Last Monday’s Media Watch reported a stoush between its host station ABC and fellow national broadcaster SBS. Australia’s two public television networks are involved in an ugly squabble over the rights to footage for separate documentaries on John Howard’s time in government to be aired on either channel in the next 12 months. The footage required belongs to ABC who have reneged on an earlier deal to supply SBS in order to protect the ratings of its own product. Given that the taxpayer pays for both channels, the stoush is all the more ludicrous and counter-productive, and the fault is almost entirely that of the ABC.
The SBS project was conceived in 2006 when Sydney documentary filmmakers Nick Torrens and Frank Haines approached the broadcaster to make a make a three part series called “Liberal Rules” on the Liberal Party over the last 30 years. The documentary would be presented by Gary Sturgess, journalist, lawyer and a fellow documentary maker. They then attempted to secure funding and approached ABC in April 2007 to acquire archival material for their show.
Media Watch obtained the email correspondence which showed that ABC offered to provide 60 minutes of footage at a discount price of $160,000. While the generous offer was half of ABC’s normal going rate, Torrens and Haines had not fully secured their funding. They thanked the ABC for the offer and promised to get back to them. Fast forward one year to May 2008 and the SBS team had their funding in place and were ready to activate ABC’s offer. But something had changed in the interim. Haines’s email to order the material encountered only a deafening silence from ABC library sales.
Finally weeks later, they responded. And the response was brief and to the point: “After discussion with our News and Current Affairs division we have decided that we cannot supply footage for your production at this time.” A stunned Haines wrote to ABC Managing Director asking for an explanation on the change of heart. Scott responded sticking to the line that the ABC maintained it had not agreed to licence the footage. The ABC library manager followed up with another email with a softer line that suggested ABC would be prepared to licence the material on the condition that the use of the material “would commence on date not before January 2009”.
As David Tiley points out in his excellent and scathing article on the stoush, the production company had no power over that question, which is the province of the broadcaster. And SBS were unhappy with the embargo, planning to show the series later this year. Torrens and Haines followed up on this point with Media Watch stating reasonably that as the ABC archive is a publicly funded resource it had no justification for placing an embargo on the use of its material by independent documentary producers.
When Media Watch addressed their questions to Scott and the ABC board, they were referred to ABC’s head of national programs, Alan Sunderland. Sunderland began his response by talking about the ABC’s own documentary called The Howard Years which ABC was now scripting and editing. He said the ABC would require exclusive access to the archive and claims no agreement was reached in 2007 with the SBS team. It was his idea to put in place the embargo. He claimed the use of ABC footage by outside parties was always of “secondary importance” and said SBS had its own extensive archive. According to Sunderland, the ABC was under “no moral obligation” to make the material available.
Sunderland’s reply was incorrect on many counts. Firstly he did not accurately state the nature of SBS’s reply to ABC’s offer (though in fairness, Haines email was ambiguous and he should have explicitly agreed on the spot, pending finance). Secondly SBS’s archive is nowhere near as extensive as ABC’s (as Sunderland would well know as an ex-SBS employee) and the broadcaster itself did not exist prior to 1980. Thirdly, it makes no reference to the fact that SBS is also a public broadcaster, whose primary responsibility is also to make programs for the Australian public. Tiley called the response “arrogant horseshit” and said the ABC has a responsibility to make available the heritage of its program making, as part of the Australian cultural fabric.
The SBS filmmakers were equally unimpressed and are now scrambling to find the material they need from the commercial broadcasters (at probably much higher cost). They released a statement saying the ABC had no justification to place the embargo, and turn down commercial opportunity of archive recoupment in the process. “For us, this is a clear and salutary reminder of Australia’s new and commercially competitive public broadcasting environment,” said the filmmakers. “The implications for filmmakers, audiences and taxpayers of these decisions and events are dire and of great importance.”