OPINION. After several weeks’ of canvassing, negotiations, signing of petitions, and writing emails and letters of support, SBS has finally delivered its verdict in relation to what the Maltese language program is going to look like as from 29 April.
For the last 20 years, the Maltese community has benefitted from a generous allocation of radio time on SBS: 9 hours of programming per week. Suddenly, in November of last year, the community was faced with a bombshell: the programs would be cut down to 2 hours per week, a reduction of 78 per cent!
The reason that SBS gave was that the number of persons speaking Maltese has now fallen from around 56,000 to 34,000, a reduction of 40 per cent. They argued that these statistics put us in a category with other ethnic groups whose numbers ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 and who also were allocated two hours per week.
We argued strongly that firstly, compared to other ethnic communities of the same size, the Maltese community had significant needs which were not being met. Secondly, we also argued that slashing the number of hours so drastically so suddenly was inequitable. Thirdly, we objected strongly to the fact that no real consultation with the Maltese community took place prior to the announcement of the new program schedule last November.
The Maltese community united in condemning this action by SBS. We wrote to the SBS Board complaining strongly against this unilateral action and the lack of consultation which ignored the special needs of the Maltese community. Posts on social media and a barrage of emails to SBS crowded the cyberspace, sent by Members of Parliament, Maltese associations, individuals, both Maltese and others from all over Australia. For the first time in Australia, a petition of over 3,000 signatures organised by the MCCV was sent to the Minister responsible for radio and communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, and the SBS Board.
What did we get for our trouble?
On Friday 12 April, after three-and-a-half months of negotiations, and two weeks before the new radio Schedule takes effect, the final decision of the SBS Board was announced. In effect, we obtained another two one-hour programs, in addition to the two which were originally announced. This is an increase of 100 per cent on what we had, and therefore represents a very significant achievement on our part, particularly in view of the intransigence of the administrative body at SBS, and the acknowledged difficulty of changing schedules once these have been announced. In addition we managed to retain the much desired program on Saturday which had disappeared in the original revised schedule.
I believe that four hours of SBS Maltese radio program represent fairly our position within the Australian community. Unfortunately, the two extra programs will be broadcast on ‘digital/TV only’ as opposed to ‘analogue’ (FM) radio. This is not ideal and will involve a considerable degree of education of our ageing community in relation to accessing these programs.
I believe we have done as well as could be expected. I wish to publicly thank all those who became involved in these efforts. In particular, I thank the High Commissioner for Malta, Mr Francis Tabone, the Council of NSW, particularly Mr Fred Fenech, President, and Mr Lawrence Dimech, Vice President, the presidents of the various organisations, and in particular Mr Joe Attard, the members of the federal and state parliaments, local councillors and all those who sent letters, emails, posted comments on the SBS Facebook page and in other ways showed their displeasure with the SBS decision.
However, the saga hasn’t quite ended here.
Funding of additional Maltese programs
We were advised by SBS at the latest meeting that the additional two hours will be funded from within the existing radio budget. SBS also indicated that SBS commits to funding the additional two hours on SBS 3 digital for two years (until the end of the 2014/15 financial year), the funding situation will be reviewed at the end of the two years and the additional hours on SBS 3 digital cannot be guaranteed past the end of the 2014/15 financial year.
While we understand that no organisation can over-stretch its resources beyond the available funds, we would object most strongly if the Maltese language programs would be subject to revision in isolation. We believe that any re-scheduling should affect all programs and not limited to Maltese on a ‘last in, first out’ policy. We argued against this funding treatment, as selecting the additional two Maltese programs for a different treatment from the rest could only be perceived as a form of discrimination. We argued that the review of the funding situation of the Maltese programs should be part of the overall schedule review after the 2016 Census.
We believe strongly that the greatest inequity in the whole revised schedule is the excessive program time allocated to the six largest communities, which have been given two hours per day, and which therefore has resulted in the allocation of 34 per cent of total time available, with the other 68 ethnic communities having to share what’s left over.
Naturally, we will need to fight for the retention of the additional two Maltese programs for another year past the end of the 2014/15 financial year and until the 2016 Census review, when the time comes.
Next SBS radio schedule review
What can the Maltese community do to ensure fair representation and a reasonable share of SBS radio time in future? As long as SBS will continue to put highest priority on census data, it is unlikely that we will be able to maintain this level of programming in the future.
It is essential to ensure that we emphasize the extent of Maltese language use. To claim that all Maltese speak English “well” or “very well”, as claimed by the vast majority of Maltese in the last census, is equivalent of asking for a massive reduction of radio time in future. Of the 43,000 persons born in Malta only about half admit to speaking Maltese at home. This has been one of the main reasons for our problems, and we should do our utmost to ensure that a fairer picture of our needs is clearly given in future censuses.