Blind spot fix: rebuild Australia’s international voice
15 Oct 2018|

Australia is witnessing an explosion of blind spot exposures, as important institutions are blindsided by their own shortcomings.

The blind spot eruption reveals big organisations with incomplete vision, unable to see key elements of what they are and what they should do.

A royal commission exposes ethical and legal failings of the banks as they stared only at profits.

A government party room turns regicidal and beheads a prime minister, even as the government claws its way back in the polls and the election looms. The Liberal Party caucus turned inward and obsessed about itself, not the country. That’s a big blind spot moment.

And one of Australia’s vital journalistic and cultural institutions, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, went the full Oscar Wilde: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

For the ABC to mislay both its chairman and managing director in the same week is a blind spot epiphany. The chairman fired the managing director because she wouldn’t bend to his will; then the chairman had to go because he was too eager to bend to the government’s will. Amid the blunders, a blind spot bonanza!

Those at the top of the ABC and at the helm of the federal government lost sight of a central truth: the vital, defining value of the ABC’s editorial independence. In the words of a press gallery doyen, Michelle Grattan, the coalition government waged a ‘shock and awe’ campaign against Aunty that touched the dividing line between politicians’ legitimate whinging about coverage and ‘unacceptable political interference’.

The madness of thinking it’d be a great idea to fire troublesome ABC journalists (‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’) is a blind spot warning to government and other major institutions: the legitimacy of power is defined by its limits as well as its use.

In the catalogue of blind spots and the ABC, consider a new ASPI report—Hard news and free media as the sharp edge of Australian soft power, which is being launched in Canberra tomorrow night (a few seats still available).

The decline of Australian international broadcasting—in both cash and reach terms—is one of the untold stories of our strategic debate over the last decade. In few other areas of Australian international policy have focus and resources declined so markedly, with such little discussion in the policy community.

The argument I make in the ASPI strategy paper along with two of my hack heroes, Jemima Garrett and Geoff Heriot, is well summarised by Michael Shoebridge’s foreword:

Commentators and ministers have been concerned at the rise in influence of other states that don’t share Australian values and that seem to be using their power and influence in disruptive, and at times coercive, ways. Beyond concern, though, little seems to be being done to strengthen Australia’s voice and influence outside formal defence and development partnerships.

For about $75 million per year, Australia could fund a new separate arm of the ABC—the Australian International Broadcasting Corporation—to reach out and engage with audiences in Pacific states, and in nations across Asia, through a variety of platforms—online, mobile telephony, and traditional broadcast tools such as radio and satellite.

The influence and credibility that comes from an independent but state-funded broadcaster like the ABC has an impact far outweighing propaganda-driven content and broadcasts from state-owned media entities that are now broadcasting to the peoples in our near region—sometimes precisely because it’s critical of its ‘home’ government’s actions.

Jemima and I had a broadcast discussion of this (on the ABC naturally) with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live: ‘Is Australia losing its soft power the Asia Pacific?

Kicking off the interview, Adams referred to a piece I’d written about the launch of Australia’s international radio service in December 1939, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies famously declared: ‘The time has come to speak for ourselves.’

World War II woke Australia to the need for its own, distinctive international voice; our journalism would matter for our regional role as much as our diplomacy. Rating WW II as a wakeup call is a tad flippant, but that’s life in the blind spot universe.

Today Canberra needs a fresh awakening—to be convinced anew of the value of what our journalism can do in and for our region.

The discussion of what faced Menzies and Australia at the start of the war prompted me to ponder the then-and-now parallels between 1939 and 2018.

  • The great-and-powerful-friend worry: Britain’s capability then, US capacity and intent today.
  • Democracy under stress, amid serious worries about the rules of the international system.
  • Great-power contest: then, fascism in Europe and Japan in Asia; today, Russia rough and rogue, China rising and reckless.
  • Old economic verities that crumbled in the slow recovery from a huge economic shock: great depression/great recession.
  • War then, a new cold war dawns today.
  • The where-we-live truth rendered as the demands of geography: Australia’s fundamental interests in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The blind spot revelation leads to a realisation. Canberra and the ABC must rebuild international broadcasting (using ‘broadcasting’ as a catchall term for all the converging media platforms).

Trying times expose recent blindness. Australia again needs strong international journalism as a valuable foreign policy instrument, to promote our interests, influence and values in the Asia–Pacific.