Monday, August 27, 2007

Oh No! The "Revered" Mary Kostakidis to Leave SBS?

One of the things I miss most about Australian television is SBS – the Special Broadcasting Service, one of two government funded Australian public broadcasting networks (the other being the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, known back home as the ABC).

The purpose of SBS, which was launched in 1979, is to “provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society.”

From the start, notes journalist Damien Murphy, this charter “gave [SBS] carte blanche . . . Bankrolled by taxpayers who rarely bothered to watch to check how their money was being spent, the new channel was innovative, risk-taking and exciting, providing a forum for many social issues, such as gay rights and the green movement, long before they entered mainstream debate.” As a result, the station soon began gaining a loyal following.

By far my favorite show on the station is SBS World News – in large part, I must admit, because of the program’s elegant, well-informed, and articulate anchor, Mary Kostakidis, who for the past twenty years has been presenting the station’s prime time evening news bulletin.

Yet according to recent news reports from Australia, Mary Kostakidis, whom viewers consistently rank as SBS’s most trusted news anchor, may soon no longer be working for the station. Indeed, according to columnist Paul Sheehan, she’s already “walked off the job and hired . . . Julian Burnside, QC, as counsel for a reported tilt at her employer for breach of contract.”

In their August 22 Sydney Morning Herald article on this sad turn-of-events, Michael Idato and Sue Wellings note that Kostakidis’ walk-out is “the final chapter in a feud that has been simmering for more than a year in a war that pits SBS’s groundbreaking past against its uncertain future.”

“On opposite sides of the fight,” write Idato and Wellings, “are Kostakidis, who is revered within SBS as something of a people’s monarch – wise, courageous and willing to speak her mind despite a claimed culture of fear and silence – and a corporate bureaucracy installed in 2006, whose attempts to homogenise, commercialise and Anglicise the multicultural broadcaster have been frustrated by the power of the Kostakidis aura.”

“Kostakidis,” Idato and Welling report, “is a staunch traditionalist who wants SBS to remain true to the spirit of its charter – that foreign language should not be considered a barrier to television. ‘Mary really does represent the one remaining link to the original idea of SBS,’ an insider said.”

A friend of the newsreader and journalist has told Fairfax media that Kostakidis is “personally offended by the money-grubbing commercialisation of the [recently revamped SBS World News program], and feels management are abandoning the kind of principles with which SBS was set up, and she personally helped devise.”

Idato and Welling also note that the “dignified” Kostakidis “has made her dissatisfaction with the commercialisation of the SBS news well known for some time, speaking publicly of her concern over the introduction of commercial breaks in the news.”

Recently, things came to a head on-air with the broadcasting of an “entertainment story” about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. While co-anchor Stan Grant, brought in earlier this year as part of the “revamping” of SBS World News, was clearly willing to make light of the story, it was clearly all too much for Kostakidis, compelling her to remark after the segment that it was “a silly story about a silly bloke.”

The contentious “introduction of commercial breaks in the news” actually took place during my sojourn in Australia earlier this year, and I can well recall my anger and disappointment. It seemed as if SBS was selling-out, was becoming like the commercial networks, becoming that little bit more Americanized. I wondered at the time what Mary thought of it all. Now I know.

Mary Kostakidis on the way to a meeting with SBS lawyers on August 23.
The television station said discussions would continue into next week.
(Photo: Peter Rae)

I hope this issue can be resolved in such away that the station can return to its roots and Mary Kostakidis to Australian television screens. This seems unlikely, however, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports one insider saying that “SBS is slowly being transformed from a TV station into a website . . . Where it was run by people who really were passionate about the content, it is now ruled by accountants and driven by profit.”

Another SBS insider has observed that “most of the people who represented [the station’s] traditions have been forced out and the audience hasn’t increased much at all . . . There is no upside to the story.”

How depressing!


On a lighter note: During my teaching days in Goulburn, Australia, it was common knowledge that “Mr. Bayly” was a fan of Mary Kostakidis. Whenever I used a news clip to introduce and facilitate discussion on a topical issue, it would always be a clip from SBS World News.

And in 1991, when my Year 5 class role-played a confrontation between loggers and environmentalists, I had one of the students, Danielle Lewin, play Mary Kostakidis reporting (and thus introducing) the issue. And yes, she did a great job!

