And now the news: the Australia Network (described in The Australian's story as the 'Asian broadcasting service') is ‘likely to be scrapped in the May budget’.
No surprise, coming on the heels of the Prime Minister's comments that the ABC lacks 'basic affection for the home team', following the Indonesian phone-tapping furore.
It has been difficult for successive governments to embrace international broadcasting as a useful (and for Australia, almost its only) public diplomacy tool. International broadcasters such as the Australia Network can help win over foreign publics in ways that support the national interest. As a tool of public diplomacy, international broadcasters can inform the public in other countries about a nation's values, political systems, people, lifestyles and businesses. For Australia, public diplomacy helps ease the way for Australia to conduct its foreign affairs, and promotes Australia as a place to visit and invest in.
Australia's public diplomacy budgets have been whittled dramatically over the last decade, to the point where the Australia Network is about the only serious exercise in public diplomacy that remains.
Annmaree O’Keeffe and I are on the record supporting the existence of a government-funded international broadcasting service for Australia run by the national broadcaster.* Annmaree succinctly summarises our argument here. While we were critical of the tender process under which the ABC was ultimately rescued from its reputedly unsuccessful tender by the Gillard Government, the fundamental argument in favour of an international broadcaster remains.
And lest one fall for the usual '$223 million service' (ie. suggesting it's some sort of gold-mine or bottomless pit, depending on your viewpoint), it's rarely explained that this amount is for a contract to be spent over ten years. That is, it's more like $20 million a year, a pittance compared with spending by international broadcasters like the BBC, China's gargantuan CCTV network ($6 billion), European broadcasters which have expanded into Asia, as well as the Asian stalwarts in Korea and Japan.
Now for the serious part. To be effective, international broadcasters need to be independent. They shouldn't just 'play for the team'. As Nicholas Cull concluded in 2010, the BBC, 'through its telling of bad news – as well as good – throughout the Second World War effectively reversed the reputation for creativity with the truth that Britain had earned in the First World War'. Likewise, it was their ability to criticise the US which gained Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty standing in the eyes of Soviet bloc listeners.
It is a government's ability to allow criticism of itself which gives it credibility in the world. The converse is also true. Government control of the media nullifies its credibility. There are plenty of examples of this from nations which few admire for their freedoms.
This is not intended as an assessment of the Australia Network's programming, something which may well be due for a comprehensive and independent review. But as for its existence, there is ample evidence for keeping it.
*Disclosure: the study was commissioned by the ABC in 2010.
Photo by Flickr user misterbisson.