Australian Outlook

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Do you support the Australia Network?

28 Feb 2014
AIIA Fellows responding to the burning question of the week.

Expert Panel-Fellows of the AIIA

HilaryCharlesworthHilary Charlesworth FAIIA-Professor, ANU; Director of Centre for International Governance and JusticeProfessorJocelynCheyAMJocelyn Chey AM FAIIA-Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; former Consul-General in Hong KongJamesCottonJames Cotton FAIIA-Emeritus Professor at the University of NSWRawdonDalrympleRawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA-Former Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; Chairman of ASEAN Focus Group LtdGraemeDobellGraeme Dobell FAIIA-Journalist Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy InstituteErikaFellerErika Feller FAIIA-Former UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection
Janet_HuntJanet Hunt FAIIA-Former Head of the Australian Council for Overseas AidJamesIngramAOJames Ingram AO FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Head of the UN World Food ProgramJohnMcCarthyAOJohn McCarthy AO FAIIA-Former Ambassador to Japan, Indonesia, the United States, Thailand, Mexico and VietnamRobertO’NeillRobert O’Neill FAIIA– Former Chichele Professor of the History of War, Oxford UniversityGarryWoodardGarry Woodard FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Senior Fellow, University of MelbourneRichardWoolcottACRichard Woolcott FAIIA-Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Question: Do you support the Australia Network? Does it fulfil Australia’s public diplomacy needs?

Graeme Dobell FAIIA
Pose the proposition at its simplest: Does Australia need to talk to and with its neighbours?My heartfelt Yes to both questions has to come with a host of declarations about my love for the ABC. Mark me as the ultimate biased/committed witness. I spent 33 years as a journalist working for the ABC, mostly for the international service Radio Australia (RA). Australia Network draws much of its journalistic DNA from Radio Australia. That RA lineage means it is possible to call on the founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, to express his support for Australia Network’s service, beaming to more than 46 countries across Asia, the Pacific and Indian subcontinent.In RA’s opening broadcast in 1939, Prime Minister Menzies proclaimed: ‘The time has come to speak for ourselves.’Australia needs to speak for itself in the region as much today as it did 75 years ago. The Australia Network is a wonderful instrument for serving Australia and our abiding interests in this extraordinary part of the world we call our neighbourhood; the service draws great strength from being part of the ABC, a unique institution with a uniquely Australian way of doing journalism.
Jocelyn Chey AM FAIIA
Yes, I support the Australia Network.  Most Australians are not aware how much work has been done already to roll into one radio broadcasts (the former Radio Australia), Australia International TV and online services providing news and program content directly or through partners in the region.  We have to reach out to the media savvy public in Asia, where telecommunications and internet services are more sophisticated than here at home, and this is the way to do it.  However, we cannot rely on the Australia Network alone for our public diplomacy needs, and we cannot truthfully answer the question as to whether the Network fulfils those needs unless we have independent public opinion surveys to measure the results.We have to remember that soft power resides in many other aspects of our culture, including our business representation, sporting prowess, celebrity representation, home brands, tourism, aid and headline news.
Erika Feller FAIIA
I support a balanced media outreach by Australia to its neighbours. Australia Network aims at this. I do not believe fulfilling Australia’s public diplomacy needs should be the driving motivation, at least until there is a clear articulation and broadly based community acceptances of what these needs actually are. Rather the Network should fiercely guard an independent and insightful coverage of issues, including those that are not necessarily high on the domestic Australian agenda. The challenge for the Network will, I imagine, always be how to capture a following that goes significantly beyond expat Australians and students wishing to learn English – although this in itself is an important service the Network can/does provide. The competition is strong, with the ever growing attraction of the big networks like Aljazeera to the audience Australia Network is aiming at. Actually Aljazeera in English offers an interesting model for an international network, when it comes to the variety of its programs and the emphasis on quality, in-depth coverage of events and documentaries.
Garry Woodard FAIIA
I have had the opportunity to consult Michael Mann, whom was for four years the Founding CEO of AUSTV, Australia Network’s predecessor.According to him:- it is all about content not mode of delivery. For example, where he lives in Bangkok he does not have access to the Australia Network but can still watch some ABC news programs such as Insiders over the internet.- the ABC is not a good home for the Australia Network given too many conflicting internal agendas and a focus on national broadcasting rather than international.- distribution is the most important issue. Why not provide CNN (and other networks?) with a regular program of Australian news? CNN already allows this – for example, Rolex sponsors regular tennis and yachting 30 minute news programs and there is a sponsored “Inside Africa” program. Many more people would see this than see the Australia Network. DFAT could contract an outstanding director by open bidding directly to produce such a program. It would cost a lot less than what is the government is paying for the Australia Network. All ABC and SBS Australian non copyright programming should be available free for this program since the taxpayer is already paying for this and it could also purchase items from Australian commercial network and others including foreign networks and independents. Importantly this program should also be shown domestically at a time when people in Australia will watch it. perhaps on SBS.
James Cotton FAIIA
A broadcaster in the position of the Australia Network must fulfil at least 5 functions:

  • Provide a source of news and entertainment for the many Australians abroad.
  • Provide a perspective on Australia and on the world that offers a distinctively Australian voice.
  • Provide a representation of Australia especially to non-Australians that is accurate and balanced.
  • Provide particular services to non-Australians.
  • Provide information and comment that is not prey to partisan or proprietorial bias.

In the light of these functions, what are the best mechanisms and modalities for their performance?

Provide a source of news and entertainment for the many Australians abroad. This group includes expatriates and their families, as well as those overseas for shorter periods. It follows that the range of programs needs to be extensive – from quality children’s fare to drama, sport and serious commentary. The broadcaster must have access to material of this range and characterised by significant and consistent Australian content.

Provide a perspective on Australia and on the world that offers a distinctively Australian voice. This is a role that is particularly important in the era of major news organisations for whom the world is seen largely from a North American or European perspective. It follows that a provider that is a subsidiary of an international conglomerate is not to be preferred.

Provide a representation of Australia especially to non-Australians that is accurate and balanced. This is an equally complex function. The coverage should not be uncritical but neither should it dwell on the negative. It should show that Australians are both justifiably proud of their country and its achievements while aware that it confronts social and other problems and that in dealing with these problems Australians believe that it is necessary to consider the evidence and – where public opinion is divided – to debate possible solutions. It should show by example that discovery, debate and decision are best conducted in the public eye, free from the manipulation of special interests and within agreed rules of civility.

Provide particular services to non-Australians. The signal example is through offerings that help with English language familiarity and acquisition. In performing this function it reminds the world that the use of the English language is not restricted to North America. Such materials must meet professional ESL standards, and the provider must place this requirement first.

Provide information and comment that is not prey to partisan or proprietorial bias. A public broadcaster, bound to perform within very specific and public guidelines, and subject ultimately to parliamentary oversight, is more likely to be successful at this task. From Hearst and Northcliffe through to Maxwell, Black and Murdoch, the faults of the proprietorial model of information provision are very well known and currently on display. Equally, it should be allowed to get on with its job sufficiently insulated from partisan interference.

All these functions need to be kept distinct from the use of the medium as a commercial arm since it is likely that in that event messages would become mixed. The Australians in the audience would of course be accustomed to seeing advertisements for soap powder but if a specifically Australian source became a vehicle for the advertisement of international products audiences might come to doubt its Australian character and claims.