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International broadcasting: the ABC vs the wisdom of the crowd

Photo: Kusha Gravekat/ unsplash
Photo: Kusha Gravekat/ unsplash
Published 10 Jan 2019 14:00   0 Comments

The findings of two related government reviews – on international broadcasting, and soft power – should offer an incoming Australian government the potential of a substantial policy reset following the general election in May. Specifically, they may help clarify the purpose and place of state-funded international broadcasting/digital media in Australia’s foreign relations, following a decades-long cycle of investment and dis-investment.

Shortly before Christmas, the Department of Communications published most of the 433 submissions (92 private individuals, 31 organisations or groups, and 310 signatories to a pro-forma submission) made to the first of those reviews, Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia Pacific, excluding those whose authors wished them to remain confidential. Finalisation of the broadcasting report precedes the related Soft Power Review, being undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has proposed a completion date of around March.

Of what benefit is the current ABC service, except to the Australian diaspora?

So it is timely to take note of the wisdom of the crowd, as expressed through the more discursive submissions to the broadcasting review, and to compare them with the institutional perspective of the ABC as the responsible agency for international broadcasting.

Several submissions, including the ABC’s, offer useful suggestions as to how international services might be restored in the changed context of a networked world. But the submissions also underscore the need to address basic questions as to the strategic purpose, value proposition, and organising principles of international broadcasting as appropriate to Australia’s changed geostrategic circumstance.

Five examples, below, offer a sampler of how the wisdom of the crowd compares with the ABC submission.

Geographic focus

Public submitters generally tend to concentrate on the case for restoring Australia’s media services to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, both as a regional good offering public interest journalism and to project national influence. They prioritise national audiences in the Pacific over the Australian diaspora and emphasise the need for respectful engagement with Pacific communities.

The ABC lists its priority audiences as: highly educated and mobile influencers in key Asian markets, PNG and wider audiences in the Pacific, the Australian diaspora, and culturally diverse communities in Australia. It offers no guidance as to the order of priority or of the allocation of the $11 million per annum it claims to spend on “international media activities” (with an emphasis on digital/mobile platforms).

While a strong case can be made for the deployment of state-funded international media across Asian as well as Pacific cultures, clear decisions are required about areas of strategic focus and investment priorities. The ABC says it is open to collaboration with entities such as the SBS to expand the delivery of language services to the region.

Regional outlook?

The then chief executive of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) argues that Australia fails to demonstrate an understanding of island peoples, as reflected through the Australia-centric TV programs now offered internationally by the ABC. Pacific specialist journalists argue the ABC “misunderstands” its international audience and largely ignores the Pacific in its news coverage. The Vanuatu Daily Post argues that:

A general lack of interest and understanding of why Australians should care about the Pacific results in a self-perpetuating cycle of neglect.

Likewise, a submission from two Australian Indonesia specialists offers a scathing critique of what they describe as the ABC’s “increasingly parochial” service for audiences in Asia:

Comedy shows have Australians chuckling and Indonesians bamboozled … a one-size-fits-all mishmash which ignores regional difference and treats its audiences with contempt.

Of what benefit is the current ABC service, except to the Australian diaspora?

Information security

Public submitters, including Charlot Salwai, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, emphasise the continuing relevance of shortwave radio transmissions to the Pacific, as a means of reliable communication for under-served and remote communities, especially during cyclones or other emergencies.

An inter-governmental organisation, PNI, claims the removal of ABC services “has critically undermined the Pacific family connections.” And a submission from the University of the South Pacific comments that the ABC was “quite imprudent, if not cruel, to close the [shortwave] service when it might be needed most,” due to the grave threat of extreme weather events, caused by global warming.

The ABC, while acknowledging there has been “some limited criticism” of its decision to cease shortwave services, makes a surprising claim. The idea of Radio Australia playing a key role during natural disasters “misunderstands Radio Australia’s purpose and structure.”

According to the ABC submission, neither Radio Australia’s program schedule nor its structure allows for late-breaking information or emergency alerts. Yet, that which another submitter describes as “information security,” for decades past had been a notable part of Radio Australia’s value proposition to the Pacific.

Political communication

The ABC identifies, as a critical constraint to international media services, that regional governments block access to or censor media. Yet it gives no ground in its dismissal of the legacy technology of shortwave (or its modern form, Digital Radio Mondiale). For the moment, at least, shortwave remains the technology least susceptible to local technical disruption or political interference.

Trevor Bird, a former director of engineering at Seven West Media submits that the ABC’s rationale “makes no sense” because “the ability to propagate signals over large distances is a function of physics and not the result of developed technology.” The question for policymakers is one of political purpose in determining the importance of Australia possessing an (almost) uninterruptible broadcast channel.

Institutional arrangements

A small but noteworthy number of submitters to the broadcasting review either question the ABC’s management approach or advocate a new organisational model independent of the parent corporation. They include the Lowy Institute,  journalists or academics with deep and contemporary experience, and former ABC senior executives with extensive international experience.

