A dumb Oz decision in the South Pacific
24 Apr 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user annca /.

The decision of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to end shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific is a serious blunder, based on a shrinking, insular view of ABC responsibilities.

The ABC should be embarrassed that 31 January marked the end of eight decades of Australian shortwave to the Islands. Overturning that lousy policy call—with an annual price tag of only $2 to $3 million—should provide the opportunity for the ABC to halt its exit from the South Pacific and start rebuilding. It would be a chance to recognise that the broad policy trend is wrong.

A rebuild should dictate more communications muscle of all sorts—shortwave, FM and digital in all its cascading dimensions—plus lots more ABC reporting staff and much more work to re-engage with media across the Islands.

The ABC should return to the centre of the South Pacific media landscape, not shrink towards the exit. And the rebuild should have a special focus on Papua New Guinea.

The ABC killed shortwave based on a penny-pinching false dichotomy between shortwave or FM. The chant was ‘shortwave old, FM new’. The choice is dumb because it misunderstands the central role radio still plays in the South Pacific.

Only an organisation that’s spent the last decade withdrawing resources from the South Pacific would’ve been trapped into choosing between shortwave and FM transmitters. Shortwave speaks to a whole country while FM’s more limited reach means it covers the capital or a region. Both services are essential in the South Pacific because radio is vital to the life of the Islands.

The extent of the ABC’s error is detailed by submissions to the Senate Inquiry, aimed at forcing the ABC to resume shortwave transmission.

Note the letter from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, on this ‘strange’ ABC decision that could cost many lives in the South Pacific:

‘Our experience during Cyclone Pam [in 2015] is that some of the most reliable and comprehensive early warnings and post-disaster information came from Radio Australia’s shortwave service. Australian shortwave assisted communities to prepare for, survive and recover from a terrible natural disaster. For us it is not outdated technology at all. It is appropriate and ‘fit-for-purpose’ and an important means to inform and safeguard Ni-Vanuatu people. Vanuatu values its close association with Australia at so many levels yet this strange decision by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to end shortwave services to our region seems at odds with the recently strongly-stated goals of the Australian Government to help improve disaster preparedness and risk management in our region.’

The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was right to point to Pacific ‘concern’. Her ‘please explain’ to the ABC was too polite, given the damage the ABC is inflicting on Oz interests.

The decision on shortwave isn’t an ABC aberration, but a logical step in the Corporation’s shredding of its important place in the life of the South Pacific. The ABC is casting off Australia’s central media responsibility in the Islands and destroying an important instrument of Oz assistance, influence and soft power.

For the past decade, the ABC has been hacking away at its international service, Radio Australia (RA)—particularly the important job RA does as a daily journal of record for the whole South Pacific.

Why has the ABC been cutting lose from its historic role in the South Pacific? Partly, because the Islands and Islanders—obviously—aren’t a domestic Oz constituency. Indeed, the Senate inquiry got going because killing shortwave hurt Australians in remote parts of Oz.

There’s no big domestic constituency for good foreign policy—but the nation pays for bad foreign policy. That’s why phrases as varied as ‘national interest’ and ‘good international citizen’ should be more than just slogans for the Oz polity. On this one, the ABC Board—an important part of the polity—lost sight of Oz interests in its own region.

Embracing the future, the ABC is busy jumping on all sorts of platforms to deliver content to multiple audiences (radio is old school, audio pumps out on everything). By all means, give the South Pacific what it needs on lots of platforms. But shortwave is still a platform that matters in the Islands (and across northern Australia) however much it might seem to be a legacy system in the cities of Oz.

The Senate inquiry offers the ABC Board and ABC Management the chance to rethink. This isn’t about ABC independence. It’s about changing a bad decision. Just as you should never let a good crisis go to waste, so a policy U-turn is the moment to rethink and redo poor policy.

Beyond a U-turn on shortwave, the ABC needs a fresh, bigger vision of what it must do in the South Pacific. Ever ready to help, the next column will offer some views on that vision.