Menzies’ wisdom still relevant for international broadcasting

As the ABC celebrates 80 years of international broadcasting, ABC Alumni director Helen Grasswill looks back on the strategic diplomatic and security benefits the ABC’s international service has provided since its launch in 1939 by prime minister Robert Menzies. With Australia now dealing with the most geopolitically complex times experienced since World War II, she argues that it’s time for the federal government to reverse budget cuts under the Abbott government and reinstate its support of the ABC’s international service, particularly in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Morrison must emulate Menzies – not Abbott – and support the ABC international service

By Helen Grasswill / 3 December 2019

As the ABC begins to celebrate 80 years of international broadcasting, it’s sobering to reflect on the very different legacies of two former prime ministers.

In launching our first international radio service – then named “Australia Calling” – Prime Minister Robert Menzies told audiences, “the time has come to speak for ourselves”.

The date was 20 December 1939, just two months after the outbreak of World War II. His speech was translated into several languages and transmitted globally.

There can be no doubt that in this time of great fear and uncertainty Menzies saw direct influence in other countries as pivotal to Australia’s security, particularly in the Pacific. Even before the war, around the time of his ascendancy to the prime ministership in April 1939, he’d said:

“I have become convinced that, in the Pacific, Australia must see herself as a principal, providing herself with her own information and maintaining her own diplomatic contact with foreign powers.”

In the immediate post-war years there were moves to drastically cut the international service, as noted by historian Ken Inglis.

ABC chair Ita Buttrose recalled this story on the 80th anniversary of ABC international broadcasting, telling a gathering of international radio stalwarts at the national broadcaster’s Ultimo headquarters that the government was warned “that if we gave up our international frequencies, someone else, say the Russians for example, would move right in.”

This lesson of history, regrettably, was ignored in 2014 by then prime minister Tony Abbott and his foreign minister Julie Bishop,

They unilaterally terminated, after just one year, the ABC’s $223-million, ten-year contract with DFAT to provide a broadcasting and online content service to Asia and the Pacific.

As a consequence, the ABC’s international broadcasting effort was decimated.

“Around 80 broadcasters and in situ correspondents posted to the Asia Pacific region were made redundant including the legendary Sean Dorney,” recalls former staff-elected board member Quentin Dempster.

“Under cover of the controversy surrounding the termination of the contract, the ABC seized the opportunity to close down its remaining shortwave radio services. The culmination of these events has left our Pacific neighbours confounded and believing that Australia no longer cared.”

Only one correspondent left

With the exception of Papua New Guinea, not a single permanent correspondent remains in situ in the Pacific.

Now in 2019 we’re witnessing much teeth-gnashing about China’s media infiltration of the Pacific region, but a galling lack of acknowledgement that China has moved into the very space we chose to vacate.

Aside from assuming control of Radio Australia’s former shortwave frequencies, our largest trading partner is using its Xinhau news agency to push a state-controlled media model across all platforms in both the Pacific and other parts of Asia. Read more

Strategically, the Abbott government’s media retreat from the Pacific seems incomprehensible. The fledging “Australia Calling” had long morphed into Radio Australia and since the 1950s come under the umbrella of the ABC.

Over the next half-dozen decades it has, as Buttrose noted, “flourished as an integral part of the ABC, and by extension, served as a vital and effective diplomatic tool”. Similarly, the Australia Network and its predecessors (Australia Television International and ABC Asia Pacific) gave us an effective presence across the region.

Graeme Dobell

Graeme Dobell, one of the foremost experts on Australia’s voice in the Pacific, said in ASPI’s The Strategist last year (9 July 2018):

“When the Coalition government killed off funding for international TV in 2014, a communications minister named Malcolm Turnbull argued that there was no need for the Oz voice in a crowded regional arena.

“If people wanted international stuff, Turnbull said, they could go to the BBC or CNN.

“The ghost of Menzies would have raised both eyebrows, because Menzies said the purpose of getting close to great and powerful friends was to bolster our interests, not hand ‘em over – insurance policy, not giving away the store.”

Morrison must look to Menzies

It’s time now for prime minister Scott Morrison to embrace the wisdom of his party’s founding father.

Whilst the PM is to some extent renewing an emphasis on relations with Asia and the Pacific, it’s hard to fathom his government’s initial attempt to remedy the soft power media situation by allocating $17.1 million over three years to Free TV Australia, for the rebroadcast of commercial networks’ programs in the Pacific. Announced in November 2018, the funding was not sought by the commercials nor, according to Free TV CEO Bridget Fair, were any commercial networks “building partnerships in the Pacific”.

Why did this funding not go to the ABC? After all, legislation requires the national broadcaster to provide an international service, and in terms of the Pacific it still has the expertise and connections to do so effectively and strategically.

As Dobell noted last year:

“Australia has largely ceased using media power to play an intelligent and effective part in the affairs of our region. … We don’t face war, but trying times certainly demand a distinct Oz voice. Menzies would raise one of his famous eyebrows that we even need to have this argument.”

Despite the constraints of insufficient funding, the ABC has managed to keep some presence in the Pacific, largely due to its international strategy of focusing on digital media deliveries in line with the growing (but not yet ubiquitous) availability of internet-enabled telephony (smart phones) with 4G (and 5G coming).

A new international iview streaming service has just come into play. As well, whilst mass broadcast reach is diminished, ABC Radio Australia still has some FM distribution, and both it and the ABC Australia television service programs are distributed by satellite across Asia and the Pacific with rebroadcast arrangements in place with other broadcasters. Read more pp 46-47

Budget woes

But it isn’t enough. The current budget allows for limited other initiatives, and there are only a few purpose-made radio programs (including Island Music, launched this year and aimed at younger audiences).

