Under the leadership of Claire Gorman, ABC International has wasted no time in utilising additional funding from the Labor government’s Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy to extend its operations and influence across Asia and the Pacific. A new TV program, The Pacific, to be launched this week heralds a dynamic new era of engagement with the region. As Alumni deputy chair Helen Grasswill reports, this expansion of ABC International promises to remedy three decades of misguided government policy and achieve a great deal in the national interest.
An ABC dove among the hawks
By Helen Grasswill / 5 April 2023
With all the hawkish war-mongering in recent weeks, it’s reassuring to know that one of Australia’s most prominent peace-keeping doves is spreading its wings again.
ABC’s international division, which has played an important role as part of Australia’s soft power armoury in Asia and the Pacific for more than 80 years, this week launches a new weekly current affairs program, The Pacific, on its regional TV service, ABC Australia, with domestic airing on both ABC TV and ABC News.
ABC Australia’s new The Pacific program premieres this week on both the international and domestic TV services. Hosted by Tahlea Aualiitia and drawing on the ABC’s team of specialist Pacific reporters, this ground-breaking program will explore news, culture and sport from across the Pacific.
It’s the first program among a range of new initiatives made possible by the injection of an extra $8 million per year over four years to ABC International, under the federal Labor government’s Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy1 which aims to increase Australian content and to ‘project Australian identity, values and interests’ more widely to the region.
The new funding boosts ABC’s $11 million core operating budget allocation for International to $19 million per year. 2
Also in the pipeline are other new TV, radio and online programs tailored for the region, as well as increased transmission capability, and – through ABC International’s development unit (ABCID)3 – greater media training and assistance for other media organisations especially across the Pacific.
‘The new money allows us to not only create more content but to tailor our services better for audiences across the region and to expand our media capacity building activities,’ says Claire Gorman, head of ABC International. ‘We are splitting the ABC Australia TV channel into two services, one designed for the Pacific and the other for Asia. We are expanding the suite of bespoke content we offer on ABC Radio Australia, with accompanying digital content delivered through the ABC Pacific digital channels. We will be launching a new overarching digital brand also for our Asian audiences. And we are engaging a network of local journalists across the Pacific region.’
Claire Gorman, the dynamic head of ABC International, who is leading a significant expansion of services in Asia and the Pacific. / Picture: Helen Grasswill
On the broadcast front, the two discrete channels of the ABC Australia international TV service are scheduled to begin transmission later this year – the Pacific stream will include Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, and the Asia channel will cover from South-East Asia to the Indian sub-continent. The total reach of ABC Australia television is extended via more than 100 rebroadcast partners in approximately 40 countries and territories across the Indo-Pacific.
But reductions to Radio Australia4 over the last two decades have seen it confined to FM transmission in Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and five Pacific-island nations (Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa), with ABC Radio content also syndicated to local media in other areas including Nauru and the Marshall Islands. Gorman says this range is about to increase:
‘We are in the process of extending our FM transmission sites across the Pacific from 13 transmitters to 20. There’ll be 3 new transmitters in Papua New Guinea bringing the total there to 8, an additional transmitter in the Solomon Islands making 2, and 3 additional transmitters across Micronesia.’
ABC International’s broadcasting footprint – ABC Australia television service and Radio Australia.
The capital expenditure involved in installing the 7 new FM transmitters and creating the two new TV streams for the Pacific and Asia will take up a considerable amount of the first year’s extra $8 million allocation, with the remaining funding split between content creation and the international division’s commitment to provide assistance, particularly in the Pacific, for developing local media capacity and for journalism training.
‘In future years, once capital expenditure is down to near zero and we’re primarily dealing with operating costs, we’ll increase our content output and maintain the level of media development work launched in the initial years.’
These and other recent initiatives by ABC International are an impressive start, but as Gorman says, there’s a lot more ABC International could do with more funding than it has now.
‘If we look at some of our international competitors, they have huge budgets. Australia is in a difficult fiscal environment so the question is what’s reasonable, but I am ambitious about what more we could do with greater funding. We will do a pretty comprehensive job in the Pacific with what we have now, but more money would allow us to do a lot more pan-Pacific standalone programs like The Pacific. We also have big plans to amplify our reach in Indonesia, the Mekong and the Indian sub-continent. For sustained impact here we do need additional funds.’