Among them: a former director of the ABC’s International Division, former CEOs of Radio Australia and Australia Network television respectively, a veteran former ABC news and CNN Asia executive, and the ABC’s former Chief of Corporate Planning & Governance (me). A recent ASPI report also advocates in detail the establishment of an ABC subsidiary corporation to mitigate the broadcaster’s prevailing national-domestic bias.

Time we heard the Pacific’s take on the Pacific

Covering APEC (Photo: Shane McLeod)
Covering APEC (Photo: Shane McLeod)
Published 23 Nov 2018 14:30   0 Comments

It is both apt and overdue that veteran ABC correspondent Sean Dorney was last night awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Journalism at the 2018 Walkley ceremonies. Judged by the trustees of the Walkley Foundation, this award not only recognises Dorney’s extraordinary body of work built over four decades chronicling life and politics in the Pacific, especially Papua New Guinea, but pays homage to one of the last of a near extinct breed of old-time expat Pacific correspondents who lived and breathed their rounds as long-term residents of the communities upon which they were reporting.

Australian newsrooms, instead of panting and pontificating about the growing influence of China, might be better served by tapping into Pacific conversations.

Sprung from the bad-old and arrogant days of colonial dispatches referencing “restless natives” and “strange customs” when first nation’s peoples served merely as the backdrop for the white man’s conquering and efforts to “civilise”, it can be argued that for a time these rusted-on corros (who not infrequently through their marriages, gained the privilege of the unique insight of living life within a Pacific family), served as useful intermediary interlocutors in the transitional societies of post-independent Pacific states.

As nations such as PNG, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu fought to different degrees to shake off their colonial framing and fashion a culture of accountability of their own, correspondents like myself and Dorney strove to facilitate and amplify indigenous views of events in these nations. This was both in our reporting for Australian audiences, or, in Dorney’s case, for the entire region. His reports were broadcast back into the countries he covered by Radio Australia, the ABC’s once wonderful but now defunct shortwave radio service.

With the additional resources afforded our first-world news bureaus, it was not uncommon in the two decades either side of the turn of the century for Pacific correspondents to report on unfolding events such as the Bougainville secession crisis or expose corrupt or inept governance that indigenous journalists literally couldn’t afford to do.

As late as 2003, my “scoop” as The Australian’s South Pacific Correspondent on the Howard Government’s decision to dispatch a 2000-strong Australian-led Pacific intervention force to restore the rule of law in Solomon Islands after several years of unrest, was lifted by the national newspaper, The Solomon Star to run as their frontpage splash.

The only difference being that, unlike the Solomon Star’s newsroom, I worked for a media outlet that could bear the exorbitant cost of international phone calls; I had the means to contact Solomon Island government officials to confirm the story after their meetings in Canberra.

Much has been written in the past decade or so warning about the dangers of the disappearing resident Pacific correspondent, as first Australian Associated Press, then Fairfax closed their bureaus in Suva, Port Moresby, and Honiara, and in many cases wound down the network of stringers who reported for them elsewhere in the region. The ABC is now the only Australian media outlet still maintaining a permanent presence in the South Pacific region with its bureau in Port Moresby.

But as we are all learning, with disruption comes new opportunities and with digital disruption, in particular, has come new ways of gathering, reporting, and disseminating news.

Here’s the rub: should we really be lamenting the passing of the old-fashioned foreign correspondent, particularly in our own region? Or is this a chance to embrace the opportunity to hear from the people of the Pacific in their own voices with analysis from their perspectives and news priorities that reflect Pacific agendas?

There is today a prolific cohort of indigenous journos, bloggers, and social commentators already daily reporting, dissecting, and disseminating their nations and region’s affairs with the insight only an indigenous member of an indigenous society can have. Australian newsrooms, instead of panting and pontificating about the growing influence of China, might be better served tapping into these conversations.

If we joined them, we might even learn a thing or two about the nations and the region within which we live.

International broadcasting: raising Australia’s Pacific voice

Jakob Owens / Unsplash
Jakob Owens / Unsplash
Published 14 Nov 2018 17:00   0 Comments

Scott Morrison’s recent response to Australia’s receding “voice” in the Pacific appears to be a Home and Away solution – namely, according to the Prime Minister, the provision to “our Pacific family” of more stories, news, drama, and sports from Australia’s commercial television networks.

Which dramas, which stories from Australian commercial television might pique the interest of Pacific Islanders in far-flung Kiribati, Tonga, or Tuvalu? And, given the increasingly local focus of commercial television news programs, we can but wonder how a live cross from a car crash in Western Sydney might be of any relevance to viewers in Port Vila, Apia, or Nuku’alofa.

Still, as Morrison stated:

What better way to stay in connection than through the lifestyle and everyday experiences we are all lucky enough to enjoy … [and] the government will be talking with our commercial TV operators to make sure our friends in the Pacific have access to more quality Australian content on television and other platforms.

