China, media freedom and rebuilding Australia’s voice in the Asia Pacific

Australia’s media voice in the Asia Pacific region is the weakest in 80 years, just when it is most needed.

by Sue Ahearn and Jemima Garrett, co-convenors of the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI)

With China ratchetting up its information push, media freedom under threat and regional media looking to Australia for support, now is the time for Australia’s media voice to be substantially rebuilt.

That was the powerful and irrefutable message from members of our group, the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) when we appeared before the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's inquiry into Australia’s relations with the Pacific recently.

The decimation of the ABC’s international service in 2014 was the first of the Coalition’s raft of cuts which is again seeing the tragic departure of many experienced ABC staff including journalists, presenters and producers.

Despite a 60 per cent staff cut in 2014, ABC International has survived and in the past year or so its Asia Pacific services have begun a tentative renaissance with new programs and more contributors in the region.

With just $11 million per year the ABC broadcasts television to 40 countries, has 24/7 FM radio stations in seven countries mostly in the Pacific and offers a wide range of online and mobile services – not bad value for money! The downside is that this level of funding means the service is still largely made up of programs made for Australian audiences, creating the impression that Australia is talking ‘to’ and not ‘with’ the region.

Jemima Garrett on assignment for Radio Australia in Drimgas village, Western Province, Papua New Guinea

AAPMI’s campaign for a substantial rebuilding of Australia’s media voice in the Asia-Pacific region, which has now been running for two years, is centred on an innovative model of co-pros and joint content-creation with regional media. AAPMI has held talks with ministers and shadow ministers, politicians of all political stripes as well as with a wide range of media industry stakeholders in Australia and the region. The aim is to build bi-partisan and cross-media industry support for a lasting initiative.

Critical need for increased funding in the national interest

Our pitch to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) – which builds on earlier submissions – calls for the budget for Australia’s media voice to be increased to $55-75 million per year and for spending on aid for media in our region to be tripled to the global benchmark of 0.6% of development assistance.

Such an ambitious proposal during the current COVID-related budgetary crunch may seem unrealistic but there are good reasons why that may not be the case. They relate to China, geopolitics and the national interest.

The success of the Morrison government’s signature foreign policy response – the Pacific Step-up – hinges on better communication. Australia is still seen in many quarters as paternalistic and unable to make good on the promises of equal and respectful dialogue that come with the Step-up.

As AAPMI member and former ABC PNG and Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney told the Joint Standing Committee: “The people there (in the Pacific) actually quite like us, provided we are not too arrogant and show them some respect. We once provided them with a wonderful broadcast service. We need to do that again and embrace our Pacific neighbours”.

Lively and culturally-appropriate dialogue is at the heart of what independent, public interest media does best, not just in news and current affairs but through drama, documentary, kids’ shows and a host of interactive online and mobile content. Pacific media, community organisations and national leaders – including at Prime Ministerial-level – have been seeking collaborations with Australia in order to deliver significant untold stories from the region. Many submissions to this effect have also been made to a series of Australian government inquiries since the ABC axed shortwave services in 2017.

AAPMI Co-convenor and former ABC and Radio Australia (RA) Pacific correspondent Jemima Garett told the Committee that in the current geostrategic and information environment, it is urgent that Australia rebuilds its multi-platform media voice in Asia and the Pacific.

"The bottom line is that China’s media push in the Pacific is significant and Australia’s media voice and its development programs are not keeping up," she said.

Examples of China’s media expansion in the Pacific include the growing number of Chinese state-controlled English language services in television, radio and online, a push by Chinese media to sign additional broadcast MOU’s with Pacific media companies, moves to encourage Pacific broadcasters to take state-run news programming and the location of a Xinhua correspondent in Suva (something no Australian media organization has). In 2017, China was quick to take control of Radio Australia’s abandoned shortwave frequencies, although these are not used in the Pacific.

Safeguarding media freedom and regional security

The influence of China is also one of a number of factors affecting media freedom in the Pacific, where governments – grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation and their usual political troubles – are watching and learning from its example. In Asia, China is pushing its state-controlled media model, and organisations associated with the Chinese government are buying up key media houses.

AAPMI member Annmaree O'Keeffe, former Deputy Director-General of AusAID and author of the Lowy Institute’s landmark research on international broadcasting, told the Committee that accessible, independent and credible media is a potent soft power tool for a country’s diplomacy.

