Whispering to the Asia–Pacific
4 Nov 2019|

Australia gropes and stutters towards a renewed embrace of international broadcasting—the vital need to ‘speak for ourselves’ in the Asia–Pacific.

The latest lurch towards fresh understanding is the silent release of the review of Australia’s media reach in the Asia–Pacific. Note the irony that a report on broadcasting is soundless on arrival.

Behold a classic orphan inquiry, not wanted by either the government or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, nor particularly desired by the public service. The orphan was created as part of the price to win a Senate vote, and is dumped on the public doorstep without a word of welcome.

The review was completed last December but only released (published on the Department of Communications website) on 17 October. No announcement. No government decisions.

The inquiry matters because it nods towards significant policy failure and the absent-minded trashing of Oz international broadcasting.

The answers offered are hesitant, sometimes implicit. The report is useful for what it does and doesn’t say. The tough stuff is often dealt with by quoting from the 433 submissions. Thus, see the key themes highlighted from submissions as implicit findings or recommendations:

  • Media markets across the Asia–Pacific exhibit significant variation and a ‘highly competitive nature’. Dramatically changing historical patterns of media usage requires ‘narrowcasting’ that tailors content and distribution platforms to target audiences in each country.
  • Successive budget cutbacks have ‘caused reductions in Australia’s supplies of international broadcasting services, particularly to the Pacific’. International services should be revitalised, including the use of ‘alternative models for delivery and governance of Australian government funded international broadcasting services’.
  • ‘The majority of submissions, which focused on the Pacific, advocated the restoration of ABC’s shortwave services in the Pacific region.’
  • Submissions in favour of restoring shortwave services ‘disputed the views that the technology has “limited and diminishing audiences” and disproportionately high costs’.

The inquiry doesn’t advocate restoring shortwave, but nor does it endorse the ABC dumbness. Instead, it offers this:

In the absence of a clear statement of the objectives of Australia’s Asia Pacific broadcasts … and a clear articulation of the full range of alternative options for achieving those objectives, it is not possible to determine whether Australia would derive a net benefit from resuming its shortwave broadcasts to the Asia Pacific.

You might have thought the combined forces of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Communications could have reached towards a clear statement of objectives and a full range of options. But that’d be to misunderstand the lonely nature of the orphan inquiry and Canberra’s sins of omission and commission on international broadcasting.

The decade of vandalism forces the review back to first principles: Australia must identify its ‘strategic policy objectives’ and clarify ‘the role that publicly funded broadcasts should play in achieving those objectives’.

Canberra has lost its way on policy when the key recommendation of a government review is that the government must first define what it wants to do. It is still groping and stuttering towards ‘clarifying the objectives of Australia’s broadcasting to audiences in Asia and the Pacific’.

The new chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, a fine editor and journalist, knows that much international ground needs to be retaken. Her 2019 Lowy Institute media lecture was notable for notes of loss and regret.

The ABC continues to produce content in languages other than English, she said, ‘but regrettably, not at the same levels as we have been able to in the past’, and the ABC’s ‘commitments to international broadcasting are not what they once were’.

A great Oz rock group long ago paid tribute to Buttrose with a song titled ‘Ita’, with the closing line: ‘How could I not believe, when Ita tells me too’.

And what Ita says on international broadcasting is this:

Australia’s relationship with our neighbours is more nuanced than ever, and so, naturally, must be our conversations. This type of engagement requires a high degree of expertise, investment, infrastructure, and above all commitment.

Commitment and cash have both ebbed and the conversation has suffered. It’s a sad commentary as the ABC prepares to celebrate next month the 80th anniversary of the creation of Radio Australia (the outbreak of World War II was something of a prompt).

The orphan inquiry tells the story of what has to be rebuilt. The bureaucratic baton is handed to the DFAT soft power review.

A government facing tougher international times must discover a new vision of international broadcasting to communicate Australia’s interests, influence and values.