The crowded Pacific: re-considering the sharp edge of broadcasting’s soft power
1 May 2017|


Long before the ABC abandoned shortwave broadcasting to PNG and the Pacific, its programming for indigenous audiences (as distinct from Australian expatriates) had become risible. For those concerned with Australia’s status as the region’s principal security partner, this should matter.

Broadcasting and related services to the Pacific have suffered from the ‘unclear, inconsistent and competing interests and intentions’ which, Joanne Wallis found, characterise this nation’s strategic policy in the region. That’s an issue both for government and the ABC. The cardinal rule when seeking to project the values and interests of our imagined community, the democratic nation-state, is to play the long game and do so with constancy.

In recent years, Radio Australia’s English schedule consisted principally of content re-broadcast from the domestic ABC networks, while the minimally-resourced Pacific Beat was the  remaining gesture to regional engagement. The Tok Pisin language unit, serving PNG, shrank from eight broadcasters to two. News bulletins, to my ear as a traveller in the region, have lost much of their Pacific-centric character. In vision, the ABC provides domestic news and entertainment, packaged as Australia Plus, which appears to have an insignificant profile.

There’s a marked difference between the ABC giving audiences outside Australia access to content intended primarily for domestic consumption (good for the Australian diaspora) and in applying a relevant audience focus to PNG and the Pacific. We should not confuse extended access with the purposeful use of media to engage regional audiences in pursuit of Australia’s national interests.

I offer four observations about the continuing relevance of international broadcasting and related media services, which may be considered with reference to the Pacific:

  1. State-funded international media are potent instruments of power projection. As the British Council reported in 2013, a ‘great game of the airwaves’ is being played out across politically contested regions. Nations including the UK have boosted spending on international broadcasting. They differentiate the purposeful use of media from many other uncoordinated or non-government manifestations of soft power.
  2. In 2012, an Australia India Institute taskforce chaired by John McCarthy commented on ‘how instant, global television can sweep away decades of benign perceptions’ of this country, and described Canberra’s public diplomacy as old-fashioned and chronically under-funded. It noted that Radio Australia’s performance in the Pacific and Southeast Asia suffered from lack of investment (and that the since discontinued Australia Network English language TV service was the wrong model in the congested Indian market).
  3. Having earned audiences’ trust, a well-conceived international service maintains an influential connection with them, even during periods of political tension or crisis as a study of the BBC’s Hausa and English language services demonstrated. Nigerian respondents, overall, were unfavourably disposed to the West, largely because of US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their perception of an anti-Islamic bias. Yet they continued to engage with the BBC, citing the accuracy and impartiality of its news, its use of personnel from the Nigerian diaspora with whom audiences shared a cultural affinity [my emphasis], and the depth of coverage.
  4. International services help to frame issues and assemble the picture that citizens have of one another, and of matters affecting their lives. It would be a mistake for policy-makers to view the role of such media through the limiting prism of adversarial journalism as practised in the Canberra bubble. By engaging with large audiences internationally, these media overlap with key functions of public diplomacy such as listening to foreign publics, advocacy, cultural diplomacy and exchange. This need not be inconsistent with editorial independence.

Returning to the Pacific’s crowded and complex geopolitical environment, the need for re-consideration goes beyond the ABC’s decision to cease shortwave transmissions to under-served communities.

An evolved media model for PNG and the Pacific should be a key element of Australia’s regional aspirations and not treated by the ABC as just another of its media properties. The four themes of Australia’s aid program are intended to support: economic growth, more efficient regional institutions, the development of healthy and resilient communities (including disaster resilience), and the empowerment of women and girls. Cutting across all strands is the promotion of good governance.

These suggest a mutually reinforcing dual rationale for a rigorous and entertaining service: delivering a regional good through a purposeful and culturally relevant broadcasting and digital media model; and promoting Australia’s influence ‘from the outside in’—through the quality of audience engagement with content and discourse, and attraction to the values embedded in the service. It would be multi-lingual, including a substantial Tok Pisin component.

To succeed,  this Pacific media service would operate as a distributed model involving contributors and media partners in PNG and island countries (dialogue, not monologue). It would maintain a close relationship with capacity building functions of the sort currently funded by Australian Aid and delivered through the ABC International Development Unit. And critically, this service would require a discrete management authority. Too often the ABC has struggled to synchronise this manifestation of the wider national interest with its organisational self-interest as the “national” broadcaster.