Supporters of the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative meeting in Sydney recently

While other countries are expanding their international multi-platform media, O’Keeffe said: “Australia stands out as having stepped away from broadcasting as an important tool in our public diplomacy kit.”

O’Keefe’s figures show the UK and Germany outspend Australia on international broadcasting by a factor of ten on a per capita basis.

Graeme Dobell – another former ABC correspondent and member of AAPMI – appeared at the inquiry in his capacity as Journalist Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

His pointed question for the Committee highlighted security and accountability concerns: “What would we do to speak to the people of a Melanesian country to try and tell them that their government had just been bought? How would that conversation take place?” he asked.

A need for strategic investment

In addition to the $11 million per year spent by the ABC on international broadcasting, the Morrison government has provided $17.2 million to FreeTV Australia over 3 years to offer commercial television programs for rebroadcast by Pacific stations.

Programs provided by FreeTV are limited to local rebroadcast because under federal legislation the ABC is the only organisation allowed to accept government funding for direct international broadcast.

While AAPMI welcomes the government’s recognition of the importance of broadcasting, it does not believe opening the cupboards at the commercial networks and sending reruns to the Pacific is the best use of resources.

In fact, FreeTV is offering many of the same programs to the same Pacific partners as the ABC already provides.

The ABC’s international service – unlike the domestic service – has always carried commercial and SBS programs as well as its own, providing a ‘best of Australia’ service.

Having two government-funded organisations bidding against each other to buy rights for broadcast in the Pacific is not in the interests of Australian taxpayers or the Pacific audience.

Pacific media have made it clear that content made for Australian audiences is not what they want. They would rather have new public interest content, made for Pacific audiences via collaborations between local media and those in partner countries.

Recently, China and New Zealand have responded, offering new funding for co-productions in the Pacific.

For the moment, the amounts are small. They leave room for Australia to support more significant and ongoing partnerships for multi-platform content-creation – a role for which it is uniquely well-placed due to its size and the talent within in its Pasifika, South Sea Island and Indigenous communities.

Winning approval for a major project to rebuild Australia’s media voice in the Pacific will not be easy but with support in Canberra at senior levels continuing to grow, there is no better time to be making the case.

ABC must step up

Debate and policy decisions responding to the new geostrategic and information environment are moving rapidly.

If the ABC is to grasp new opportunities it needs to go to Canberra prepared with innovative proposals and to do more to articulate its unique value in international broadcasting. It also needs to do more to develop and demonstrate stronger connections with audiences in the region and in Australia’s Asia Pacific diaspora communities. This groundwork can be done within its existing budget.

Until now, stop-start funding and the politicisation of the ABC have become major obstacles to the rebuilding of Australia’s vital voice in the region. China’s more aggressive diplomacy has made new thinking possible within the Coalition.

The ABC should have a central role in any new initiatives in the Asia Pacific. However, to ensure long-term sustainability it will be essential to work with SBS, NITV, commercial networks and independent producers, especially those from the Asia Pacific diaspora and South Sea Islander communities.

From the ABC’s point of view, its international service and its little-known but valuable international development arm have the potential to build bridges in Canberra.

Let’s hope the pressing domestic issues facing the ABC – from COVID-19 to bushfires and funding cuts – do not distract ABC management from opportunities that are within reach.

About AAPMI

If you have any queries about AAPMI, please contact Sue Ahearn sue.ahearn@gmail.com or Jemima Garrett garrett.jemima@gmail.com

To keep in touch with media developments in the region join AAPMI’s Facebook page

ABC Alumni’s International Co-ordinator is Vivien Altman altmanvivien@gmail.com / mobile +61 407 280 638

Further reading:

AAPMI’s submission to the Inquiry into Relations with the Pacific by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is available here (submission 16). The ABC’s submission is on the same page (submission 17).

A transcript of the evidence given to the Committee earlier this month will be available soon.

AAPMI’s submission to the Review of Australian broadcasting services in the Asia Pacific – made under its former name of Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific (SABAP) – has valuable in-depth information not available elsewhere. The Alumni’s submission to this inquiry is also available here and alumnus Richard Dinnen’s review of the Committee’s final report is available here.

Who is AAPMI: The Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) – formerly known as Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific – brings together former and current media executives, journalists and technologists with wide experience in Asia and the Pacific with other experts and members of Australia’s Asia Pacific diaspora communities. It has members in most states and territories, and supporters in ten nations in our region.