Jemima Garrett of the peak lobby group AAPMI says the government needs to invest $75 million per year on media services in the region – considerably more than ABC’s current international funding. / Picture: Helen Grasswill
Doubling the current $8 million per year extra funding to $16 million would seem a modest start. But Jemima Garrett of the peak lobby group Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) would like to see considerably more funding going to international services in the Pacific and Asia:
‘Around $75 million per year is needed to fully engage with the region, and this would still leave Australia well under the spend of comparable OECD nations,’ she says. ‘Just how much the government is prepared to allocate remains to be seen.’
This raises the question of Australia’s overall commitment to regional engagement and security.
Value for money
An extra $8 million per year to a valuable service like ABC International is a paltry sum compared to the whopping estimated $368 billion over 30 years for the recent AUKUS submarine deal. Moreover, the usefulness of the submarines, most of which won’t come on line for decades, is heavily debated.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have military defence systems. We should, of course, as a precaution for worst case scenarios requiring defence of our shores. But whatever the military expansion, it must go hand-in-hand with well-funded soft power diplomacy measures, not simply to be a good neighbour but hopefully also to help build alliances and prevent talk of war becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Aid projects of many types, trade and cultural missions and, where needed, co-operative peace-keeping efforts, have proved effective for Australia in relationship-building and easing tensions. Government-supported scholarships have allowed students from developing countries to study in Australia, and Australians to study overseas. These and other schemes have fostered enduring grassroots connections that transcend politics.
So, too, has the ABC’s international arm. It was launched as a shortwave radio service by prime minister Robert Menzies soon after the outbreak of World War II. Television was added in 1993 and online services a few years later. Over those decades, ABC International has become a trusted ‘Voice of Australia’. It has provided credible news and information about a range of issues, and extolled the virtues of democratic principles in a region now increasingly influenced by autocratic governments. It has also provided valuable development support in its own right and supported other projects.
Left: When it began, the shortwave service was seen as essential for defence. These days Radio Australia targets friends not enemies! Right:Wartime prime minister Robert Menzies, who initiated a shortwave radio service to serve as the ‘Voice of Australia’ in WWII. Below:An early Radio Australia reception verification certificate.
I saw this first hand in the mid-1990s when covering various government initiatives to embrace the region, for ABC News’s former flagship business program, The Bottom Line5, fronted by Maxine McKew and Max Walsh. An outstanding example was then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1994 Australia Today Indonesia6 diplomatic and trade mission, centred in Jakarta and with a huge contingent of government ministers, diplomats and hundreds of Australian businesspeople among those who attended. ABC’s then international TV broadcaster, Australia Television International (ATI)7, which had been championed by managing director David Hill, played an integral role organisationally and by broadcasting from the event throughout the region – greatly enhanced by the key presenter Rosemary Church whose popularity as ‘the face of Australia’ reached celebrity status, to the extent that she was sometimes mobbed by enthusiastic fans.
Above left: Maxine McKew and Max Walsh on The Bottom Line set. The program was notable for covering emerging engagement with Asia and the Pacific in the mid-1990s, and was shown both domestically and on the ABC’s international service. Above Right: Prime minister Paul Keating, who steered Australia towards co-operative engagement with Asia, seen here with Indonesian president Soeharto during the 1994 Australia Today Indonesia diplomatic and trade mission. Right: Rosemary Church, the highly regarded key presenter of ABC’s Australia Television coverage of Australia Today Indonesia.
The raison d’être of the mission was to foster relationships and greater co-operation between the two countries through strategic defence co-operation, business and trade, and across education, science and technology, the Arts, sport and tourism.
It was wildly successful.
In those days there was a strong focus on accepting Australia’s geographic reality and shoring up our security in and with Asia, which meant co-operative engagement with nations of the region while retaining and, if necessary, recalibrating traditional ties.
It’s lamentable that the tilt to Asia waxed and waned over subsequent years, leaving Australia less prepared than it might have been as the regional geopolitical climate changed.
