Oz voice in the Asia–Pacific (part 5): the fading broadcast signal
6 Aug 2018|

Australia’s international broadcasting effort in the Asia–Pacific is at its lowest-ever level.

These are the worst of times for Australian international TV, which is 25 years old this year. And these are the hardest of days for Radio Australia, which is set for its 80th birthday next year.

They’re not corpses, but they are on life support.

The cash is only just dripping and a lot of life has departed. The international TV and radio efforts are gasping, limping shadows of their former selves.

In 2010, the ABC spent $36 million on international services (about $42 million in today’s dollars). These days, a guesstimate of the international broadcasting spend is $11 million; the ABC isn’t too explicit about the budget. Such vagueness is symptomatic. Perhaps it’s the reticence born of embarrassment.

Canberra should be straight-out ashamed, because this has been a disgraceful trashing of a significant foreign-policy asset. That’s the central point of this series of columns about the fading of the Oz broadcast voice in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia: the failure of strategic vision that has allowed such a foreign-policy instrument to be so wasted.

Last week’s column made the case for creating an Australian International Broadcasting Corporation (AIBC) to resolve the tension between the domestic and international broadcasting demands of the ABC’s charter. Its purpose would be to use independent journalism to serve Australia’s interests, influence and values in the Asia–Pacific.

The propositions are Canberra-centric, not broadcasting-based, reflecting the consensus of the Oz polity about today’s worrying international trends and, just as importantly, some long-held truths.

Not least of those truths is the one to be found at the heart of seven Australian defence white papers over 40 years: geography matters.

Traditionally, Australia wanted a strong international broadcasting voice in what defence-speak calls our region of primary strategic interest: Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and the eastern Indian Ocean. The broadcasting tradition is looking most modern.

Geography is back.

Or as that old geographer and still forceful strategist Paul Dibb might grizzle, the demands of geography never went away, we’re just feeling ’em with fresh force.

As Dibb observes, ‘Australia’s international security outlook is starting to look very threatening.’ To bolster Australia’s security, he writes, ‘we need to focus more on our region of primary strategic concern … We should aim to reassert our influence in these areas as China moves increasingly to challenge our strategic space.’

Coming at the same worries from a different direction, Anthony Milner says Australia’s foreign-policymakers have to start working on a Plan B, to get busy and get creative to build ‘Australia’s independent influence’ in the region.

Gareth Evans says Australia must look to its interests and influence and good international citizenship, because ‘the assumptions which have sustained and underpinned Australian security and economic policy for decades are in meltdown’. He offers four key elements for Australia’s response: ‘Less America. More self-reliance. More Asia. More global engagement.’

In the foreign-policy game, the word ‘influence’ stands besides ‘interests’, at the calculating, cerebral end of the field; yet influence and interests must always be within shouting distance of values and beliefs, which tend to reside in the heart and hearth of the arena.

The words that describe good journalism—‘reliable’, ‘independent’, ‘factual’—are exactly the same things you’d want in the foreign policy of a country seeking to persuade others, protect interests, project influence and promote values.

Lots of strategic angst begets plenty of anxiety and a quest for answers. Good answers are always scarce. And some of the old answers have much to offer.

Tough international times demand independent journalism, just as they require steady political attention, economic engagement of every kind, smart diplomacy, good aid, effective intelligence and a strong defence strategy.

Great journalism is part of what Australia should be doing for the Asia–Pacific. We’ve got a wonderful journalistic tradition—a hack heritage—that should be honoured by being rediscovered and reinvented for the 21st century.

The review of Australia’s media reach in the Asia–Pacific is now considering the future of our broadcasting voice, having finished taking submissions last week. What started as an orphan inquiry—not really wanted by the government and unloved by the ABC—has a chance to do great work, to give the government options for a policy redo. Time to shift from life support to new life.

A fresh vision and lots more cash for Oz broadcasting in the South Pacific are the obvious first steps. Certainly, that’d be consistent with the interests and values elements of the enhanced Biketawa Declaration on security cooperation, to be signed by Australia and the other members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Australia needs to match the sentiments it’s embracing in the new Biketawa Declaration with plenty of action and ambition.

Maybe the orphan inquiry on international broadcasting will be let off the leash and told to go hard for something that looks like a landmark legacy.

Governments on the brink sometimes think about legacy—be generous, call it good policy—in the lucid moments between parliamentary tremors, political tantrums and electoral turmoil.

Power up Oz journalism in the Asia–Pacific. The times call for a strong and distinctive Australian voice.