Oz voice in the Asia–Pacific (part 4): the Australian International Broadcasting Corporation
30 Jul 2018|

To serve Australia’s interests, influence and values in the Asia–Pacific, we need a new entity, an Australian International Broadcasting Corporation.

The review of Australia’s media reach in the Asia–Pacific (submissions close at 5 pm AEST on 3 August) should recommend the creation of the AIBC, to resolve the domestic–international tensions in the charter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The charter is at the heart of the 1983 Act that remade the Australian Broadcasting Commission as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In the charter’s foundational clause, the law gives equal weight to the ABC’s domestic and international responsibilities:

(1)  The functions of the Corporation are:

(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:

(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and

(ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;

(b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:

(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs …

In recent decades, the responsibility to transmit outside Australia has been a fading function.

As spending on international audiences waned, the overseas service became mostly a rebroadcast of domestic fare. The only bit of its international charter Aunty is gesturing towards is the demand to serve Australians beyond our shores.

The rebroadcast habit is maintained in this month’s relaunch of the Asia–Pacific TV service, rebranded as ABC Australia. Here’s how the ABC described the service:

ABC Australia will deliver distinctive content to culturally and linguistically diverse international audiences and to Australian expatriates, encouraging international awareness and understanding of Australia and Australian attitudes.

Fine words, but the ABC’s reach falls well short of its grasp. The programming will offer lots of Oz attitudes, with rebroadcasts of ABC news programs, ‘slice of home’ shows and Australian rules football.

For an expat, an excellent menu. But for 40 countries of the Asia–Pacific—those ‘culturally and linguistically diverse international audiences’—this is about Oz for Oz.

Australian content is necessary but not sufficient for an Asia–Pacific service. Oz content needs to be the start. At the moment it’s the finish.

To do more will need cash and commitment from Canberra—and the AIBC to deliver the focus.

The aim is to talk with neighbours, not merely broadcast to neighbours; that supposes media conversation of many types, not just an oration from Oz.

Atop the excellent foundation of good ABC shows, the AIBC must offer reporting that matters in the lives of Lombok or Lae or Lautoka.

The AIBC should be born of the ABC, reflect ABC traditions and standards and draw on ABC resources—but the AIBC must have its own corporate identity as an expression of its distinct, international purpose.

The AIBC would have its own chair and board and its own separate budget.

The deputy chair of the ABC and the ABC managing director should be on the board of the AIBC, but so should the head of the Special Broadcasting Service.

Replicate the successful ABC model with a staff-elected board member, and then gather board members with international experience from business, diplomacy, aid and one of the major generators of Oz soft power in the years ahead, the universities.

Under its Act, the ABC can establish subsidiary companies, so in theory no new legislation is required.

But in line with my argument that Canberra must pay for what Canberra wants, the AIBC must have its own budget allocation. Don’t leave it to the ABC. Aunty can’t pay for what Australian foreign policy demands.

The AIBC must have a separate identity so the international effort doesn’t get drawn into the usual domestic fights that are a natural part of the ABC’s existence. Yet like the ABC, the AIBC must be a fully funded, independent public broadcaster—not a state broadcaster.

Give the AIBC the right to seek partners where it sees a natural fit in such realms as development aid, philanthropy and universities—its core, though, is as a public broadcaster. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking Australia can have an important foreign policy instrument on the cheap.

If the AIBC is going to have heft, it must be richly funded by Canberra; at least rich in the way we mere media types think (the hack version of cornucopia is Defence’s coffee money or a few days of the aid budget).

The ABC doesn’t have a lazy $30–50 million to redirect to foreign policy. Canberra has to see the need and fund the instrument. The ABC is the model, but a specific instrument must be created: the Australian International Broadcasting Corporation.