Perhaps before an Australian government once again takes the paternalistic approach of deciding what our Pacific neighbours want to watch, we might actually ask them what sort of programs would serve them best. And why is the government talking only to the commercial television operators “about quality Australian content” when the backbone of every one of their programming schedules is reality TV – programming by its very nature made almost exclusively for Australian, not Pacific, audiences.

We are not arguing that Australia’s public broadcasters should be the sole carriers of the nation’s voice to the outside world. But nor, given their extensive experience in international broadcasting, should they be excluded – as the PM’s announcement implied.

Admittedly, the long-running Home and Away soap was so popular on the since closed Australia Network satellite channel that some Pacific nations ­– the Cook Island government, for one ­– would interrupt cabinet sessions so everyone could watch the latest episode.

But this latest Home and Away solution from Canberra appears ill-conceived and short-sighted on a number of counts.

For two decades, Australia’s broadcast footprint and impact across Asia and the Pacific has been steadily diminishing. (Photo: NicoleGoes/Flickr)

For starters, why make a public commitment before two current government inquiries, into Australia’s international broadcasting services and “soft power” diplomacy, have yet to complete their reviews and offer recommendations?

Why hold an inquiry if you have no intention of heeding its recommendations, let alone allowing the experts to conclude their deliberations? Why decide what our “Pacific family” might want to view/listen/interact with before asking them what programs would serve them best?

To pre-empt these inquiries smacks of policy-on-the-run by a government struggling to address China’s growing influence in our Pacific neighbourhood, even though the People’s Republic was not mentioned by name in the Morrison statement.

Sceptics might also portray it as an attempt by Canberra to assuage commercial televisions’ interests with taxpayer-funded largesse ahead of next year’s federal election, and at the expense of an out-of-favour ABC and its public broadcasting brethren.

The public broadcasters, and particularly the ABC, with decades of broadcasting exposure and expertise in the region, have consistently displayed a commitment to and understanding of Pacific affairs unmatched by their commercial counterparts.

The commercial operators, canny and market-wise, know well that there are few, if any, profits to be made broadcasting to an audience of barely 11 million people spread across 17 small, developing nations. To make Morrison’s commitment a reality will presumably involve subsidising those networks from the public purse.

Radio, still an influential, widely-followed, and affordable medium in Pacific communities, does not appear to have warranted any consideration in the PM’s overtures to the commercial television bosses.

Despite disinterest from the government, regional strategic developments in recent years have shown up the folly of reducing Australia’s voice to Pacific audiences.

For two decades, Australia’s broadcast footprint and impact across Asia and the Pacific have suffered from acute government policy reversals, resulting in a succession of budget cuts and “efficiencies” that Canberra has forced upon the ABC, the only Australian media organisation legally entitled to use government funding for international broadcasting services such as Radio Australia and the former Australia Network.

Despite little interest from the government, and, at times, its hostility to those services, regional strategic developments in recent years have shown up the folly of reducing Australia’s voice to Pacific audiences.

Submissions from the Pacific to Canberra’s international broadcasting review, including from national leaders, have further bemoaned Australia’s retreat from serving those communities.

But there is a better option, one that would meet both Australia’s national interests in the Pacific and quench their thirst for increased and more relevant Australian content on all media platforms. Content that –long and expensive experience has taught international broadcasters – must be understood by, and is compelling for, the target local audience.

Rebroadcasting popular Australian TV programs in the region, whether sourced from public or commercial broadcasters, without first being re-versioned or re-purposed for audience relevance and context is to risk failure.

Home and Away (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Our solution, contained in a submission to the Review of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia Pacific and outlined recently in The Interpreter (International broadcasting: Not so simple as ABC), is the creation of an independent statutory corporation or foundation to purchase, produce, and broadcast “high-quality, independent, contextualised, and trustworthy news, information, and entertainment programs for Asia Pacific audiences via multiple digital delivery platforms.”

This publicly-funded entity would distribute content to our region “that explains and reflects contemporary Australia and its people, their multicultural way of life, democratic values, and institutions, as well as everyday realities, including culture, education, and sport.”

Its charter would require the best of contemporary Australian content from all public and commercial broadcasters and independent production houses, assembling the finest programs Australian media has to offer, whilst taking partisan political expediency and annual funding squabbles – which have bedevilled international broadcasting from this country in recent times – out of the equation.

Australia’s long experience in international broadcasting must not be ignored or discarded.

We envisage that news and current affairs output would “be produced in close association with the ABC and SBS, given their acknowledged expertise in foreign reporting and languages, but also drawing on commercial news sources where appropriate, and all while adhering to the highest editorial principles, ethical standards, and practices of independence, balance, and accuracy.”

Finally, the international broadcasting corporation or foundation proposed would operate in close consultation and in partnership with Australia’s Pacific neighbours.

Such partnerships, including co-productions and training initiatives, would seek to build and strengthen ties between all involved rather than simply transmitting or, worse, dumping Australian content on unsuspecting regional audiences without thoughtful consideration of their particular needs and cultures.

Photo: RubyGoes/Flickr