Revitalising Australia’s influence in the region
Ironically enough, given the recent fracas with former PM Keating over the AUKUS submarine deal, the current government has in fact applied many of the former PM’s philosophies to its engagement with the region. Prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong have prioritised visits to regional nations including Japan, Indonesia, Fiji, PNG, Malaysia, China and several others, both for bilateral meetings and to take part in regional discussions such as the Quad security dialogue, East Asian and Asian Summits, APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Left: Prioritising Asia-Pacific: PM Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong in Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum, July 2022. / Picture: The Guardian Right: Closer ties: PM Albanese with his Solomon Islands counterpart, PM Manasseh Sogavare, Fiji July 2022. / Picture: SMH/Age
With the government’s additional funding support, ABC International has also wasted no time visiting the region to put its new plans in place.
Already Gorman and ABC International delegations – some including the MD David Anderson and head of strategy Mark Tapley – have visited India, Fiji, PNG, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Malaysia, and members of the development team have been to numerous locations across the region. Broadcast agreements and several Memoranda of Understanding are being renewed or new ones entered into.
Left: ABC delegation to the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), Suva, September 2022. L-R: Matt O’Sullivan (managing editor, ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom), Jo Elsom (lead, International Development), Claire Gorman (head, ABC International), Nick Morris (manager, ABC Sport), Mark Tapley (director, ABC Strategy) and ABC MD David Anderson. Right: The ABC delegation with the team from Mai TV in Suva, Fiji, September 2022. L-R at centre back are: Jo Elsom, Mark Tapley, David Anderson, Claire Gorman and CEO of Mai TV Stanley Simpson (in patterned shirt, green beads). Below: Meeting with the Fijian Media Association Executive in Suva, September 2022. From the ABC L-R: Nick Morris, Jo Elsom, Matt O’Sullivan, Claire Gorman, and Mark Tapley. / Pictures: ABC International & ABCID
Last week, Gorman travelled to Honiara to meet with the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation’s CEO, Jonson Honimae, to seal a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two media organisations. It’s a significant soft power alliance against the backdrop of unrest over last year’s Solomon Islands security pact with China. A new MOU was also signed last October with the Republic of Marshall Islands’ national broadcaster, V7AB, which enables Radio Australia to be heard there for the first time in five years.
Gorman says she hopes ABC International will also be able to re-establish its role covering major Australian participation in the region.
Left: Claire Gorman, head of ABC International, sealing the new MOU with Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation’s CEO Jonson Honimae, in Honiara, March 2023. Right: Claire Gorman addresses an MOU exchange event at the National Broadcasting Corporation of Papua New Guinea (NBC) headquarters. On the podium L-R are: Kora Nou (CEO of NBC), Timothy Masiu (PNG Minister for Communication & Information Technology), Pat Conroy (Australia’s Minister for International Development & the Pacific), and Jon Philp (Australian High Commissioner to PNG).
‘We would love to do more big event coverage like we did in the past with Australia Today Indonesia. We’re looking at the Pacific Games in November in the Solomon Islands, and also the next Pacific Islands Forum, as well as the Solomon’s election next year. And we have some initiatives in the pipeline regarding the G20 in India this year.’
The recent government and ABC initiatives have been a step in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go to fully regain Australia’s influence in the region. ABC International is ideally placed to be a key component and play a significantly larger role than is possible now, and there’s reason to hope for further funding commitments from the Albanese government. I would argue that it’s the only sensible path to take under the new Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy and that monies currently allocated elsewhere should be redirected to the national broadcaster.
The lesson of the lost decades
History shows that attempts to remove, diminish or replace the ABC as Australia’s broadcasting voice into Asia and the Pacific have failed dismally.
Over several years in the 1990s, the whole of ABC’s international radio and television services into Asia and the Pacific were under threat, both internally and from government. Among issues debated were government aspirations for self-funding of the international TV service through advertising, the effect of this on the integrity of the ABC’s independence and its incompatibility with the editorial policies of the domestic news service, plus concerns about diplomatic and political pressures. At different times, under both Labor and Liberal governments, the future of Radio Australia also has been on the line.
With hefty budget cuts in the wind, the future of both services came to a head with the release in January 1997 of businessman Bob Mansfield’s report on the ABC, which had been commissioned by the Howard government. Though largely positive, it recommended – among other cost-saving measures – that the ABC abandon Radio Australia and withdraw from the four-year-old Australia Television, to consolidate funds for the domestic service.
Bob Mansfield whose report on the ABC in 1997 recommended winding up ABC’s international television and radio services.
