It’s not every day that a television broadcaster launches a new news program, and it’s even rarer that it launches two in the same evening. But that’s precisely what will happen on Monday when SBS airs mostly Australian newscasts in Arabic and Mandarin, the country’s most widely spoken languages other than English.
Additionally, it will launch them on an all-new dedicated channel, SBS WorldWatch – the network’s sixth linear television offering, alongside SBS, SBS Food, Viceland, World Movies and NITV.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Ali Bahnasawy, one of three presenters of the Arabic-language bulletin, which will air at 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“It’s very rare for a network to launch a newsletter now – it’s difficult, complicated, resource intensive. But it’s exciting to be able to talk to people through a medium they trust. They have a kind of connection to SBS, and it makes you feel a bit more valued when you hear the news from the country you live in, in your own language.
However, it’s not just about getting a warm, fuzzy feel. The idea of connecting with different ethnic communities by speaking to them in their own language is embedded in the SBS charter, which identifies its core function as providing “multilingual, multicultural broadcast and digital media services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and in doing so reflect Australia’s multicultural society.
It’s a mission Mandi Wicks, the network’s director of news and current affairs, keeps in mind. “The goal of SBS is to strengthen social cohesion in Australia,” she says. “It’s about giving a voice to these different language communities, celebrating their cultures.”
Wicks has been in the role for about 18 months, before which she ran language services for about eight years. This meant overseeing over 200 journalists producing content for radio, podcasts and online in over 68 languages.
Overall, however, the work they produce has not found its way to television. But Wicks aims to foster much more platform-agnostic cross-pollination in newsrooms, and hopes that some elements of the new services will eventually make their way to the mainstream. world news circular, and vice versa.
In addition to local content from language services teams, SBS also receives feeds from foreign news providers. So far, they have been inserted into the schedule of other channels, mainly on SBS and Viceland. From Monday, foreign language streams will move to WorldWatch. The streams in English and the flagship of the network world news 6:30 p.m. bulletin, will remain on the main channel.
Five days a week, WorldWatch will broadcast the two new local bulletins, covering primarily Australian news, in the 8:00 p.m. (Arabic) and 8:30 p.m. (Mandarin) timeslots. They use the same studio and decorate as world news (only the color scheme changes thanks to the magic of the LED strip lighting), and although there is a comfortable 30 minute delay between the English and Arabic bulletins, the Mandarin crew is under five minutes to intervene.
Funding for the new services comes from an additional $29 million over three years allocated by the federal government last May to expand SBS language services. But putting together two teams of reporters-producers-presenters – nine each – from scratch was no small feat.
On the Arab side, that meant reaching out to professional journalists who might not have worked in the industry since arriving in Australia a decade ago. For the mandarins, the challenge was of a completely different order.
“It was really hard to find people who understood our journalistic principles of factual, independently verifiable and unbiased reporting, because that’s just not the culture they grew up with,” says Mary-Ruth Monsour, who was released from his regular team. role of supervising producer on world news to guide the launch of new newsletters.
Rena Li, one of the three Mandarin newsletter anchors, had precisely no experience reading the news when she landed a role at SBS last year. The 30-year-old journalist, raised in Beijing, arrived in Australia in 2016 on a working holiday visa, “but I found a full-time job in Chinese community media, so I’ve never been on vacation, I only work”.
Li started with 15-minute bulletins on SBS On Demand, where the two new services have been soft-launching for the past two months, before moving to full 30-minute reading. The service is important, she believes, because “the Chinese community in Australia struggles to find reliable information”.
She cites the example of students she met while working as an investigative reporter at the Chinese language news site sydney today. “They had been defrauded but they told me they were afraid to report it to the police because they feared getting a bad reputation on their visa.”
Recruiting talent wasn’t the only challenge Wicks and his team faced. “What’s exciting is that you’re really a pioneer,” she says. “The challenge is that almost every touchpoint in the production of television news needs to be refined or modified.”
A key issue is that the text input system doesn’t like Mandarin or Arabic script very much, and it really doesn’t support text that runs from right to left. This sometimes played havoc with the autocue, one of the most essential elements of any TV newsroom.
“You can just lose the system fonts,” she says. “Our TV side of the business hadn’t had to deal with this before.”
Despite the subtitles and Scandi-noir, it’s easy for English speakers to lose sight of the centrality of the language to the ambitious project that was and still is the Special Broadcasting Service.
It began life in 1975 as two radio stations, 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne, each originally licensed for just three months with the aim of informing ethnic communities of the Federal Government’s plans to introduce Medibank (the precursor to the Whitlam era of Medicare). In 1978, it became SBS, and in 1980 the television channel was launched.
At the time, the dominant languages were Greek, Italian, Maltese and Polish. The mix is now much wider, the weighting very different and every five years the broadcaster undertakes a review to ensure it is prioritizing groups appropriately based on their numbers in the community and their needs. According to the 2016 census, Mandarin was the dominant language among the 5 million Australians who speak a language other than English at home, followed by Arabic. Any changes from the most recent review, based on the 2021 census results, will begin to materialize next year.
Much of the impetus for the new bulletins came, Wicks says, from the pandemic, and the renewed sense that SBS had a key role to play in communicating vital health guidelines to its disparate audiences in a way that they could easily understand.
“Within five days [of the pandemic being declared in March 2020], we realized we had to set up a coronavirus portal,” she says. “The restrictions changed sometimes twice a day, and we realized we had to be that essential service, just like in 1975.”
But beyond the immediate health concerns, it is the notion of a harmonious society made up of many disparate parts that guides SBS.
“It’s important that newsletters also reflect other cultures and communities within their department,” says Wicks. “We request that the Mandarin service cover Ramadan [and] the Arab service covers the Lunar New Year because it is part of the remit of social cohesion. She adds that multicultural communities “are really interested in First Nations stories – they want to understand the history, the issues, to have a point of view”.
Achieving this mission begins at the start of each day, when the various news divisions come together to talk about what they cover. “The teams – world newsNITV, the Arabic and Mandarin services – draw inspiration from each other, to build that understanding so that we are a more cohesive community,” says Wicks.
“We listen to each other and understand where each other is coming from.”