The ABC has historically played a key role in shaping Australia’s international engagement, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. But today – despite the best efforts of ABC International staff – its impact is significantly diminished, partly due to government budget cuts but also, argues Geoff Heriot, because of a lack of strategic direction in the national interest from government and insufficient prioritisation of the International Service by successive ABC Boards.
FACING A WORLD IN DISARRAY: The latency of an international ABC
By Geoff Heriot / 13 September 2021
Great institutions offer more than just their face value. Over many of the past 90 years, the ABC’s total worth amounted to more than the sum of its news and analysis; more than its function as a teller of Australian stories; more than its service as an emergency broadcaster supporting distressed communities. The ABC helped to shape the international environment for a modernising Australia. It was an Australia deeply enmeshed in the Anglo-American alliance while pursuing its own interests as a residential middle power in the Asia-Pacific.
Often an expanded field of vision is required to appreciate the totality of institutional worth. This is true of the ABC in the present era of international tumult and the unprecedented spread of risks to the nation it serves. Such a time calls for a bigger conversation and bolder options than we have come to expect from either government or the ABC Board. Anything less fails the national interest test.
Not least, that conversation needs to re-focus on Australia’s engagement with and capacity to exercise influence in its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood. It is a region riven not only by geopolitical and geoeconomic stresses but, in the words of former diplomat John McCarthy, also one that presents a ‘challenge of cultural divides’.1 The federal government has identified problems and challenges for Australia in the region but so far has not articulated a comprehensive strategy or sought to harness key institutions such as the ABC to be part of the solution.
In a recent speech, Prime Minister Scott Morrison identified five specific areas that required Australian ‘advocacy and agency’.2 Among them were: support for open societies, open economies and ‘our’ rules-based order; cooperation on global challenges; and demonstration that liberal democracies work. Historically, the ABC modelled and represented such principles through the programming agendas and production norms of its international radio and television services. It did so also through on-the-ground partnerships with counterpart media entities and participation in multilateral organisations. Together, they promoted development of media practitioners, their organisations and their national regulatory environments in support of a functioning international marketplace of ideas. Together they contributed to the ‘virtual enlargement’3 and influence of middle power Australia in a disorderly region.
Half a century ago, Anthony Smith could have been describing today’s ABC when he wrote with reference to broadcasting in America and Britain: assailed by critics and berated for bias, the broadcaster ‘picks a path cautiously through the cultural battlefields of history’.4 That approach doesn’t cut muster today. How long before the ABC Board demonstrates strategic engagement with critical issues of the day in the manner of some of its predecessors? One would be hard-pressed now to repeat the assertion of a 1990 Cabinet paper that the ABC’s international broadcaster, Radio Australia, promoted ‘Australia’s strategic and political security’.5 Just as the Government in 2014 cancelled, after just one year, the ABC’s $223 million, ten-year agreement with DFAT to operate the Australia Network television service to Asia and the Pacific, so too a budget-constrained Board imposed swingeing cuts on an already severely depleted Radio Australia.
Insofar as the government had a policy rationale for the cessation of the Australia Network, it appeared in the form of a recommendation from the National Commission of Audit (NCOA), an ad hoc body appointed to provide advice on fiscal strategy. The NCOA recommended that the government cease or scale back funding for activities such as the Australia Network because ‘the relationship between the funded activities and [Australia’s international goals] is not clear’.6 It did not publish meaningful evidence to substantiate its claims that such activities failed to deliver value for money. However, the finding suggested a lack of strategic coherence across government and the ABC.
Relevantly, the ABC’s current five-year strategic plan (2020-2025) appears to interpret the international mandate in terms of merely extending its telling of Australian ‘stories to audiences all over the world’.7 Largely, the ABC makes national-domestic content available to audiences located overseas rather than customising services to address audiences of strategic interest to Australia (with a partial exception in the Pacific). The strategic plan makes brief reference to the ABC’s ongoing provision of aid-funded training and technical assistance to media organisations and practitioners in the region. Nowhere does the plan draw together these disparate on-air and off-air activities with a statement of common international purpose or ambition.
I suspect that the corporation shares with other public institutions the phenomenon Laura Tingle called ‘political amnesia’. Writing in Quarterly Essay, Tingle lamented ‘a growing loss of institutional memory about how things have come about, and, more importantly perhaps, why they did’.8 Not least this pertains to the need for contextual understanding of the ABC’s dual legislative functions as a national-domestic and an international broadcaster.
Since the mid-1990s, both government and ABC commitments to international broadcasting have vacillated, perhaps echoing the ‘deep crisis of purpose and credibility’9 experienced by similar Western broadcasters following the end of the Cold War. Yet the two post-Cold War decades of relative benignity, to 2010, passed in a blink. America’s global supremacy and the consequent lack of threats to Australia’s security gave way to the new world disorder. Just as COVID-19 has demonstrated the risks of weakening the nation’s institutional scaffolding, so the manifestations of international chaos warrant a fresh call to action.
Now degraded, the ABC’s capability once had been to reach strategically important audiences across disparate cultures, political systems and socio-economic circumstances. Where there existed a relatively open marketplace of ideas, it could engage millions of individuals gathered together as publics, influencing what those people thought about and how they thought about issues. In that respect, the ABC’s international services performed like all media everywhere – segmenting their target audiences, competing for relevance and attention, influencing agendas and framing coverage with a liberal democratic bias. The ABC’s points of difference from other domestic or transnational media were its policy purpose on behalf of the Australian state, the audiences being targeted in as many as nine languages, its regional editorial outlook and the socio-linguistic characteristics of its communication.
