The destruction of Australia’s overseas broadcasting presence by the former coalition government appears to have had a dramatic impact on our overseas influence, so how can it be rebuilt?
The world has changed a great deal, both politically and technologically, over recent years, with China looming large as a major player in Asia and the Pacific, and audiences (at least in wealthier economies) abandoning traditional channels in favour of on-demand video and audio services.
And it’s important to remember that, although the recent adoption by Australians of the term “Indo-Pacific” to group the vast and populous part of the globe into what we like to call “our region” might make things easier to grasp domestically, the Indo-Pacific is composed of what are disparate audiences with greatly different interests and needs.
Looking back at what once existed, the ABC’s Australia Network — a $250m television service that reached from the subcontinent, through Southeast and East Asia to the Pacific islands — actually recognised the different needs of the different regions. Although most of its content was broadcast simultaneously to those three distinct regions, it also tailored some of the content on each of its three satellite transponders to appeal to the specific needs of each.
Radio Australia, which is now a shadow of its former self, also created dedicated content for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
At the moment, an offering called ABC Australia, which is available in some countries through third party broadcasters and via satellite only in the Pacific, provides programming which, according to its website: “provides content for Australians living abroad and local audiences living outside of Australia.”
It must be noted that the former Australia Network was set up to provide a window on Australia to international audiences only, and was not designed for expats.
Radio Australia is still broadcast in a few selected markets, but its tailored content is drastically diminished, it no longer (thanks to the previous coalition government) is available via shortwave, and some of its frequencies are now occupied by the Chinese overseas service.
In 2018 a group called the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI), which was mostly comprised of former Radio Australia employees and whose website is no longer operational, made a substantial submission to the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s inquiry into strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region.
It argued that:
Australia is living in the most geopolitically complex times since WWII with a global contest of ideas between China and developed democracies, evidenced by increasing state-sponsored misinformation campaigns as well as challenges from online extremist propaganda. At stake for Australia are both its interests (security, international law, trade etc) and its values (democratic vs. authoritarian models). The challenge is both immediate and long-term.
Since then, however, the media landscape has substantially changed.
Due to a dramatic improvement of internet connectivity (even in the Pacific), on-demand streaming is now available to more people than ever, though it must be noted that in isolated areas Radio Australia’s shortwave services are still greatly missed.
Much of the ABC’s self-produced content can be streamed, on demand, anywhere in the world.
So as time passes it is becoming more and more difficult to argue on behalf of expensive traditional satellite broadcasting.
Where the ABC could still have a significant impact is in resurrecting extensive broadcast services in the home languages of target markets where we seek to obtain soft diplomatic influence — broadcasting objective Australian news and current affairs directly to audiences where we would seek to reinforce liberal democratic values.
Surely there is also a great opportunity to use streaming and third-party broadcast platforms marketed in English to directly cater for South Asia, which is a crucial geopolitical region that has an historic interest in, and affinity with, Australia.
It could be argued that three separate streaming apps, akin to the domestic ABC app, marketed to each of South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific respectively, and containing English and local language services, might be a cost-effective alternative.
Whatever the delivery platform, it is surely time for the new government to reconsider the situation, and to properly fund a new Australian voice that will speak our values to our neighbours in a manner that they find both understandable and engaging.
The author, Jeff Waters, was Senior Correspondent for the Australia Network, providing bespoke ABC news and current affairs from across Asia and the Pacific for television and Radio Australia.
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