Journalists based in Australia do their best to cover Pacific events, but clearly lack the capacity to provide both the range of coverage and the insights that a team of on-the-ground correspondents could bring.

Dobell – together with Jemima Garrett and other prominent international journalists, former executives and technical specialists – are so concerned about the weakening of Australia’s footprint in Asia and the Pacific that in 2018 they formed SABAP (Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific) – now AAPMI (Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative).

The group lobbies government to redress the situation and provide considerably more money for media in the region. Their approach is “agnostic” in terms of media companies and platforms, but in my view the most pragmatic option for the government would be to embrace the ABC, given its existing assets and reputation, the legislative requirement for the ABC to cover this region, as well as legal, copyright and other factors.

Both SABAP and the ABC champion the development of significant partnerships for content creation in the Pacific – a respectful “talk with” not “talk to” approach, and one that can support Pacific media to play an important role in democratic processes. It’s a far cry from simply rebroadcasting commercial drama, sports and news programs.

With PM Morrison still riding high after his election win, he has the power and the opportunity to usher in a new and positive era for the ABC.

His appointment of Ita Buttrose as ABC chair is a popular choice – and certainly a more appropriate one than some other potential candidates. For many, it has signalled a less hostile approach than under the Turnbull and Abbott administrations.

Communications minister Paul Fletcher, replacing Mitch Fifield, has been seen as a positive step – though his Bill before the house to amend the ABC Charter regarding regional and cultural diversity is widely seen as a potentially unnecessary burden on the ABC both administratively and economically.

Likewise, Attorney General Christian Porter has given some assurances in relation to freedom of the press following the notorious AFP raids – however, ABC Alumni and many other organisations want a Media Freedom Act enshrined in the statutes. 

What’s needed now is for the PM to fully back his ABC chair

Buttrose in her address to the Lowy Institute in October emphasised her understanding of the ABC’s role as a “key soft power asset” in the Asia-Pacific.

She has called for more funding so the national broadcaster can “expand its ability to reach out and share Australian perspectives to the world and enable Australians to better understand their Pacific neighbours”.

In Buttrose and her managing director, David Anderson, the PM is dealing with astute and cool-headed operators. They are clearly not of the “loony left”, as many right-wing critics like to wrongly categorise anyone affiliated with the ABC.

But, across the entire ABC, they have a monumental battle on their hands due to other budget cuts affecting more than just the international service. In fact, a total of more than half a billion dollars has been removed from the ABC over the last six years, necessitating hard decisions that have seen the world-class Radio National diminished, plummeting investment in comedy, drama, documentary and factual, as well as the eradication of programs many of us see as essential monitors such as the weekly TV Stateline programs. Read more (Supplementary Submission/Funding)

More cuts coming

And the cuts continue. As of 1 July a further $83.7 million is to be slashed over three years, due to the so-called “Indexation pause”.

David Anderson is somewhat heroically trying to cut non-operational costs out of the organisation, not that there’s much slack left after numerous government “efficiency reviews”.

Another round of redundancies has been announced for March next year, which ABC Alumni expects to number around 200 staff – not as brutal as it might have been (a figure of 400 had seemed possible) but nonetheless worrying given there’ll be further strangulation of all output budgets. [We understand that News department programs (including flagships Four Corners, Australian Story and Foreign Correspondent) are likely to wear 7 per cent budget cuts.]

That’s not the end of it. The “Indexation pause” means the ABC faces an estimated $40 million base funding reduction every year ongoing.

What makes this series of budgetary cuts all the more concerning is that at the time they began in 2014, Australia was already well behind comparable countries in its commitment to public broadcasting. An analysis that year revealed, for example, that Australia invested only half as much per capita in public broadcasting (ABC & SBS combined) as the United Kingdom, i.e. only AU$57 per inhabitant in Australia compared to the equivalent of AU$114 per inhabitant in the UK. By 2017 the ABC, servicing a population one-third the size of the UK’s, had a total budget of AU$1.1 billion, only one-eighth of the BBC figure (equivalent AU$8.6 billion).

Removing the “Indexation pause”, as well as directing new funds for “soft power” media to the ABC for its Pacific and Asia service, would be a quick and easy way to begin reinvigorating the major national broadcaster. It would distinguish Scott Morrison, too, as a prime minister with more respect for, and understanding of, public broadcasting as an important pillar of our democracy than we saw in his predecessors Turnbull and Abbott.

With Australia now dealing with the most geopolitically complex times experienced since WWII, the PM would also do well to distance himself as far as possible from Abbott who now seems to see himself as some kind of David to China’s Goliath. Speaking at the Lowy Institute on 28 November, the former PM said “it’s probably time” that the Australian Navy performed freedom of navigation exercises in the contested South China Sea. It’s hard to imagine a more misguided sling shot. Why risk provoking an unnecessary conflict with Beijing, when what is required just now is measured diplomacy and wise dialogue on more serious issues relating to our largest trading partner such as the governance of Hong Kong, the future of Taiwan, the plight of the ethnic Uyghur people in north-western China and indeed that of our own citizens, as well as allegations of spying and other contests of ideas between China and developed democracies?

So, as we head into 2020, what better time for prime minister Scott Morrison to show 20-20 vision for the future of our major national broadcaster.

It’s a win-win cause. More than two-thirds of the Australian population connects with the ABC at some point each week, 82 per cent of Australians believe the ABC performs a valuable role in the community, 81 per cent trust the ABC.

Come on PM, you’re a marketing man – you can’t go wrong with a service like this!

<strong>Helen Grasswill</strong>
Helen Grasswill

Helen Grasswill is a Walkley, Logies and Human Rights award-winning journalist. She is a co-founder and director of ABC Alumni