Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:54 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:54 | SYDNEY

Australia Network: Messy, slow, right


Annmaree O’Keeffe

6 December 2011 14:30

It's taken twelve months, a ministerial traducing, an AFP investigation and a referral to the Auditor-General but the Gillard Government has finally decided that the rightful and permanent home for the government-funded international television service, the Australia Network, is within the government-funded broadcasting stable, the ABC.

Finally, a good outcome for one of Australia's most important diplomatic soft power tools. Big shame about the process.

All one can say about the tortuous adventure leading to this decision is that it demonstrates very strongly to the foreign audiences Australia hopes to influence through Australia Network that this country has robust debates.

The question for a number of people hearing the news of this decision is why it was given such prominence in the 24-hour news cycle. Only editors can answer that. But what is important in this story is the contribution that the Australia Network, together with its stable-mate Radio Australia, makes as a longstanding element of Australia's efforts to influence foreign audiences.

Australia is far from alone in using international broadcasting to influence foreign public opinion to support our national interest. In a Lowy Institute report I co-authored last year, International Broadcasting and its contribution to Public Diplomacy*, we looked at the way government-funded international broadcasting operates across a number of major economies including the US, UK, Japan, France, Germany and China. Australia has been the only country to contract out what is considered internationally to be a core element of a government's soft power.

This week's decision to place Australia Network permanently within the ABC means Australia is no longer unique in the international pack of government-funded international broadcasters. But more importantly, does it mean that Australia's broadcaster will be more effective in carrying out its soft power role? I believe it will be.

Government-funded international broadcasting has played an important role globally in advancing strategic and national interests for more than 80 years. And despite the rise of online and social media, a number of countries have continued to invest significant amounts in their international broadcasting efforts as part of targeted public diplomacy programs. One country that stands out is China, which is reportedly investing around US$6 billion in its bid to influence foreign opinion.

Radio Australia and more recently its television counterpart, Australia Network, have been longstanding components of Australia's soft power approach. They broadcast into a unique geopolitical environment.

As we concluded in our report, Australia is one of the most prosperous middle powers on the globe and occupies a privileged place in the Asia Pacific. Our neighbours include some of the poorer and less stable nations of the Pacific as well as some of the most populous and increasingly successful economies of the world. Building trust, promoting understanding, and engaging these nations by projecting our image and generating interest in our culture, expertise, ideals and values benefits Australia's long-term interests. International broadcasting is a powerful tool which Australia can wield to advance those interests.

But for two decades now, Australian governments have created policy, operational and budget uncertainty for our international broadcasters. Threatened with annihilation by the Howard Government, the broadcasters eventually survived but at significant operational cost, including the outsourcing of the television service to the Seven Network. This unhappy union dissolved in 2001 when Seven shut it down because of its lack of commercial viability and unpredictable government funding. It was soon resurrected, with the ABC winning a new five-year tender in 2001 and again in 2005. It's been operating the service ever since.

The resilience of Australia Network and Radio Australia to not just survive but to deliver on Australia's soft power objectives, despite government vacillation, suggests they have the potential to further Australia's national interests. But to do so, they need to be credible, independent, financially secure and strategically relevant. It can only be hoped that this latest decision will give Australia Network the predictable base it needs to fulfil its soft power role.

* The report was commissioned by the ABC.

Photo by Flickr user :teymur madjderey.