Radio Australia survived, primarily because its abolition required legislative change and the government lacked a majority in the Senate to get it through, but also because of vigorous campaigning in Australia and by overseas consumers and their governments who depended on the service (PNG PM Sir Julius Chan notably offered to return $1 million in aid money to help keep Radio Australia operating).8 It wasn’t a complete victory – the budget was drastically reduced, resulting in devastating staff and service cuts as well as closure of its major shortwave transmission site at Cox Peninsula near Darwin – a portent of the eventual shutdown of all shortwave two decades later.
PNG prime minister Sir Julius Chan was one of several regional leaders who petitioned to retain Radio Australia, even offering to return aid money to help keep it operating.
Meanwhile the government’s communications minister Richard Alston had announced in July 1996 that Australia Television – which by this time was said to have built a market penetration in Asia equal to that of CNN and the BBC – would be privatised and put out for tender. So it was that, despite the ABC Act 1983 stipulating that the national broadcaster must provide international broadcasting, ATI was hived off to Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network, which began broadcasting in February 1998 under a three-year contract. This experiment failed quickly when it became clear that it was commercially unviable – Seven found, as had the ABC, that advertising and sponsorship were hard to come by. Consequently, Seven decided not to renew the agreement when it expired in 2001.
Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network successfully tendered for Australia Television, removing it from the ABC in the late 1990s. He soon found it was commercially unviable. A decade later the Rupert Murdoch-affiliated Sky News also tendered for the service, unsuccessfully.
Despite new tenderers, it became apparent to some in the government, notably then foreign minister Alexander Downer, that the only organisation with the credibility and proven capacity to provide the required service was the ABC – even though its tender was 11% more than its nearest rival. Thus a new ‘ABC Asia Pacific’ broadcaster was born in 2001, with a $90.4 million five-year contract which again could be supplemented by advertising.
Liberal foreign minister Alexander Downer, who in the early 2000s – unlike others in the government – supported the ABC as Australia’s international broadcaster.
A few years later it underwent a name change to the ‘Australia Network’. Around that time, a new tender process began with the Australian News Channel, operating Sky News, and the ABC as the contenders. Again, a five-year contract went to the ABC.
Fast-forward to 2009 and ABC managing director Mark Scott proposed that the Australia Network become part of the ABC, as Radio Australia had been since 1950.
It was not to be. The following year Labor’s Rudd government revived the tendering process for allocating government funding for international broadcasting. In November 2010 (now as foreign minister, having been toppled by Julia Gillard as PM), he announced a new tender for a $223.1 million contract over 10 years but with conditions that reportedly were incompatible with the ABC: notably, giving DFAT effective control over programming and commentary.
This time the major commercial contender was Sky News, the attractions of which had been canvassed in the Murdoch press. It did not go unnoticed that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (now News Corp) had a 39.1% stake in BSkyB which in turn had a one-third stake in Sky News’s parent company, Australian News Channel (ANC). Nor that Murdoch had ambitions to acquire more.
However, after a messy process and leaks of information to the media, resulting in the Australian Federal Police being asked to investigate, the government in December 2011 announced the tender would be closed and the ABC would take over the service permanently. Compensation, reportedly in the millions, was paid to Sky.
In due course ABC’s Australia Network received the first instalment of a little over $20 million from the $223 million ten-year allocation. Victory was short-lived: the coalition Abbott government came to power in 2013 with Julie Bishop as foreign minister, and in 2014 the Australia Network contract was cancelled. Many thought it was a foolish decision. The reach of the Australia Network, according to the Lowy Institute, had grown to 31 million homes, consolidating its position as a major player in the region; and there were already signs that Australia would be facing increased regional challenges.
For its part, the government claimed to be concerned about the tender process, which Abbott called ‘dodgy’, and – curiously for a democratic country committed to independent media – complained about certain (accurate) coverage it considered embarrassing to Australia. (It’s that very independence, unshackled by government, that makes ABC International such a valuable asset, especially in the Pacific where today a very high 75% of people, according to an independent survey, continue to ‘trust the ABC as a source of news and information’.) 9
Despite having its wings severely clipped – some 80 broadcasters and correspondents were made redundant – ABC International continued as best it could on limited resources to keep up its services and preserve hard-won trust, especially in the Pacific. The Australia Network was rebranded as ‘Australia Plus’, becoming a multi-platform service. Sponsorship was attempted again, and failed. Finally, in 2017, the television service was again renamed, as the current ABC Australia, and was able to continue its work unhindered by commercial arrangements.
