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Radio Australia: The soft power tool eroded by neglect

Suggesting digital content can fully replace shortwave services points to a worrying ignorance by ABC management of PNG and Pacific audiences.

Radio Australia: The soft power tool eroded by neglect

This week the ABC pulled the plug on shortwave transmissions to its Radio Australia (RA) audiences across the Pacific and South East Asia.

One by one, the lights of RA, Australia’s longest-running international public broadcaster, are being extinguished. The decision by the ABC to decommission RA’s shortwave services is the latest in a long line of efforts by governments and ABC management to cut RA’s services, gouge its budget, or even dispense with it completely. And, tellingly, public criticism of this week’s action, aside from my colleague's earlier post, has largely been focused on the impact on domestic audiences in remote parts of Australia.

Established in 1939 in cooperation with Britain’s BBC External Service, RA was part of Australia’s war effort to counter enemy propaganda. By 1945, it was broadcasting in 15 languages. By the end of this week, with French broadcasts to New Caledonia stopping on Friday, the only foreign language it broadcasts in will be Tok Pisin. Burmese and Khmer broadcasts also finished recently and Chinese and Indonesian language content can now only be found on line.

During RA's almost 78 years of existence, there have been vicious government, departmental and internal battles over its role, control, funding and independence. As a result, RA has often lacked a clear mandate and direction.  In 1997 it faced almost certain death after a Howard Government review recommended its closure. It survived only because DFAT at the time was wary of the impact of closure on Australia’s relations with the region. There was a recognition within the department of RA’s public diplomacy and soft power potency in Asia and the Pacific. The then Prime Minister of PNG, Julius Chan, returned $1 million in aid in a bid to keep open the RA service to PNG, highlighting the importance of the service in the region.

In this latest move, announced on 6 December, the ABC has advised exiting shortwave transmission will allow it to dispense with outdated technology and expand its digital offerings. What it didn't explain was how the RA audience in PNG and the Pacific, many of whom live in remote and rural areas, are going to access these digital gifts. Even suggesting that digital services can fully replace shortwave services points to a worrying ignorance by ABC management of its PNG and Pacific audiences. For example, 87% of Papua New Guineans don’t live in the urban areas serviced by a handful of FM frequencies. They live in rural and remote regions where RA’s shortwave broadcasts have been their only reliable source of credible and reliable news and information.

This decision also seems to ignore one of the core objectives for RA; its role as an influential soft power tool for Australia across our neighbourhood. The ABC can't take all the blame for this. DFAT too seems to have left RA out in the cold. In late December, SBS reported Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was seeking a response from the ABC to concerns about the abolition of short wave services to the Pacific, however DFAT no longer seems to acknowledge the contribution and significance of RA as part of Australia’s public diplomacy efforts. Indeed, the department’s public diplomacy strategy for 2014-2016, is completely silent on RA. No mention is made of the public diplomacy role which could be played by Australia’s international public broadcaster in the region – a role which the department has clearly supported in the past.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that ABC management feel unfettered in their efforts to cutback services. RA is dying from neglect.

The irony of course is that as RA dwindles, its founding sibling, the BBC World Service, is embarking on its biggest expansion in 70 years. As the BBC’s World Service Director, Fran Unsworth, noted: 'As an independent broadcaster, we remain as relevant as ever in the 21st century when in many places there is not more free expression but less'. With an additional £289 million in funding over four years, the expansion includes the launch of 11 new language services. Digital platforms will play an important role in the new, bigger BBC World Service. But here’s the rub – so will shortwave.

The British government has clearly recognised the potency of international broadcasting as a soft power tool as part of its strategy in combatting the efforts of ISIS. That role was recognised in the report on the UK Government’s Strategic Defence Review delivered after the Paris attacks of November 2015.

Perhaps RA’s soft power role could be recognised in Australia’s forthcoming 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper?

Annmaree O’Keeffe co-authored a Lowy Institute Report on international broadcasting, 'International Broadcasting and its contribution to Public Diplomacy', with Alex Oliver in 2010. She is a former employee of both DFAT and the ABC.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alan Zeer

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