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The ABC gets it wrong on its South Pacific service

Posted By on June 19, 2017 @ 06:00

The technical bastardry of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in degrading its shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific has been starkly revealed. The bloody-mindedness helps explain the dumb decision to turn off Australia’s shortwave service that broadcasts to northern Australia and the South Pacific.

The reveal happened in Parliament House last Friday, when the Senate Communications Committee took evidence on a draft Bill that would require the ABC to restore the shortwave services it killed on January 31.

After heavyweight evidence from Radio Australia’s old shortwave guru Nigel Holmes, Foreign Affairs and the ABC, the Committee’s final witness was earnest, if not expert: ‘twas me—my submission is here (PDF).

Foreign Affairs wimped out, saying that ending shortwave was all the ABC’s own work.  Echoing other submissions, DFAT described ABC Pacific services as:

  • a valuable channel for giving the Pacific news, Australian perspectives and content

  • advancing Australian public diplomacy: ‘We note that the annual operating cost of the ABC’s former shortwave service was an order of magnitude greater than the combined public diplomacy budgets of all of our Pacific posts.’

  • delivering warnings and updates during emergencies.

DFAT said the South Pacific wants shortwave, even though the ABC claims Pacific audiences have ‘moved away’ from shortwave.

The ABC submission opposed the Bill to restore shortwave, saying it would:

  • impinge on ABC independence by directing the Corporation to use broadcast technologies that have limited and diminishing audiences

  • impose significant costs for shortwave

  • oblige the ABC to deliver Pacific language services that haven’t been provided in the past.

The first point is the key, going to important questions about the ABC’s role and what it should do in the Pacific. These separate but vital issues lead directly to what the Parliament expects of the ABC in the Charter given it under law.

The second point is merely the ABC objecting to doing the duty it has performed for decades. The ABC claims the cost would double from $2 million to $4 million—thus  confirming how it has been running down the service.

The third point is odd. The proposed Act, sponsored by Senator Xenophon, calls on the ABC to maintain a shortwave service for PNG and the Islands, with ‘programs in languages appropriate for the 19 countries to which they are broadcast’. The ABC claims it’s presently giving the South Pacific a good service, with broadcasts in English and Tok Pisin for PNG (after closing the last vestige of the French Pacific service in February). If the ABC believes its own quality assurances, it can give an instant affirmative answer to the legislative demand for appropriate languages. Or is the ABC conceding that it’s not giving good/appropriate service?

Returning to point one takes us to the Holy Grail: the ABC Charter, enshrined in the ABC Act. Rather than impinging on ABC independence, the Parliament, which passed the Act, is telling the ABC to meet the first two elements of its Charter. The Senate is calling the ABC to account for failing its Charter responsibilities.

Under that 1983 Act, the ABC must give Australians ‘comprehensive broadcasting services’.  Killing shortwave to the Northern Territory fails that ‘comprehensive’ test. The ABC isn’t meeting its obligation to everyone across this wide brown land.

The Charter instructs the ABC ‘to transmit to countries outside Australia’. In an un-Charterish manner, the ABC is steadily gutting its South Pacific service. Killing shortwave highlights the Pacific withdrawal, as the ABC shrinks away from its international responsibilities.

When the ABC lost the contract to run the Australia Network TV service in 2014, the blame lay with the Abbott Government, which terminated a 10 year contract after one year. The ABC then compounded the damage with its bad, sad and mad gutting of Radio Australia as it terminated Oz Network.

On the decline of shortwave, the ABC offers assertions but zero evidence. For detailed discussion of the continuing utility of shortwave, see the submission by Nigel Holmes, a shortwave guru who was RA’s transmission manager for 23 years.

Holmes explodes the ABC’s wispy techno-babble smokescreen, showing how the ABC deliberately degraded the strength and performance of its shortwave signal. From 2015, the ABC turned off half its transmitters at Shepparton, Australia’s last shortwave station. This degradation had the predictable effect—desired by the ABC—of halving signal strength reception across the west and south-west Pacific.

The ABC is right that shortwave audiences have declined—a trend pushed by ABC bastardry against its own shortwave signal. After the switch-off in January, the Shepparton operator, Broadcast Australia International, announced its intention to sell the Shepparton site. If those transmitters are demolished, it’d cost $60 million to create a replacement shortwave facility.

Many other players see a shortwave future. As the ABC exits the South Pacific, China Radio International is making large investments, snapping up any shortwave slots becoming available and building new transmitters.

Another way of demolishing the ABC utility argument is to ask what’s changed in the South Pacific to make shortwave obsolete? The big Ds are exactly as they’ve always been: big Distances, big economic Development problems, and regular natural Disasters.

In villages across the Islands and in the mountains of PNG, people aren’t suddenly logging on to the internet. Mobile telephones are a significant new force, but phones don’t wipe away all Distance/Development/Disaster challenges. That’s why leaders in places like Bougainville find it ‘totally shocking’ that the ABC turned off shortwave. Here’s hoping the Senate maintains its sense of shock, and forces the ABC back to its Charter responsibilities and a Pacific broadcasting U-turn.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/abc-gets-wrong-south-pacific-service/

[1] turn off: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/silencing-australias-shortwave-voice-south-pacific/

[2] shortwave: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/dumb-oz-decision-south-pacific/

[3] South Pacific: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/smart-stuff-shortwave-south-pacific/

[4] evidence on a draft Bill: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Shortwaveradio

[5] submission is here: http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=c07e0229-dfb8-4c02-8f44-bc511db457b4&subId=511059

[6] all the ABC’s own work: http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=e4e5c567-6dc8-40ae-8e7a-fd67821d4a0e&subId=511295

[7] submission: http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=fd9ae65b-79e6-48ac-a3cc-b46d91acfea2&subId=511100

[8] proposed Act: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/bills/s1055_first-senate/toc_pdf/1701720.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

[9] ABC Charter: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2014C00721

[10] Australia Network: https://theconversation.com/scrapping-the-australia-network-affects-more-than-the-abc-26687

[11] bad, sad and mad gutting: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/muting-australias-regional-voice/

[12] Nigel Holmes: http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=05460a3d-58ca-416c-971a-8fcdc2546c92&subId=511076

[13] sell the Shepparton site: http://www.sheppnews.com.au/2017/05/11/88161/radio-australia-for-sale

[14] ‘totally shocking’: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-31/xenophon-leads-calls-for-abc-to-reinstate-shortwave-radio/8225694