Review of Asia Pacific broadcasting

Few hopeful signs in Asia Pacific broadcast review

The Federal Government has quietly published the report of its review of Australian broadcasting services in Asia and the Pacific.

The Government agreed to the review two years ago, raising hopes of a revitalisation of Australian media services to our neighbours, largely provided by the ABC until budget cuts reduced content and the closure of short wave radio transmitters took away the long established means by which it was delivered.

Our friends at Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific (SABAP) have welcomed elements of the report, but say it falls well short of the big vision required to give Australia the voice it needs in the region, particularly in the Pacific.

SABAP convenor Jemima Garrett said the report dramatically underestimates the importance of the Pacific.

"It's about Australia having a voice in, and a conversation with, the region. In these more complex geopolitical times, it is about Australia's interests, influence and values," Ms Garrett said.

Read the full SABAP statement

Richard Dinnen on assignment with the peace monitoring group, Loloho, Bougainville, 1999

Report misses the point and the moment.

by Richard Dinnen

The Federal Government says it wants to step up in the Pacific, but has delivered another stumble with its review of Australian broadcasting services in Asia and the Pacific.

The review delivered a report, published without fanfare, that misses the point, the moment, and the glaring need for an Australian voice in the Pacific part of the Asia Pacific region.

Government members might not know that it was their political ancestor, Robert Menzies, who launched Australia as an international broadcaster.

He said, in 1939, that “the time has come to speak for ourselves”.

That time has not yet passed. Australia needs a voice in the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps more so than ever before.

We have not yet lost that voice, but it is in decline. A much-reduced Radio Australia, only available to those with internet or within range of a local rebroadcast. And the largely irrelevant and as-yet undelivered bundle of commercial TV shows the Australian Government will pay to send into some of the few Pacific homes with TV or electricity.

This review of Australian broadcasting services in Asia and the Pacific gives little hope to those of us who know that the Pacific region is better, safer, stronger, when Australia is fully and constructively engaged with its nearest neighbours. That engagement is good for them, and for us.

But Australian Governments, and their foreign policy advisers, often seem more interested in Washington and Brussels than in Honiara or Nuku’alofa.

Canberra tends to see the Pacific as a miasma of bewildering political squabbles and chronic governance failures, a place where ministers rarely visit and diplomatic careers stall.

I covered the Pacific for the ABC for six years, proudly a member of its specialist international broadcasting team, Radio Australia.

I told how events in small Pacific nations directly affect Australia’s strategic interests. And I saw, time and again, how those interests are not best served by Australian condescension and strings-attached aid to the region.

Locally driven media coverage, in partnership with Pacific broadcasters, is essential. It’s how Pacific nations get news of each other, and it’s a crucial ingredient in building regional relationships and co-operation.

Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International have been key players, their short-wave services reaching across vast distances to remote communities with no internet or other media choices.

Short-wave is old technology, but recent digital improvements suggest it’s still the best tool for long-distance transmission.

However we make it heard, an independent, trustworthy, widely available Australian voice is urgently required in the Pacific.

This report lacks that urgency of purpose. It’s a bloodless thing that spells out the benefits of our international broadcasting - social, geopolitical and financial - but doesn’t set a course towards them, or to the regional and Pacific diaspora partnerships it correctly identifies as the basis of future efforts.

Instead, it uses data from Asia to make inevitably incorrect assumptions about the Pacific, another characteristic of Australian foreign policy – when they say “Asia Pacific”, they usually mean “Asia”. They are not the same thing.

The vast majority of submissions to this review were about the Pacific. The region is asking Australia to help deliver quality public-interest media with locally relevant content in culturally appropriate partnerships. It’s not a big ask. But it would be a big contribution, and one we can afford to make. In fact, we can’t afford not to.

The ABC has an admirable record as an international broadcaster. It should lead a revitalised Australian broadcast presence in the Pacific region.

There are signs the new ABC Chair supports a renewal of international services. Let’s hope Ita Buttrose has the Canberra clout and Ultimo influence to persuade the Government and her management team that this can, and should, go ahead.

Richard Dinnen is a former ABC Pacific and Papua New Guinea correspondent