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International broadcasting: the ABC vs the wisdom of the crowd

An incoming Australian government should review and rethink the purpose of state-funded international broadcasting.

Photo: Kusha Gravekat/ unsplash
Photo: Kusha Gravekat/ unsplash

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.

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