Recommended Off-site Links:
Mary Kostakidis Walks Out on SBS - Sydney Morning Herald, August 21, 2007.
The Abdication of Queen Mary – Kostakidis Walks - Sydney Morning Herald, August 22, 2007.
Mary Kostakidis Engages Top QC in SBS Row -, August 22, 2007.
Kostakidis in Bitter SBS Sign-off - The Australian, August 22, 2007.
Boys Society Sunk Kostakidis’ Charter -, August 23, 2007.
After the Separation, Crisis Talks Begin - Sydney Morning Herald, August 24, 2007.
Face of a Network Falls Silent - Sydney Morning Herald, August 25, 2007.
There Has Been a Cultural Genocide at SBS - Margaret Pomeranz (, August 27, 2007).
In TV’s Graveyard of Broken Dreams - Sydney Morning Herald, August 29, 2007.
Larvatus Prodeo (for some interesting comments from Australians about Mary’s “walk-out”).
Bring Back the Goddess (views from readers of The Australian newspaper).
Queen Mary and the Tabloid Hack (a commentary by OnePlanetMikey).
Don’t Mess with Mary Kostakidis (a commentary from the Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe blog).
To Grey or Not to Grey (for yet another reason for why I think Mary Kostakidis is so cool).
Support Mary Kostikidis (an online petition).

November 2007 Update:
Kostakidis Strikes “Amicable” Deal with SBS - Dylan Welsh, Sydney Morning Herald, November 23, 2007.

December 2007 Update: Mary Kostakidis’ former co-anchor, Stan Grant has resigned from SBS to “further his opportunities.” On December 17,
Anton Enus became the lead anchor of the SBS World News program.


Postscript: Since posting this story I’ve found in my files an issue of the SBS magazine, Aerial, from April 1993.

In this particular issue there is an insightful interview with Kostakidis, in which she talks about her history with SBS, the role of women in television and the news, the image she seeks to project as a newsreader, her status as a role model for young people, and why she thinks it’s reasonable for news coverage to be graphic when it comes to the issue of war.

Following are excerpts:

Mary Kostakidis: Changing Views

By Danny Vadasz
Aerial, April 1993

Mary Kostakidis is the woman behind the news behind the desk
at SBS.
She agreed to step out of her role as impartial communicator
long enough
to tell Danny Vadasz what she really thinks
television, the world, and one woman’s role.

Danny Vadasz: What was the process by which you became a newsreader?

Mary Kostakidis: I’ve had a long term interest in public affairs. Not just public affairs, it’s a broader interest in how societies organize themselves, and a fascination about how we communicate information. Because it’s access to information that empowers people. But I joined SBS as a member of the management team in subtitling.

Danny Vadasz: Doesn’t that sort of interest suggest a career as an anthropologist?

Mary Kostakidis: Well, again with communication it’s language. I’m a linguist by training.

Danny Vadasz: And from there?

Mary Kostakidis: From there I managed subtitling and censorship. We are self regulated so we classify our own material. I did that for a number of years, then a job in news came up.

Danny Vadasz: And you had no “on air” experience before that?

Mary Kostakidis: No, not really.

Danny Vadasz: That’s a pretty bold and dramatic step, wouldn’t you say?

Mary Kostakidis: It’s very important to be bold, wouldn’t you say?

Danny Vadasz: But that’s a risk that takes particular courage because it is so public. It’s one thing to launch into something, fall flat on your face, and then crawl away. But you’re doing it in front of a nationwide television audience. It must have been scary?

Mary Kostakidis: I think once you’ve done something absolutely terrible, devastating on air, and you survive it, then you feel equipped to handle anything.

Danny Vadasz: What was it?

Mary Kostakidis: I don’t remember.

Danny Vadasz: I bet you do!

Mary Kostakidis: I think experiences like that are important. They equip you to deal better with life generally. You need skills for dealing with failure and vulnerability, for exercising the right amount of control.

Danny Vadasz: The question of women’s roles in television and in news. You obviously have a fairly clear philosophy as to what you want to achieve. Do you regard yourself as a feminist?

Mary Kostakidis: I think the label attracts a lot of flak, which is the reason I hesitate. There is no doubt that women have had to fight for what they have achieved. But there comes a point where you no longer want to continually fighting, and you don’t want to be perceived to be continually fighting. There has to be a balance, so that you are comfortable in what you do.

Danny Vadasz: Do you think the word feminist has become too confrontational?

Mary Kostakidis: I think it has always been confrontational. I don’t want to be reacting all the time, and I think that a way of dealing with conflict is to be pro-active, and to determine from the outset the currency of the transaction, whatever it may be.

