Questioned the SBS view on the controversy surrounding ‘The Promise’ in Australia and the UK.
I enjoyed the program. I thank SBS for sending copies of the program. Because of parliamentary commitments I had not seen it. I have now managed to see it. I knew there was going to be a controversy. I enjoyed it. It has had some critical acclaim, hasn’t it?
Whole interaction with Mr Michael Ebeid (SBS Managing Director) during Senate Estimates (Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Portfolio).
CHAIR: As you are probably aware, there has been a lot of controversy around the drama The Promise. Obviously there is a fair bit of interest here but I do not want to have the whole of estimates dealing with The Promise, so can you just give the committee your view on the controversy arising over that drama.
Mr Ebeid : We are certainly aware that any program that we have, whether a documentary or a drama, as this was, that concerns Israel and Palestine certainly has the potential to cause a lot of controversy, as this program did. I want to firstly emphasise that it was a drama. It was not and has never been purported to be a factual or documentary program. It is a work of fiction that really presents the filmmaker’s perspectives on some historical events through the eyes of fictional characters. As a consequence, the program was reviewed thoroughly by our acquisitions team and it was then referred to me to allow me to view it before it went to air. I might add that it was not referred to me because of any concern about us breaching our codes. It was simply referred to me because it was going to cause controversy and all controversial programs are referred to me.
The filmmaker’s key objective in making this drama was to tell the story of the British soldiers who were there during the British mandate period in the late forties. The soldiers there believed that their story was untold. The filmmaker was prompted to do this based on a letter that was sent to him from some of the British soldiers saying their story had not been told. The project spent nine years conducting a lot of research into historical events and interviewed over 80 British soldiers who were there at the time of the British mandate.
As anticipated, the program did cause some controversy here in Australia, as it did in the UK. In a response to that controversy, after the first episode we had several discussions with some of the Jewish community affairs groups in both Sydney and Melbourne. In response to that, we tried to make sure that all of our audience members were well aware that it was a drama and so we placed a statement at the beginning of the following three episodes—it was a four-part show—to remind audiences that this was a work of fiction and a drama.
SBS did have a number of complaints. Some were before the program even aired but most were during and after the program. They went through our normal complaints review process. They went to our SBS ombudsman, who is an independent ombudsman at SBS, and then went to our complaints committee. That long-established process, which has been very successful process, concluded that, while the program clearly did take a point of view, it was not in any way racist and did not negatively stereotype any race or group.
I would remind the committee that SBS programming can be controversial and at times provocative and may at times be distasteful or offensive to some viewers. Not all viewpoints presented by SBS—or any broadcaster, for that matter—will be shared by all audiences. I guess that is the nature of television. But I think SBS definitely has a role to play in presenting difficult or controversial perspectives and showing different perspectives on these controversial issues.
All the complainants that we responded to were advised at the end of their letter that if there were any issues or they were not happy and wished to appeal the matter they would go through the normal course of events. In the formal process the next step would be to go to ACMA and they are obviously welcome to do that.
CHAIR: There was a similar controversy in the UK when it was aired there, wasn’t there?
Mr Ebeid : There was. There was a very similar controversy. Their regulator, Ofcom, had about 43 complaints. Ofcom ruled that none of the 43 complaints could be upheld at all. They made a very similar finding to our committee’s conclusions, which was that it was not racist in any way and did not negatively stereotype any group.
CHAIR: I enjoyed the program. I thank SBS for sending copies of the program. Because of parliamentary commitments I had not seen it. I have now managed to see it. I knew there was going to be a controversy. I enjoyed it. It has had some critical acclaim, hasn’t it?
Mr Ebeid : It certainly has. It has received many awards around the world. Our film editors here in Australia and in the UK have written it up. The Sydney Morning Herald said that it was the drama of the year and that it was a beautifully filmed and shot drama, with very complex characters. That also makes it controversial. The characters are very complex. And the storyline is very complex and interwoven as well. So it is certainly not a light drama.