example, several ageing members of the Maltese community often suffer from social isolation due to their living long distances away from their relatives and their total reliance on their native language. For those ageing members who regularly listen to the daily Maltese programs on SBS, effecting such a severe cut in their programs will deprive them of the one thing that keeps them connected to what is going on in the world and in their community.
As the MCCV had advised SBS last April, due to their age bracket, this cohort of persons listening to Maltese programs do not have access to modern electronic means of communication, including internet and email.
Re-allocation of air time
There are valid arguments for giving at least an hour per day to as many groups as possible. Bearing in mind the fact that the cake is limited, this can only be done by reducing the superabundance of hours for the six largest communities with more than one hour per day. This would release several hours of air time for re-allocation to those minority groups which have been given only a token number of hours weekly.
The smaller, more established communities, which include Maltese, as well as Dutch, Hungarian, Portuguese and Russian, seem to belong to a separate category. These are long-established communities with a very high rate of ageing persons who depend on their SBS language programs for connection with their mother land and for information in their own language about what is happening in Australia and in their community.
Maltese in Australia find themselves in a double bind. They are one of a few national groupings that seem to have very limited means of language and culture maintenance. There is only one weekly Maltese paper in Australia with a rather limited circulation and, apart from the weekly half hour news bulletin from Malta shown on SBS TV, there are no other televised programs or movies in Maltese, unlike other larger language groups who regularly watch programs and movies in their language on SBS TV.
As the MCCV had pointed out to SBS in April, while there are a few other community radios, the SBS radio has always been considered as the flag-bearer in this field. The quality of production has always been very high and the Australian content on SBS Radio has been given in a way that is digestible by the general Maltese community in Australia.
The MCCV had also contended that placing an emphasis on Australian-content only is contrary to the basic principle of multiculturalism, which extols the values of the background culture. It is wrong to undervalue the importance of home news. Those who listen to Maltese programs still want to keep in touch with events in the home country.
A grave injustice
I believe that a grave injustice has been done in the allocation of SBS radio programs which should be remedied
without waiting for another decade or two to redress these wrongs. The reliance on census statistics to award the lion’s share to the well-established, power-wielding large communities will lead to gross inequalities that are indefensible.
A more realistic criterion would have been an assessment of the use made of radio hours by any of the communities in question. Talk-backs and radiothons have shown that some of the smaller communities, including Maltese, make far more use of the radio programs than other much larger communities. This is a better indication of need than mere numbers of speakers within a community.
Complaining to SBS
Maltese everywhere should show their displeasure and disappointment by writing and complaining to SBS. They should also contact their local federal and state parliamentary representative to enlist their support. We must make ourselves heard. Unfortunately, for far too long it has been assumed that Maltese will take whatever is doled out to them without any complaint, but this has to change. We, as a community, need to make a stand so that we do not lose what has been so hard to gain in the past.
SBS claims to have consulted the ethnic communities in their deliberations. Eight months ago the MCCV communicated its views to SBS, raising several issues with the then proposed criteria and emphasizing the importance of appreciating the special needs of the Maltese community. In summary, the MCCV highlighted the lack of weighting for those who are elderly, home-bound, lack computer literacy, and particularly the down-grading of the concept of multiculturalism, which emphasizes the need for connectivity with the original culture. It appears that the compelling points that the MCCV raised went totally unheeded by SBS.
The MCCV strongly urges SBS to reconsider the allocation of weekly hours to Maltese language programs in the new schedule in light of the genuine needs of the ageing members of our community and bring the allocation into line with similar well-established smaller communities increasing it to, at least, five hours of air time per week.