Another day, another SBS journalist sacked

Another day, another SBS journalist sacked for saying the wrong thing. Or rather, in this case, for thinking the wrong thing, for Marion Ives’s offence seems to consist merely of sharing, without comment, an article on Facebook.

According to New Matilda, Ives, who had been working at SBS in various capacities for seven years, posted on her personal FB page a piece by Helen Vatsikopoulos complaining of a lack of diversity in the network’s hiring policies. The next day, she was informed she’d receive no further shifts.

An extraordinary management strategy, you might think: to protect SBS from media criticism over its HR policies by dispatching an employee in a way guaranteed to generate media criticism over its HR policies. One can imagine the blaring announcement over the internal public address system: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

But there’s more going on here than ineptitude.

Since the election of the Abbott government, the public broadcasters have become regular punching bags, with the conservative media running a concerted campaign against the ABC – particularly after Murdoch’s Sky TV lost out on the tender for the Australian Network. A booming industry has developed for tedious prigs willing to scour the TV and radio grids in search of content by which they can be offended.

This barrage of ginned-up outrage about bias on Q&A or Peppa Pig’s political philosophies obscures the obvious point that the conservative animus is motivated less by the failures of the state-funded broadcasters than by their successes. Despite being starved for funds for years, the ABC remains, as every survey shows, one of the best-loved institutions in Australia. In his excellent little book The Media, Keith Windschuttle (back when he was a Marxist) argued that the Fraser’s government’s relentless attacks on the ABC did not, irrespective of what it said, derive from its antipathy to specific programming. Rather, ‘it fitted the overall anti-public sector philosophy of that government and its desire to promote private services in the areas of education, health and the media at the expense of public institutions, no matter how successfully the latter may have performed.’

In that context, the baffling decisions at SBS and ABC are often seen as desperate attempts to curry favour with a hostile government. If we show Malcolm Turnbull our willingness to jettison offending reporters, maybe we’ll insulate our budget from the next round of cuts.

But that’s to misunderstand how management works. The willingness to cave to external criticism – indeed, often to cave preemptively to it – isn’t even a kind of Stockholm syndrome. It’s more a reflection that those at the top echelons of the public service have pretty much the same views as those criticising them, especially when it comes to industrial relations.

For, if you look more closely at this latest incident, it’s less a story about contemporary media than a parable about the modern workplace. How was the network able to tell Ives so bluntly, and with so little notice, that she no longer had a job? Because she was a casual worker, of course, employed on the basis that increasingly predominates throughout the media, education, health and just about any other industry you can name. That’s the meaning of the industrial flexibility so loved by employers – the ability to terminate someone at the drop of a hat for more or less any reason whatsoever – and it works the same way in a public broadcaster as it does in the private sector.

The erosion of the rights that employees once took for granted has been accompanied by an equally startling extension of the prerogatives of the employer. On the one hand, the boss has no responsibility to keep you on after next week; on the other, you have to accept management’s rights to scrutinise your personal social media activity. In return for the possibility (and no more than the possibility) of ongoing work, you must ensure that, in between cat videos and Farmville updates, you do not express (or, indeed, even share) opinions contrary to whatever the corporate PR team judges good for the institution that might deem to give you some shifts.

That’s why it never even occurred to SBS that, in the wake of the McIntyre episode, purging another staff member in a similar manner might be bad public relations. It’s simply taken for granted that, in respect of casual employees, management can do whatever it pleases and no-one will even blink an eye.

Ives’ treatment shows how urgently we need to reorient the so-called debate that’s been playing out about free speech in this country. Why would you expect Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson to stand up for an employee being monstered over a FB post? Wilson’s paid nearly $400 000 by the taxpayer for his services, a remarkable figure that situates him in the top ranks of the public service, in the company of people (like the SBS managers) who know that they can say whatever they damn well choose without any sanction at all.

More generally, debating free speech as a human right is a disastrous strategy, since it’s in the context of employment where most people are silenced, and that’s an arena in which arguments about ‘rights’ invariably collapse into debates about the contractual relationship with the employer. (Sure, says Freedom Boy, you have a right to say whatever you want – but your boss has the right not to employ you, too. So, hey, let’s get back to real debates, such as the one about my right to use the word ‘nigger’.)

Or, to put it another way, freedom’s an industrial issue, one settled by the relative strengths of employers and employees, and free speech urgently needs to move up the trade union agenda. If not, the shenanigans at SBS provide a glimpse of the office of the future, a workplace in which you’re entitled to very little but expected to respond to your perpetual insecurity with nothing but Hosannas, expressed (perhaps on a quota basis) in the social media accounts that your bosses casually monitor.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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