The fundamental role of an international broadcaster is to act as a transmission channel to reach and engage specific inter-cultural audiences. In building trust and credibility, a broadcaster of the liberal tradition does not advocate but rather models certain norms and values in the way it operates. It can offer a space in which matters of interest to this country and this society have a prominence that might not otherwise be achievable, especially in those nations of Asia that rarely ‘look south’. Unlike other forms of international engagement – diplomacy, aid, cultural or professional exchanges – a suitably-equipped international broadcaster does not require the permission of local authorities to address strategically significant audiences. When targeting closed or oppressed territories, an international broadcaster can reach individuals in the privacy of their households, enabling those individuals to engage with ideas and debates regardless of local prohibitions.
It is necessary to distinguish between the overlay of strategic purpose and the ABC’s public performance of its functions. Journalists and other personnel undertake their work independent of government in the liberal democratic tradition. But the overlay of purpose explains why they may be funded, how they are equipped and enabled to do such work – and how organising principles help frame the editorial agenda. Within Australia, ‘universal’ values of free speech and rule of law might be accepted as a given. Elsewhere, never have they been universally accepted or applied, least of all across the diverse and predominantly illiberal Indo-Pacific. It is an act of international political communication to propagate democratic norms and principles.
The practice of international broadcasting in democratic statecraft is a form of discursive power that can take different forms. Arguably, the approach least likely to be effective in engaging and influencing disparate inter-cultural audiences is to simply offer content designed for Australian domestic audiences. To overcome the challenge of cultural divides, especially in an increasingly congested media world, audiences must be reached on their own terms of language, culture and circumstance.
The greater the differences in culture and language between Australian and target audiences, the greater the effort required to reach and engage them. For example, when Radio Australia operated as a substantial multi-lingual broadcaster, language services such as Indonesian and Chinese reached between four and six times the audiences of its corresponding English language broadcasts. Not only did these achieve greater penetration and cultural resonance, they more readily allowed for variations in aspiration and approach.
Circumstances, priorities and technologies change over time. Of relevance here is that all such media activities across cultures and national boundaries require goal clarity, situational awareness and cultural intelligence. Over decades of erratic investment and disinvestment in the ABC’s function as an international broadcaster, political interest always spiked in response to situations of perceived threat. In fact, ever since World War II and the subsequent Cold War, transformational decisions about the international capacity and priorities of the ABC were taken in response to great challenges of nation-building and perceived threats to Australia’s status as an ‘island off the coast of Asia’.10
The diminished ABC
By historical standards, the ABC today operates with a greatly diminished international scope, scale and corporate vision. This at a time when Australia faces international challenges without precedent in the history of European settlement. Long gone is the time when ABC international broadcasting services claimed to reach audiences in the tens of millions. Gone too, it seems, is recognition of the corporation’s latent institutional worth in service of the nation. Often, it contributed more than its face value as a teller of stories – not just reporting from and broadcasting to the Indo-Pacific but also through the deployment of strategic, technical and capacity development expertise to promote an international marketplace of ideas. A market in which the Australian state and its citizens might pursue their interests and contest international relations of power and influence, based on free exchange and rule of law.
Publicly, at least, neither government nor the ABC has articulated a contemporary vision that establishes the necessary link between strategic purpose, in the national interest, and the corporation’s performance in this new era of global and regional disorder. Contemporary challenges require design solutions that likely will differ from those of the Cold War era. Nonetheless, the nation and the ABC’s place in the nation would be stronger if decision-makers chose to remember and heed the past contributions of a great public institution; understanding how it performed its international functions and why it did so.
Dr Geoff Heriot is a former ABC senior corporate and editorial executive, radio producer and foreign correspondent. His doctoral research concerned the role and performance of international broadcasting as discursive power. Geoff’s executive roles with the ABC included Chief of Corporate Planning & Governance, General Manager of Corporate Strategy, and Controller of News & Programs at Radio Australia. He has advised media boards and management teams in North and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, Southern Africa and the Arabian Gulf.
1 McCarthy J 2018, ‘Perceptions and the capacity to persuade’, in T Lindsey & D McRae (eds), Strangers Next Door: Indonesia and Australia in the Asian Century, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
2 Morrison S 2021, A world order that favours freedom, keynote speech to the Perth USAsia Centre, 9 June 2021, Perth.
3 Chong A 2010, ‘Small state soft power strategies: virtual enlargement in the cases of the Vatican City State and Singapore’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 23, no. 3, pp 383-405.
4 Smith A 1973, The Shadow in the Cave, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, p.55.
5 ERC 1990, Submission 7303 – Future arrangements for Radio Australia, 14006 (ER), Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet, Canberra.
6 National Commission of Audit 2014, Towards Responsible Government, Department of Finance, Canberra.
7 ABC Five-Year Plan 2020-2025, About the ABC, <https://about.abc.net.au/our-plans>
8 Tingle L 2015, ‘Political Amnesia: How we forgot to govern, Quarterly Essay 60, Black Inc: Melbourne.
9 Price M 2001, ‘The transformation of international broadcasting’, Razon Y Palabra, No. 23, <https://www.razonypalabra.org.mx/anteriores/n23/index.htlml>
10 Fernandes C 2018, Island off the coast of Asia: Instruments of Australian Foreign Policy, Politics, Monash University Press, Melbourne.
ABC International today – Claire M Gorman