No time for ‘flabby’ thinking: the ABC and the future of international broadcasting
26 Feb 2019|

I find myself in avid agreement with American strategic analyst Kori Schake, who comments that, since the end of the Cold War, complacency in the West has led to ‘flabby’ strategic thinking. She writes of ‘the towering arrogance of the West’, especially the US, in having presumed its ideas were universal rather than highly contested.

The tower of delusion has toppled, but there remains a disconnect with some lingering attitudes in the Australian public sector. Concern about this dissonance, in a world of multiple intensifying challenges, partly explains what motivates those arguing for the state to reinvest in international media targeting publics in Asia and the Pacific.

As the statutory corporation responsible for international broadcasting, the ABC may be reeling from the actions of a hostile Coalition government and its own calamitous internal governance. But the national broadcaster is not without agency. Its legislative charter gives equal weight to the functions of national and international broadcasting, yet its board demonstrates scant commitment to the latter.

This is not to say the ABC is inactive. Rather, publicly available information about its residual international broadcasting and digital output suggests a lack of strategic clarity or coherence that is fit for purpose. Perhaps the corporation suffers from the phenomenon described in Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay about Australia’s political and policy amnesia: ‘a growing loss of institutional memory about how things have come about, and, more importantly perhaps, why they did’.

It’s been a long time since the ABC underwent a serious reappraisal of its purpose and functions. Since the mid-1990s, governments have instead commissioned numerous ‘efficiency’ reviews, including a dozen over the past 15 years alone. These may clearly serve the interest of public accountability. But, when used serially as the primary means of review, their effect can be to invert the logic that ‘form ever follows function’.

Much has changed in the 35 years since parliament adopted the ABC Act, which, for the first time, codified the function of international broadcasting. But the quirks and inconsistencies of that document—and associated governance processes—continue to weigh on the task of balancing public broadcasting and national interests.

The act uses nuanced language in describing the purposes of international broadcasting: to ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’. That subtlety has to be noted in the context of the Cold War political and policy environment of the time, which, in some measure, finds an echo in the 21st century.

New legislation followed recommendations of Alex Dix’s 1981 review of national broadcasting. Dix reported that, unlike other ‘propagandists’, the ABC’s international service was built on ‘a much wider concept of policy’. While requiring independence from government, it could not be indifferent  to Australian objectives and purposes in the international environment.

Indeed, the ABC’s role was never one of neutrality in representing Australian interests (broadly construed). Government initially supported the opening of ABC news bureaus in Asia partly with a view to countering communist propaganda. It supported the establishment of an ABC training school conditional on the participation of broadcasters from developing countries.

During the Suharto era, the foreign affairs department effectively pursued a two-track policy through transactional diplomacy, on the one hand, and its emphatic support for Radio Australia’s contentious Indonesian language service, on the other. The Pacific rose in importance due to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s anxiety about Soviet expansionism and Washington’s declaration that ANZUS protection would not extend to conflict in the islands.

Not all of the recommendations of Dix (and previous inquiries) found their way into the ABC Act, resulting in gaps and inconsistencies.

International broadcasting shares the ABC’s editorial and administrative independence. But the legislation provides no guidance on the relationship of international broadcasting with other relevant arms of the executive branch of government.

Inconsistently, the act does offer guidance on other matters relating to the ABC’s place in the communication ecosystem without impinging on its independence. The act requires the corporation to ‘take account of’ the commercial and community broadcasting sectors, the responsibilities for the states for education, and Australia’s multicultural character.

The act also requires the ABC to maintain an advisory council of members drawn from the Australian community to provide feedback on programs and services. But it ignores the recommendations of at least three government inquiries, prior to 1983, to have one concerned with international broadcasting.

A very great deal therefore depends on the performance of the ABC board. Yet the act doesn’t include international expertise among the criteria for board appointments. And I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that ministerial appointments consider the need for appropriate international expertise.

In other words, there’s little formal guidance for the ABC board and management, apart from the policy signals communicated through government budgetary decisions. It follows that there’s little to mitigate the ABC’s national-domestic bias or to remind the board ‘how things have come about and why they did’.

Australia should have no tolerance for flabby thinking in view of the prevailing conditions of the 21st century. Reconnecting the role of state-funded international media with Australia’s national interest requires a bigger conversation extending beyond the ABC’s citadel in Sydney.

More than ever, the times call for a purposeful international media service with separate funding and a governance structure separate from the domestic services of the ABC.