What does the Australia Network’s closure and the launch of Sky News’ Australia Channel mean for Australian soft power?
Since their inception, Australia’s international media organisations have trodden a fine line between promoting Australia’s interests in the Asia Pacific region and upholding the values of the Fourth Estate which sees critical reporting of government as central to its role.
Initially, this debate surrounded the role of Radio Australia, which was established by the Australian government during WWII as a broadcasting service aimed at countering enemy propaganda, but by 1950, responsibility for Radio Australia was returned to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and declared free from government control. Yet, in that same year, the minister for external affairs, Percy Spender, wrote to ABC Chairman Richard Boyer: ‘I think it is important that Radio Australia be looked at as an instrument of foreign policy’.
This raised the question: can an international broadcasting operation be funded by the Australian government but not necessarily support its aims? The Australian media’s role in Indonesia has been central to this debate.
The Indonesia–Australia relationship is often described as Australia’s most important, and the broadcasting media seen as crucial to enhancing mutual understanding. During Indonesia’s New Order (1965–1998) Radio Australia often broadcast independent and controversial news throughout the archipelago, in particular, critical reports about Indonesian-occupied East Timor. Australian officials often had to placate Indonesian officials by explaining that Radio Australia was funded by the government but not beholden to them.
The debate over Radio Australia’s objectives continued until 1997, when the decision was made by then prime minister John Howard to drastically reduce its funding. That same year, the coalition government outsourced Australia’s international television station, Australia Television (established four years earlier), to the Seven Network — despite its impressive penetration in the region, which a Senate Committee concludedequalled that of CNN and the BBC. But the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 meant advertising dollars were not there for Seven, and after three years it stopped the service. Australia Network returned to the ABC, continuing to splutter along relatively underfunded, and was largely seen as a service for Australian expatriates to watch national sporting events.
By 2012, an internal ABC International Indonesia Review report stated that Australia ‘has a lack of brand recognition in Indonesia’. A key recommendation was to foster connections with Indonesian media organisations, and, in 2013, ABC International formed impressive and unique partnerships with Indonesian media companies, including Detik.com, Kompas Gramedia, Tempo, Republika Online and, more recently, the television conglomerate MNC Group. ABC provided these companies with Indonesian translations of content at no cost, so that more Australian news would enter the Indonesian media sphere. ABC International CEO Lynley Marshall said this showed ‘a new era of soft diplomacy’.
But in late 2013 relations between Australia and Indonesia reached their lowest point since the East Timor conflict of 1999 as news spread that Australia had tapped the phone of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and other senior Indonesian officials. As the story initially broke through the ABC, its international arm was able to provide Indonesian news partners with details of the story in the Indonesian language.
This infuriated many Australian government officials and some commentators who believed that ABC International was exacerbating bilateral tensions. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said later on talkback radio that the ABC ‘seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor, [Snowden]’.The situation was further exacerbated in January 2014 when the ABC’s Jakarta correspondent reported claims (including photographs) that asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat had possibly had their hands burnt by the Australian Navy. The claims, which were emphatically denied by the head of the navy, were broadcast on Australia Network throughout the region.
It was soon clear that Australia Network’s A$223 million ($US195 million) funding (over 10 years) would be cut from the budget. At the time it was broadcasting in 46 different countries. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had argued that it was not fulfilling the Australian government’s foreign policy objectives as a ‘tool of public diplomacy’ and questions surrounded ‘whether it is meeting the goal of promoting Australia’s interests overseas’.
Earlier this month, as Australia Network began to shed its staff, it was announced that Sky News (owned by BSkyB and the Seven and Nine Networks) would launch the new Australia Channel. This will be facilitated in conjunction with broadcast provider Globecast Australia. Sky News had missed out on securing Australia Network in 2011, when the then Labor government decided to abort a bungled tender process and leave Australia’s international media arm with the ABC. Sky News is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers’ support for the Liberal-National Coalition in the 2013 Federal Election was clearly evident. But as Sky News was ‘Australia’s only 24-hour business channel’, it claimed it will ‘help promote Australian culture … [and] showcase Australian industry and Australia as an investment destination’. Its chief executiveAngelos Frangopoulos said ‘it shows good outcomes in the national interest don’t necessarily have to be delivered by a government-funded broadcaster’.
Sadly, arguments that a free and critical media were good for promoting Australia’s national interest in the region largely fell on deaf ears. The similarities between the long-debated role of Radio Australia and the recent culling of Australia Network shows how the precise purpose of Australia’s international broadcasters is unlikely to be resolved while officials believe there is a dichotomy between the Fourth Estate and ‘soft diplomacy’.
Australia Network’s closure impacts the reach of Australia’s international news service, and comes at a time when larger international broadcasting organisations are partnering with Indonesian media companies. For example, CNN partners with local media conglomerate TransCorp, while Bloomberg partners with VisiNews Asia. Other well-funded international broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera continue to increase their Indonesian language services. Australia Channel has stated they are not a replacement for Australia Network and is focusing initially on providing a service to Australian expatriates to gain subscriber fees.
But, if they are Australia’s sole international broadcasting channel, do they plan to go to the government for financial assistance in the future? And, if so, has the line between the role of soft diplomacy and a free and critical media been blurred even further?
Dr Ross Tapsell is a lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.
This article originally appeared on the East Asia Forum. Republished with permission.