Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 14:10 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 14:10 | SYDNEY

Australia Network: The tender trap II


Alex Oliver


8 July 2011 14:17

My earlier post questioned the Government's decision to move the Australia Network tender decision away from the Department of Foreign Affairs and to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. But that's process; there are also issues of substance.

There is the money, for a start. Reading the hyperbolic commentary, one would think the very modest Australia Network TV service was some sort of crown jewel. It's not.

We've often pointed out the strains on DFAT's budget, and its public diplomacy program has been eroded dangerously. The ten-year, $223 million Australia Network contract might sound lucrative, but the annual expenditure from this year will be less in real terms than at any time in the last ten years.

Our expenditure per capita on international broadcasting is far less than other major broadcasting nations, countries which have been investing heavily in broadcasting over the last decades with television and 24-hour news services to Asia. In the face of China's multi-billion dollar investment in its six-language CCTV service, Australia's broadcasting outlay looks pitiful.

Then there's the question of editorial independence. The tender documentation gives a very wide latitude to Government to intervene in programming decisions when it considers, 'in its absolute opinion', material not to be in the interests of Australia, inconsistent with the Commonwealth's objectives for the service or 'otherwise inappropriate'.

Whether this differs materially from the existing contractual provisions is not known, but our report last year on the public diplomacy value of international broadcasting emphasised the imperative of editorial independence for Government-funded broadcasters. Without that independence, credibility is lost and the broadcaster's value as a public diplomacy vehicle is irredeemably compromised.

While it's legitimate for Government to have a say on the general mix of programming, and it's essential that Government and broadcaster have a close working relationship so that regional priorities and concerns are well understood, a broadcaster that is seen as a mere mouthpiece of Government is next to worthless.

It's clear that, while the Australia Network has a potentially very valuable contribution to make to Australia's international interests, both the contract for the service and the tender process itself are severely flawed. Successive governments have neglected Australia's diplomacy, and the Australia Network issue is no exception.

Disclosure: Alex Oliver and Annmaree O'Keeffe were the joint authors of the Lowy Institute working paper 'International broadcasting and its contribution to public diplomacy', commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and released in September 2010.

Photo by Flickr user Oblivious Dude.