Next, in January 2019 and after five years of government neglect, prime minister Scott Morrison belatedly acknowledged the need for more Australian media presence in the region, as part of the government’s Pacific Step-up initiative. But he chose to snub the one organisation with the requisite regional media experience and expertise. Instead of funding the ABC, he committed AU$17.1 million over three years ($5.7 million per year) to Free TV Australia, the peak body representing commercial free-to-air broadcasters, and this allocation was subsequently extended for a further year. The idea was to provide commercial domestic programming to the Pacific, which the ABC was already doing, and to add to the farce of this arrangement, Free TV admitted it had no interest in building partnerships in the Pacific.
In 2019 prime minister Scott Morrison controversially chose to give a $5.7 million per year grant to commercial television instead of the ABC for providing programming to the Pacific. Many observers hope this money will be redirected to ABC International in the May budget.
The current funding commitment to Free TV expires this year and the Albanese government would do well to reallocate this $5.7 million per year to ABC International, which would undoubtedly do a much better job with it.
The reality is that the ABC already has a breadth of services (including news, education and development assistance) unmatched by any other media organisation. It has an 80-plus year reputation in the region, building unparalleled trust. It has maintained a good relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT). Its multi-platform strategy has been a resounding success. And it can scale up further to do everything that’s needed now by the new Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy.
Moreover, the idea that a government would outsource its international broadcasting to any commercial operator is frankly absurd and no other country does so. Aside from philosophical issues of national interest, the exasperating follies of the past have also shown that it simply doesn’t work. Nor, as has been sometimes mooted, is there any need to create a completely separate public organisation for international broadcasting – it would cost a fortune, take ages to set up, and necessarily need to involve the expertise and existing infrastructure of the ABC. The idea never made much sense, except as a way to appease former governments hostile to the national broadcaster.
A new era at the ABC
It has to be acknowledged, however, that ABC’s international service has had a rocky road internally, as well as from external forces. But Claire Gorman, appointed as head of the division two years ago, is ideally credentialled to deal with the types of problems experienced in the past.
After a career in government with AusAID (now part of DFAT) and as a human rights researcher for the Refugee Review Tribunal, where she gained extensive knowledge across South-East Asia to China, Gorman joined the ABC in 2002. Her roles at the public broadcaster over the last 20 years have included policy advisor for ABC Radio, senior investigator for the ABC’s complaints department, policy and strategy manager in ABC Commercial, editorial policies advisor, and manager of international strategy.
This background has equipped her to understand both the government’s needs in conveying Australia’s national interests and the sometimes-competing journalistic imperatives.
Claire Gorman (front row, second from right) brings extensive knowledge of both government and public broadcasting to her role as head of ABC International. She’s seen here with ABC colleagues and prominent members of Fiji’s media in Suva, September 2022. Picture: ABCID
‘In the past ABC International has been very much separated from the mainstream domestic ABC’, says Gorman, ‘and it’s been managed that way. Perhaps this was due to the quasi-commercial model which underpinned the international TV services, as permitted under the ABC Act. That’s not a model we are pursuing at the moment and there are considerable advantages to us integrating our operations with the ABC’s domestic operations. That’s the strategy we are vigorously pursuing.’
Gorman and her expanded management team have already gained the trust of many ABC domestic program-makers including in the News department. With quality, high impact content being a core need for International, she’s allocated transparent ‘no editorial strings’ funds to support some episodes of current affairs programs like Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent and Australian Story which cover regional affairs, and would like to utilise ABC staff for other productions. A Pacific-focussed edition of Q&A filmed in Fiji in December 2019 was very well received domestically and on the international service, showing potential for more. And there’s scope for segments or standalone episodes on other programs like Back Roads, Gardening Australia and Landline. With the ABC’s operating budget still cash-strapped, this is a win-win approach and has the added advantage of better informing Australian audiences about the region.
