Review into SBS and ABC independence launched

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland announced the review on Friday.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland announced the review on Friday. Photo: AAP

There have been renewed calls for Australia’s national broadcasters to receive more funding, after the government launched a review into ways to protect the SBS and ABC from political interference and avoid “captain’s picks” from stacking their boards.

A government review will attempt to resolve two long-running problems for Australia’s national broadcasters: How funding can be protected from government interference and how to avoid political “captain’s picks” stacking the boards.

The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts review is currently open to public submissions and “will consider how best to provide greater certainty for announced funding,” and “consider governance arrangements to protect against political interference”.

ABC Friends president Cassandra Parkinson said there are two main issues for the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcast Service (SBS).

“Firstly, they need a funding mechanism that can protect them against cuts or threats of cuts because if an organisation is dependent on government for its funding, but at any time the government can take away that funding, it creates a nervousness about reporting independently,” she told The New Daily on Monday.

“Secondly, it needs a transparent and accountable process for appointing people to its governing board, as well as a clear structural separation between management and the board. That’s just good governance.”

Funding under threat

The ABC board told a Senate estimates hearing in 2022 that its funding had been cut by $526 million since the Coalition formed government in 2013.

The Labor government since winning the 2022 election has changed the ABC’s funding model from a three-year cycle to five years and returned annual inflation indexing – equal to around $84 million in 2022 – frozen by the previous government.

ABC SBS senate committee

The Labor Party returned some of the funding cut by the former Coalition government when elected in 2022. Photo: AAP

Research director at the Australia Institute Rod Campbell said while governments need to be able to make decisions around budgetary funding decisions, good public broadcasters need independence to operate properly.

“Formerly, having the ABC on a three-year funding cycle made it intensely political and subject to a lot of government whim,” he said.

“Having a funding cycle that goes beyond not just the next election, but the one after that really strikes the balance.”

The review won’t consider the amount of funding the organisations receive; merging the two; changes to their legislative or corporate charters; funding terms or models, or changes to advertising restriction and limits.

Ms Parkinson said ABC Friends will continue to push for more funding towards public broadcasting, despite the total dollar figure not being a part of the review.

“We’re getting a fraction of the Australian drama that we used to have – it’s around 30 per cent of what we had a few years ago – you get less investigative reporting and fewer chances for journalists to really follow up stories,” she said.

“While we’ve welcomed the improvements the federal government has made to restore the last lot of funding cuts that Scott Morrison had made, nevertheless, it’s still just a drop in the ocean.”


The review will also consider political influence on the ABC and SBS boards, and whether the current ‘independent’ nomination panel process is fit for purpose.

Ms Parkinson said the process “has been breached numerous times”.

“There have been captain picks that have undermined confidence and trust in the ABC,” she said.

“People think it’s just being run by a whole lot of political appointees, not necessarily by people with the expertise required or people who aren’t partisan.”

Currently, the nomination panel advertises vacancies before assessing applications “against a merit-based selection criteria”. It nominates at least three people in a report to the government, before the government recommends a nominee for the vacancy to the Governor-General to rubber-stamp.

Mr Campbell said the former Coalition government was infamous for ignoring the panel’s recommendations, but the Labor Party has done the same in the past.

“The current appointment process involves some consultation, but still gives ministers an option to ignore that,” he said.

“We’ve been recommending that the appointment process should be formalised and expanded to include a genuinely cross-party committee in addition to the Leader of the Opposition.”

Around half of the 10 ABC board appointments since the nomination board came into effect in late 2012 weren’t recommended by the nomination panel, according to the Minister, Ms Rowland.

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