2019 Lowy Institute Media Lecture
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2019 Lowy Institute Media Lecture

On 19 October, Chair of the ABC Ita Buttrose AC OBE gave the 2019 Lowy Institute Media Lecture.

2019 Lowy Institute Media Lecture

Ita Buttrose AC OBE

19 October 2019

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I am pleased to have been asked to present this year’s Lowy Institute Media Lecture and thank the Institute for the invitation to do so.

I would also like to acknowledge the Institute’s support and recognition of Australian journalism through tonight’s media award.

Congratulations to all the nominees who come from across commercial and public, print and broadcast media. I note that previous winners of the media award come from a range of news outlets, including News Corp, Fairfax, SBS as well as the ABC.

As our world becomes more closely entwined but perhaps more disparate, it is essential that Australians understand the global factors that affect our economy, our politics, our culture and dare I say, our environment.

Quality journalism is a valuable asset in deepening our knowledge of the world around us and it is fantastic that you provide a platform that recognises outstanding achievement in this form of media.

In founding the Institute Sir Frank Lowy’s goal has been to inform debate, discussion and policy about Australia’s place in the world. To, as he has put it, help his fellow Australians better understand the myriad global forces that are increasingly shaping their lives.

Sir Frank’s other objective has been to promote Australia’s distinguished service on the world stage. A force for good that perhaps Australia is not always fully recognised for.

From its earliest days the ABC has looked outwardly to report on the world around us and to advance the standing of Australia as a prominent global citizen.

In December we mark 80 years since Australia started to broadcast to the world. At the inauguration of the service on 20 December 1939, Prime Minister Menzies stated, “The time has come to speak for ourselves”.

Of course, there was no coincidence in the closeness in timing between the commencement of international broadcasting and the declaration of war in September of that year. Australia was speaking for itself for very strategic purposes.

Without wanting to draw too many parallels between 1939 and 2019, I think we can agree that we live in fractious and uncertain times at present, and as then, international media has become an effective tool for nation states, primarily to exert influence and promote ideas as a function of soft power.

While Britain may be taking Churchillian inspiration to again stand alone, and President Trump muses about a (currently unconstitutional) third term, emulating Franklin Roosevelt, the comparison I would like draw between that time and now is in regard to the ABC’s commitment to international broadcasting.

In the pre and post-war period the ABC used the most effective technology available, shortwave, to reach its near neighbours. Crucially, we also broadcast in other languages of the region as well as English.

Following the war, through Radio Australia the ABC enhanced a positive view of Australia and its democratic institutions in neighbouring countries, provided a dependable and independent news service, and encouraged English-language learning.

This was an incredibly valuable service to the region and to Australia’s interests, as countries across the Indo-Pacific made the transition to self-determination and democracy in a post-colonial world.

On a trip to Australia in 2002, former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid told a function in Sydney that he and many of his fellow students learned English by listening to Radio Australia. But it was not just the language, but the content which gave a strong sense of Australian society and democratic values that he and many other future leaders came to admire.

The sound of the majestic fanfare was a clarion call of trusted, reliable news, information and entertainment from a respected friend and neighbour.

Today, the ABC’s international services are delivered via various multi-media platforms to the region and beyond. Again, making use of the most effective technologies to reach the widest audience.

Through our TV service, ABC Australia, which broadcasts into 40 territories across the Indo-Pacific region, through Radio Australia, which transmits on a network of FM transmitters across the Pacific as well as across the world online, through our international app, podcasts and the multitude of social media networks, the ABC continues to connect the world with Australia.

We continue to produce content in languages other than English, but regrettably, not at the same levels as we have been able to in the past.

What has changed most fundamentally, and must continue to evolve, is the conversations we have through international broadcasting. Throughout the Indo-Pacific we have mature, sophisticated countries that are economically and culturally diverse and who engage in complex and multilateral global arrangements. 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.