Other strengths include the ABC’s Asia-Pacific newsroom, the only one of its kind in Australia, with 50 journalists and producers telling the stories that matter to Indo-Pacific audiences, not only in English but in Bahasa Indonesia, Tok Pisin and Chinese-Mandarin, with potential to add other regional languages. Some bespoke programs and stories for the region are supported by additional DFAT funding, including productions on climate and disaster preparedness and That Pacific Sports Show which is also shown domestically on the ABC and was nominated last year for an AACTA award.
That Pacific Sports Show hosts Samuel Wykes and Sera Naiqama. One of several bespoke ABC International productions, it was last year nominated for an AACTA award.
ABC International’s development unit (ABCID) is also going from strength to strength. It is widely acknowledged (including by DFAT’s independent evaluation) for its expert and efficient management of DFAT’s long-running Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) – which aims to ‘facilitate discourse across government, business and civil society via Pacific media’ and is designed to ‘support directly and/or complement Australian development priorities for the Pacific, which centre on four pillars: increased economic growth; healthy and resilient communities; more efficient regional institutions; and empowerment of women and girls’.
The development unit is separately funded by grant monies largely from DFAT, but can take funds from other bilateral and multilateral donors. The work is undertaken with partner media organisations across the region and involves enhancing both journalism skills and media capacity including analogue-to-digital transition. In the last three years, more than 1500 in-person and online participants across the Pacific have taken part in training courses and specialist workshops covering topics such as national budget and election reporting, emergency broadcasting, climate change and public health. Delegates from the region also visit the ABC in Australia, most recently from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Philippines, sometimes on professional attachment. Ongoing mentoring is another part of the program.
Foreign minister Penny Wong visiting an ABCID training course conducted by ABC founding executive producer of the prominent Grandstand radio program, Peter Longman (second from right), assisted by ABCID’s project coordinator Vaimo’oi’a Ripley (far left). Fiji, July 2022. Picture: ABCID
ABCID also provides support for media alliances, like the Fiji Media Association and the Media Association of the Solomon Islands, which has been active in campaigning for press access and freedom in the Solomons.
Top: The ABCID office in Port Moresby: Jo Elsom (ABCID lead) with Hare Haro (ABCID PNG team leader). Picture: ABCID. Middle: An ABCID training ‘round table’ meeting with PNG media representatives, Port Moresby 2022. Picture: ABCID. Bottom: Sports commentary box training with ABC’s Peter Longman, Fiji, July 2022. Picture: ABCID
‘There are some who seem to think the commercial sector could do some of this media development work,’ says Gorman. ‘I doubt they have the expertise, and they won’t make money from it. It does not fit with their business model. In any case, it can be confusing to the region to have more than one government-funded Australian player. It makes more sense, and is a more efficient use of public funds, to build up one set of strong relationships across the region. Why undermine or take away the ability of the ABC, as the major independent public broadcaster, to do this work to full capacity?’
In looking at ABC International’s existing reach across all platforms and the potential of its multi-layered expansion plans, this one-voice approach has merit.
Already ABC Australia has regained a monthly viewership of more than 3,615,000 across Asia and the Pacific and ABC Radio Australia reaches 18% of urban Pacific populations. ABC International has more than 19 million overseas followers on Facebook, nearly 1.5 million on Instagram, 5,000 on We Chat, and 215,000 ABC Australia followers on Weibo. Engagement is typically higher in times of political unrest or natural disaster. 10
As Gorman explains, the audience spread on different platforms varies and is changing rapidly:
‘Younger audiences, particularly in Asia, are moving away from broadcast and into the on-demand space. It’s a bit different in the Pacific where such things as affordability of devices and data are an issue. Digital coverage is also lacking on remote islands and regions.’
Currently Radio Australia is the only ABC International service that reaches these more remote areas, and it does so by piggybacking some of its Pacific content on the Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) shortwave service. The ABC has no current plans to revive its own shortwave capacity which was discarded in controversial circumstances in 201711. However, the Labor government has promised to review the merits of restoring shortwave.
Future audience potential is enormous and ABC International is well placed to harness this. It participates in a number of multi-lateral bodies (some including members from non-democratic nations), and has recently been elected to the Administrative Council of the peak Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), which collectively has a potential audience reach of 3 billion people across Asia and the Pacific.12
Claire Gorman addresses the influential General Assembly of Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). New Delhi, India, November 2022.
With the complex political and media environment Australia now faces across the Indo-Pacific region, there is no time to waste in rectifying the mistakes of the past 30 years.
