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Australian Soaps to the Pacific - Good Diplomacy?

24 Jun 2020
By Richard Broinowski AO
Former Masterchef judges George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan at the 2016 TV Week Logie Awards. Source: Eva Rinaldi

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched an initiative to send commercial Australian television programs to local stations in the South Pacific. This move will probably do little to enhance what used to be a vigorous and discerning projection of Australian news and values into the region.

In May 2020, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced a plan to spend $17.1 million of taxpayers’ money to purchase popular Australian commercial programs and send them to regional television stations for broadcast in the South Pacific. The list includes lifestyle programs such as Lego Masters and Better Homes and Gardens, children’s programs, and features such as Neighbours and Border Security.

These programs have superficial entertainment value, but will probably do little to project Australia’s perspective on the world, let alone engage in a dialogue of cultures with its South Pacific neighbours. Border Security seems to be a particularly insensitive idea. Nothing, it seems, will appear about people from the islands living in Australia.

Things used to be different. In December 1939, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) began an international short-wave service designed initially to counter German and then Japanese wartime propaganda. Post-war, with transmitters at Cox’s Peninsula in Darwin, Carnarvon in Western Australia, Shepparton in Victoria, and Brandon in Queensland, Radio Australia grew into a highly influential voice, projecting Australian perspectives on international events, and not just to the neighbourhood. Its signal regularly reached as far west as India, as far north as China, Korea, and Japan, and depending on atmospheric conditions, as far as Europe and the United States. Radio Australia’s programs were broadcast 24 hours a day in English, and for shorter periods in French, Indonesian, Thai, Burmese, Japanese, Khmer, Tok Pisin, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

Radio Australia news was regarded as objective and accurate, without propaganda.  In the region, it rivalled the BBC Overseas Service and had a bigger regional listenership than Voice of America.  The sizes of its audiences were gauged by the substantial weight of fan mail from listeners in each country. In Fiji, cabinet meetings were said to be interrupted so that ministers could listen to Radio Australia news.

However, in the early 1990s, the ABC was increasingly deprived of funds by the Australian government. Determined to protect its domestic programs as far as possible, the Corporation’s overseas service became one of several sacrificial lambs (ABC symphony orchestras were another). Radio Australia funding, running at around $15 million in 1990, was progressively reduced. The rationalisation was that short-wave “was a 1930s technology,” allegedly attracting fewer and fewer audiences. Among others, the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans had no such reservations, and continued their own short-wave broadcasts.

In 1993, Radio Australia’s identity was further weakened when its studios at East Burwood in Melbourne were moved to new shared accommodation with domestic ABC Radio in Southbank on the Yarra River. Radio Australia lost language programs, staff, and morale. And despite vehement protests from its listenership, including outback Australians who regularly listened to its English-language programs, Radio Australia’s short-wave transmissions were finally terminated in 2017. The short-wave transmitters at Cox’s Peninsula in Darwin were sold to a fundamentalist Christian service for broadcasts over Indonesia. The Chinese took over some of RA’s unused frequencies.

ABC programs now get to the region via a complex system of podcasts, FM broadcasts through contracted local radio stations, and Intelsat. Instead of Radio Australia having its own management and staff, broadcasts are managed by David Hua, the articulate and dedicated head of the ABC’s International Strategy, who operates out of ABC headquarters on Harris Street, Sydney.

Australia’s international television, which David Hua also oversees, has suffered a similar diminution. The idea of television to the region started with serious intentions in the early 1990s. Its ABC planners contemplated culturally-friendly programs aimed at regional audiences rather than expatriates: sports such as golf, badminton, and soccer rather than Aussie Rules; news programs about Asian as well as Australian stories; and emphases on multicultural and regional lifestyles, indigenous affairs, and culinary programs.

First was Australia Television in 1993, for which the Keating government gave start-up funding but no running costs. Reflecting off transponders from the geo-stationary Indonesian Palapa B satellite, its signal covered much of South East Asia as far north as southern China and into the Pacific.

But lacking funds to continue operating, Australia Television was taken over by Channel 7 in 1998 to run commercially – first with news, then as a shopping channel.

In 2001, the service was transferred back to the ABC as Television International.

In 2002, it was re-branded as ABC Asia Pacific.

In 2006, it was re-branded again as the Australian Network.

In the 2014 budget, the Coalition cut all funding to Australia Network, which was replaced by a drastically reduced service called Australia Plus.

From 1 July 2018, the network was renamed ABC Australia.

With his budget of $11 million, David Hua insists that Radio Australia and the renamed television service ABC Australia will continue to keep an Australian perspective alive in the region. However, in 2018, the seasoned Australian journalist Graeme Dobell described how the service has become a sorry political plaything of conservative politicians determined to cut down the ABC rather than as a sophisticated projection of Australian soft power.

A similar fate befell the Australian News and Information Bureau (ANIB), whose professional journalists used to project a vigorous image of Australia in all its aspects to the world through much of the post-war period. Starved of funds, the Bureau was folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the early 1990s, where it died from diplomatic indifference and neglect.

What is needed urgently, in this writer’s opinion, especially given the inroads into regional audiences by services such as Radio China, is a return to basics – short-wave as well as intelsat and podcasts – a wide-ranging service capable of delivering quality radio and television programs that, to quote the Australian Broadcasting Act of 1983, “will encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australia  attitudes on world affairs; and enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs.”

To meet that need, commercial programs like Neighbours, Border Force, and Master Chef won’t cut the mustard.

Richard Broinowski took time out from diplomacy to manage Radio Australia in the early 1990s. Working with staff in ABC Radio and ABC Television, he was also an early strategic planner of Australia’s first overseas television service.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.