Reporting international news back to Australia requires the same level of commitment. While the news media enjoy the sugar hit delivered by the Trump bump and with thoughts ahead to the 2020 US primaries and presidential election, what of the foreign correspondents reporting from our own region? Countries that the Prime Minister recently described as vital to our future, including India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam.

The importance of journalism to our country’s Asia-Pacific interests cannot be underestimated and I believe a renewed ABC focus on international broadcasting would greatly benefit Australia.

In the future, which news organisations will be in a position to support foreign correspondents based in Port Moresby, Jakarta or New Delhi? How will commercial media justify to their shareholders that investment in international reporting is in the national interest when it is not in their financial interest, and all resources are needed in the domestic market to stave off the digital giants, which, with the addition of Disney, we might now call the mouse with FANGs.

The outlet which maintains the largest on-the-ground presence of correspondents of any regional broadcaster remains the ABC. Our international network of journalists allows the Corporation to provide comprehensive news reporting from and for the region.

As always, ABC correspondents are today on the ground reporting from the world’s flashpoints, whether that be Hong Kong, the Middle East or in Japan, following the recent typhoon.

In addition to the ABC’s newsgathering capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, the Corporation has also established a dedicated Asia Pacific Newsroom of 46 staff, who provide and produce multilingual cross-platform programming, including Pacific Mornings, Pacific Beat and Wantok for ABC Radio Australia; and both Chinese and Indonesian language services for domestic and international audiences.

Of course, as everyone here knows, following the termination of the Australia Network contract, the ABC’s commitments to international broadcasting are not what they once were. While we may not face identical challenges to commercial media, fundamentally we experience the same problem – there is no magic pudding.

I welcome the establishment of the Judith Nielson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, whose purpose is to support quality journalism. The Institute has already committed funding for international reporting, to support coverage by The Australian of China, and for both The Financial Review and The Guardian to establish foreign correspondents in the region.

The ABC has also received a grant, but for domestic purposes, to fund the extension of our existing regional schools digital media literacy program to the most remote parts of Australia.

While philanthropic funding in journalism is a fundamental part of the American system, in places like the UK and Australia, with well-established public broadcasters, it is a relatively new phenomenon. The recent ACCC report made recommendations that would encourage this model and I am sure we will all watch with interest to see if philanthropy can exist in the long-term as a sustainable source of funding for news reporting in Australia.

As I alluded to earlier, international broadcasting is not just about reportage of Australia to the world and the world back to Australia – it is an acknowledged soft power mechanism. The ability to report critically on our own political system is a powerful demonstration of democratic values, particularly to countries with limited press freedom. As a statutory independent broadcaster, the ABC has a reputation throughout the region for its credible, frank and impartial coverage of our own backyard.

Effective public diplomacy extends beyond the boundaries of news content. English-language learning and children’s programming both make significant contributions to the fostering of strong international bonds, as does the broadcasting other cultural assets like sport, music and drama.

Alongside its international media services, the ABC maintains an International Development team, which serves as a very effective vehicle for regional soft power. Primarily funded through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the team works with partner media organisations in the Indo-Pacific to support them to build sustainable media infrastructure.

One initiative I particularly like is the Women in News Sport program, or appropriately nicknamed WINS for short. This program uses the ABC’s special expertise in sports broadcasting to support women journalists in the region as they join the traditionally male-dominated world of sports media.

More than 100 women from ten countries have worked with the ABC’s best female
broadcasters, journalists and trainers to build their skills and networks. One of the great outcomes of the program is that five of these journalists ended up commentating on the 2018 Commonwealth Games held on the Gold Coast. And additionally, seven WINS trained journalists have produced the first women’s sports podcast of its kind for the Pacific.

This has clearly been an effective demonstration of soft power, but it is much more than that, WINS has been truly empowering for all involved and has supported powerful cultural change.

Realising the importance of soft power, the Government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper committed to a review of the nation's soft power strengths and capabilities. This is particularly timely considering Australia’s relative decline in this area in recent years.