In the words of the ABC itself in a recent submission to government: ‘Today, with the dramatic rise in misinformation, disinformation, censorship and fake news, including by state actors, the ABC’s work with media organisations and communication partners around the Indo-Pacific is more important than ever to build and strengthen local media, fight corruption and support democracy.’13
As head of ABC International, Claire Gorman is not short of passion for the task ahead.
‘I feel I have a mission in this role, a genuine burning mission for what we can do at the ABC to make a difference, particularly in the Pacific, not by distorting local media outlets but by value-adding with humility and cultural sensibility. We also have a lot to bring to the region in telling the story of Australia’s multicultural nature and its First Nations people. And we have the opportunity to explain wider non-Anglocentric views of the region to Australians through greater engagement with our domestic outlets.’
And all this can be achieved at a minuscule fraction of the cost of a nuclear submarine.
*The Pacific program will air on the international ABC Australia service on Thursdays at 7pm, commencing 6 April, and in Australia at 9:30pm Thursdays on ABC News and on Fridays at 10:30am on ABC TV. It can also be seen on iview. You can see a promo here.
Helen Grasswill is a Walkley, Logies and Human Rights award-winning journalist. She worked for the ABC for nearly 30 years and is now Deputy Chair of ABC Alumni. These are her own views.
1 The Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy is a DFAT initiative jointly managed by the Department of Communications.
2 Some additional funding is also allocated by DFAT to support the production of selected bespoke TV shows and radio podcasts, and for stories relating to national preparedness for disaster; also for media development work through ABC International’s development unit (ABCID)
3 ABCID manages the DFAT Media Assistance Development Scheme (PACMAS).
4 For a detailed history of Radio Australia, see the ABC International-commissioned book Australia Calling by Phil Kafcaloudes (ABC, 2022).
5 Although produced primarily for a domestic audience, The Bottom Line was heavily committed to covering the emerging diplomatic and trade initiatives in Asia and the Pacific. The local audience was dedicated but relatively small (as is the case with most political and business programs). The program was highly valued in the international Australia Television schedule. But a restructuring of the ABC towards the end of 1995 saw the program’s demise (along with the state-based 7:30 Report programs). So, in one fell swoop, this unique regular coverage of a key and growing area of national importance disappeared from the screens.
6 The rationale for Australia Today Indonesia (1994) was outlined by then Prime Minister Keating’s launch speech in Sydney on 16 March 1994.
7 In 1983 when a new ABC Act was introduced, converting the old commission into a corporation, international television broadcasting was inserted as a new charter obligation. This was adhered to by selling programs overseas, until the Keating government committed $5.4 million to launch Australia Television International (ATI) in 1993. However, the government proviso was that the service must include advertising, both for financial support and to showcase Australian enterprises in Asia.
8 K.S. Inglis, Whose ABC?: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983-2006, p.402 (Black Inc, 2006).
9 For further details see Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen’s recent essay Transmission interrupted: Australia’s international television broadcasting (Australian Journal of International Affairs, 2023, Vol 77, No.1 pp.85-106) and his earlier article Will Australia’s satellite TV service head Skywards? (Inside Story, March 2011), and the Lowy report by Annmaree O’Keefe and Chris Greene, International Public Broadcasting: A Missed Opportunity For Projecting Australia’s Soft Power (December 2019). For a new perspective, see former ABC editorial manager and now academic Geoff Heriot’s book International Broadcasting and Its Contested Role in Australian Statecraft: Middle, Power, Smart Power (New South Books, 2023). See footnote 10 for data information relating to audience trust in the ABC international service.
10 These audience figures are an ABC extrapolation drawn from studies in multiple Indo-Pacific countries including the Ipsos Affluent Asia Survey, the Tebbutt Media Survey and Google Analytics. They do not include audiences reached through third-party platforms including YouTube, social media and syndication partners.
11 See articles Prime Minister Morrison must emulate Menzies – not Abbott – and support the ABC International service (December 2019) and The Folly of Australia’s International Media Strategy (September 2021) by Helen Grasswill, and Australia Calling by Phil Kafcaloudes (ABC, 2022).
12 The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) was formed in 1964 and has around 287 member media organisations in 57 countries. The ABC was a founding member.
14 ABC Submission on Australia’s New International Development Policy, 30 November 2022, p.3.