Australia is failing to broadcast its best television into Southeast Asia, a serious missed opportunity, argues Duncan Graham
Most nations strive to show their best sides to the world through international TV channels, seen as effective means of building rapport and dispelling distrust.
On these platforms they serve documentaries, dramas and newscasts made to enhance their country’s real or imagined virtues. BBC World, France 24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other telecasters offer vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend A$117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$300 million. The Voice of America has US$218 million, all from government funds. Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television.
We have Australia Plus, run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with the help of Monash University, the Government of Victoria, and Swisse – a food supplement manufacturer owned by a Hong Kong-based company.
Through this service we give the world Bananas in Pyjamas, Giggle and Hoot and Australian Rules played seriously by no other country apart from a hybrid in Ireland. Yet we live in a region where projecting a positive image among the near neighbours is particularly important as the biggest in the block have reservations about us.
According to a recent survey published by the USAsia Centre, Indonesians responded to the question: which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government? Saudi Arabia was first at 47 per cent, followed by China, and the US. Only two per cent said Australia. Clearly, we have problems.
A strange message to the region
Our presentations to the Asia–Pacific used to be different. For decades, Australian governments believed that broadcasting and telecasting into the region was an important commitment, sowing ideas, informing and influencing.
Using shortwave, Radio Australia started in 1939, mainly to counter Japanese propaganda. After the war, it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of Foreign Affairs. Other terms commonly found in the literature include ‘globally connected’ and ‘promotion of Australian values’.
Thousands developed their English skills huddled over crackling sets, particularly during the 1950s–60s. Technology forced changes. Satellites eclipsed land-based transmitters. Re-brands became necessary but the vision remained and the mission expanded.
In 2006, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that ABC Asia Pacific (formerly Australia Television International) would become Australia Network, with funding from his department plus advertising.
[ratina][/ratina]Downer said the ABC would run the network offering ‘high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region’. Also promised were ‘extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs’.
In 2011, the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV which had long campaigned to get the job. When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company—no friend of Labor—would get the contract, the tender process was scrapped and the job given to the ABC.
The failure to use the opportunity well is irresponsible
The victory was short-lived. After the Liberal-National Coalition won government in 2013, Australia Network was turned off. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the network ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’, but provided no facts to back the claim.
The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said the decision ‘sends a strange message to the region that the Government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia’.
The failure to use the opportunity well is irresponsible.
Killing off the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced. The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster, so the gap had to be filled.
At the site for Australia Plus, the image polishers have called it ‘…an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavour that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.’
So far, few corporates have clapped because their logos are yet to appear on Indonesian screens. The 360 Australian businesses that launched a mighty assault on the Indonesian market in 2015, and again this year with 120 delegates, are absent from the list of sponsors.
It might be logical to assume we would be offering our best and brightest programs
The new service is believed to cost A$20 million a year, with three ‘foundation partners’—in the coy language of one report—‘signing on to advertising deals worth in the low single-digit million dollar range’. Presumably, this means somewhere between one and three million a year, so still a minority contribution.
As Australian leaders recite the mantra that our relationship with Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship, it might be logical to assume we would be offering our best and brightest programs, selected specifically for the archipelago and other markets.
According to the ABC ‘the service is delivered as a single stream across all territories. Programs do not have separate versions for individual territories.’ So it is one-size-fits-all in the 43 countries that get Australia Plus. This negates the broadcaster’s claim that ‘the ABC places the audience at the centre of everything it does’.
In Indonesia, three pay-to-use cable services carry Australia Plus. They get it free. The ABC says it is ‘available to three million people in Indonesia.’ This means the number who pay for access to networks each offering 50 or more channels.
We are the closest Western nation to Indonesia with the ability to present a different perspective in the media jungle of Southeast Asia. Australia Plus says its mission is ‘to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with an uniquely Australian perspective.’ Note the order of priorities.
Indonesian viewers comparing Australia Plus with presentations from other nations might conclude that we are a poor country offering inconsistent fare, and indifferent to audience needs.
No lack of skills and talent, just lack of political will
This situation may not concern the Government but it appears to worry the ABC. In March this year it made an untitled submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper.
The DFAT document noted the expansion of the BBC World Service and other TV networks into overseas telecasting while reminding DFAT of some original principles: ‘Australia requires a strategy for engagement which enhances mutual understanding and respect and which encourages an exchange of ideas. Establishing strong cultural and social links with international populations will facilitate stronger economic ties and more productive collaboration.’
Perhaps this late prod to conscience might someday get a reaction. However, so far nothing seems to stir the major parties. They enjoy ABC and SBS excellence at home and offer heart-warming statements about Australia being respected in the region.
If Australia’s overseas TV is supposed to project a robust Western democracy, a creative explorer of art and technology and a leader in education, then Australia Plus is a turn-off. It could be a splendid showcase in Indonesia and the other nations where it is available, spreading Australian news, culture, values and opinions, equal to its international competitors.
We have the skills and talent. What we lack is political will.
(This article is based on a paper presented at the Indonesia Council Open Conference at Flinders University.)
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