According to the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy Soft Power 30 index, while Australia is still in its top 10 and is well-regarded globally, it has moved down from sixth to tenth place since 2015.

It is no coincidence that the five countries recognised as being most effective in soft power diplomacy - the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States and Japan - recognise the potential value of international media for advancing their soft power agendas and fund these services accordingly. Along with China, the heaviest investor in international broadcasting, many of these countries compete with Australia for influence and engagement.

It is notable that in assessing the UK as number one on the list, the index characterised the BBC World Service as “the world’s most trusted news provider” and “a valuable soft power asset for the UK”.

It is also telling that in 2015, the British Government’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review recommended enhancing the UK’s soft power activities to promote British values and to tackle the causes of security threats. An outcome of that review was an additional injection of £34 million in 2016–17 and £85 million each year from 2017–18 in the BBC’s international digital, television and radio services, bringing the total annual expenditure for the BBC World Service to over £330 million.

While we await the outcome of the DFAT soft power review, I am hopeful that it will place similar emphasis on investment in international broadcasting as a valuable source of soft power.

The ABC submission to the review puts the case that at a time when Australia is realising the need to better project its influence in the Pacific, the ABC is a key soft power asset available to the nation.

The ABC is Australia’s trusted voice in Asia and the Pacific. It has a proud record of achievement, having told Australian stories, reported fairly and fearlessly, taught generations to speak English and delivered critical information in times of crisis for 80 years.

With additional support the ABC could expand its ability to reach out and share Australian perspectives to the world and enable Australians to better understand their Pacific neighbours.

I have been heartened by the Prime Minister’s commitment in his recent address to the Lowy Institute annual dinner that Australia is committed to building “a secure, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific of independent, sovereign and resilient states” and that through the Pacific Step-Up, “Australia’s national security and that of our Pacific family are intertwined”.

As we all know, a fundamental part of any successful and well-functioning family is an understanding of each other’s needs, priorities and feelings, and open and honest two-way communication.

International broadcasting is one of the ABC’s bedrock Charter responsibilities. But beyond that, whatever budgetary constraints we may face, the ABC is committed to it because we recognise its intrinsic public and national value.

With continued limited funding, we have to be creative, innovative, and in the words of a former prime minister, agile in our approach. Collaborations and partnerships with other media organisations play a part in this strategy. For example, Radio New Zealand Pacific replays Radio Australia’s Wantok program and also carries stories from our Pacific Beat on its Dateline Pacific program. In the future there may also be opportunities for greater sharing of in-language programs with other broadcasters.

In keeping with our commitment to continually adapt our international services to suit audience needs, I am very pleased to announce tonight that at the end of this month the ABC will launch an international version of iview, ABC Australia iview. This project has been a priority for the ABC for some time and has come to fruition through a lot of hard work, negotiation, cooperation and goodwill.

While because of the expense of rights costs we won’t be able to offer the full library available on our domestic service, for now ABC Australia iview will include selected episodes from dozens of iconic ABC titles, including Australian Story, Four Corners, Gardening Australia, Waltzing the Dragon, Foreign Correspondent, Q&A and an un-geoblocked stream of the ABC News channel.

The availability of this service will open up a variety of outstanding Australian content to audiences around the world as well as to the more than one million Australian ex-pats who live, work or are travelling overseas.

ABC Australia iview is an example of how, with determination and drive, we can deliver great value for international audiences, Australian taxpayers and the national interest.

As we approach the 80th anniversary of the beginning of our international media services, the ABC plans to celebrate this milestone with a number of events and programs, including a special episode of Q&A from Suva, Fiji on 2 December that will discuss issues relevant to Pacific and Australian audiences.

Through cooperation between Government and the ABC in 1939, Australia’s voice was heard loud and clear across the Pacific, countering the growing din of a world in conflict. While that voice has diminished in recent years, I am optimistic that with a renewed focus and commitment from all, it can be amplified to advance Australia once again.

That is the ABC’s goal and we are committed to achieving it.

Thank you.