Danny Vadasz: And sometimes perhaps to step around the hurdles rather than take them front on?

Mary Kostakidis: It depends. Sometimes there’s nothing like taking a hurdle front on.

Danny Vadasz: Labels aside, superficially there have been huge changes in the presence of women in television over the last ten years. Once there were no women anchor presenters, now everybody’s got one. Is that a significant breakthrough? Does it mean women are now considered as credible? Do you have to be pretty to be a news reader?

Mary Kostakidis: I think, unfortunately, the answer to that would have to be yes. I don’t want to make judgment on the way I look, but women in current affairs are judged by different standards; I mean if you’re male you are regarded as effective and analytical or witty. If you’re female you are considered to be an aggressive bitch. . . .

Danny Vadasz: Does the increased presence of women in news reading flow through to other areas of the media, such as positions of management, or in senior production positions?

Mary Kostakidis: I don’t think so. That is largely the problem. We need to have more women in executive positions in the media. Because it is only then they can have an input into decision making. The fact that we have women on television is terrific, because it acknowledges that 51 per cent of the population are women, but the sorts of women, the image of women that is portrayed is still very narrow.

Danny Vadasz: This is very much an image industry. What sort of image do you project?

Mary Kostakidis: I hope when people listen to the bulletin, that I’m able to communicate information rather than have them focus too much on who happens to be presenting the news. I mean, people comment on the way you look, but if I can deliver the news and if people can relate to the humanity of what I have to say, that’s important.

When I first started reading news, there was a lot of emphasis on being a woman. But when you are actually there, your gender or your ethnicity, all those other things recede into the background. It is not to say that people are not conscious of the fact that you are a woman, and they might be distracted by the colour of your hair for an instant, but predominantly it is your credibility they will relate to.

Danny Vadasz: My impression of you is that you are a very private person, and yet you’re in the most public profession possible. Is there a conflict between maintaining your privacy, and yet being in front of everybody every night of the week?

Mary Kostakidis: No, it’s not a problem, because I am not speaking about my private life. It’s not an issue. I find that, working for SBS, there isn’t the same media hype about being on-camera. . . [Also] I don't see why, because you are a news or current affairs presenter, that you automatically have to discuss the ins and outs of your private life.

Danny Vadasz: Are you conscious of creating a role for other women, in particular young women?

Mary Kostakidis: I talk to young people quite a lot. I enjoy going out to schools and speaking to them face to face, because I think it is important for them to see that what you see on the screen is not necessarily what you get. Often television will convey a particular image because that’s what is required. I enjoy the opportunity of talking to the kids about television, and what it is like working in television. You find they are quite surprised to be confronted with a multi-faceted person, who is in fact ordinary in the sense that they can relate comfortably to you . . .

What I want to communicate to these kids is that everyone is special and you need to have the confidence, and the desire to take an enormous leap in life.

Danny Vadasz: What about the amount of violence we see in the news. For instance, the way that during an event like the Gulf War it’s all there in your bedroom as it happens, I suppose ever since Vietnam.

Mary Kostakidis: It’s not really. We didn’t really see people dying in the Gulf War. One hundred thousand people were incinerated, and we did not see one dead body. And that is the point I’m trying to make. I don’t believe we should be protected from what is happening. It is appropriate to be distressed, you can’t gloss things over, which is why coverage of the Gulf War was distressing. Talking about the smart bombs softening up the enemy. They were talking about incinerating people.

Danny Vadasz: Do you think it quite reasonable for news coverage to be very graphics, when it comes to violent issues? Even at an early evening time slot?

Mary Kostakidis: Yes.

Danny Vadasz: At a time where there is a huge push to decrease the amount of violence kids are being exposed to?

Mary Kostakidis: I think the news is an exception. I think parents have a responsibility to watch with their children. For a start, a lot of children are not interested in news, unfortunately, and if they are going to sit and watch a bulletin, then I think it is the parents’ responsibility to exercise control and make a decision on whether they feel it’s appropriate for their child.

Danny Vadasz: But as a working mother you must realize better than most how difficult it is to monitor this?

Mary Kostakidis: I also realize that children don’t elect to watch news. They are watching soaps on the other channels, which does far more damage because they are generally about people who are emotionally stunted and have an extremely limited vocabulary and way of communicating. That is depressing.

Excerpted from the April 1993 issue of the SBS “viewers’ companion,” Aerial.

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