Most of us never see it, but taxpayers pay $20m a year for the ABC to provide an international television service. It’s not part of the ABC’s core functions, but is provided on contract with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Now, the service had a tangled history under the Howard Government — but not necessarily in the way you might expect.

The Howard Government’s 1996-97 funding cuts savaged both Radio Australia and the subsidies paid to support the ABC international television service established by David Hill. The TV service was taken over by Kerry Stokes in 1998, with subsidised programming from the ABC. But in 2000, Stokes had had enough. He told Howard he was dumping the service.

At that point Alexander Downer intervened. Downer had been unhappy with the cuts to Radio Australia and wanted to restore Australia’s broadcasting presence in the region. Cabinet Ministers also complained about the Stokes service, having turned it on in hotel rooms in the region to see Humphrey B. Bear. Downer successfully pushed for some additional funding for Radio Australia — not much, but enough to revive it from near-death — and funding for a new television service, to be tendered by his Department. Broadcasting guru Malcolm Long was brought on board to advise DFAT. The tender drew an intriguing array of would-be broadcasters, including David Hill who led a private bid. Seven and the ABC initially declined to participate, until Jonathan Shier was encouraged by the Government to join in. The ABC’s bid subsequently won a heavily-vetted assessment process, and the Government reluctantly signed up, agreeing to the ABC’s demands for editorial independence.

Fast forward to 2005. The new ABC service has been running for four years of its five-year contract. It is expecting the contract to be renewed, by Sky News has other ideas. Led by part-owner News Ltd, Sky News tells the Government it could do a far better job and that it should replace the ABC in running the service. Then News Ltd Corporate Development manager Malcolm Colless gets involved lobbying Cabinet ministers. The Government decides to conduct another tender process for a second five-year contract.

This was portrayed by some at the time as Sky News attempting to exploit the Howard Government’s hatred of the ABC to get access to the $18m-odd pa funding. That was probably accurate but it missed the point that the Government was perfectly entitled to re-tender for the service, and taxpayers in fact should have expected nothing less given it was their money. The only problem was whether, as many in the ABC expected, the Government was simply using the tender process as cover for making the switch to Sky.

If that was the case, Cabinet didn’t count on DFAT. DFAT hired a consultant to revise the tenders terms and advertised it, then conducted the assessment process. The ABC had submitted a clearly superior bid, DFAT concluded in its advice to Cabinet. DFAT’s case was rock solid, and, however grumpily, Cabinet endorsed its conclusions. The ABC was renewed for another five years, for $20m a year, although the Government agreed with the consultant’s suggestion that the name be changed so that “ABC” wasn’t mentioned.

One of the problems with Sky’s bid, apparently, was that it would have relied on existing News Ltd satellite distribution arrangements in the region. The ABC already had a head-start on them there, having spent several years negotiating rebroadcast arrangements in SE Asia and India, led by the late John Doherty, who impressed even Downer with his leadership of the new service. The ABC had been stymied for a long time in getting access to China because the Chinese insisted that access be somehow made reciprocal for its owns CCTV services. The Chinese Government appeared not to understand that the Australian Government couldn’t demand that broadcasters run individual channels.

All that should be borne in mind when Malcolm Colless attacks the current ABC service, as he did late last year. Colless, it seems, hasn’t gotten over losing, and blames the “precious egos” at DFAT.

Now we’re having the preliminary rounds for the next iteration, with Angelos Frangopoulos and Mark Scott squaring off over the next tender for the service in 2010.

Keep an eye on The Australian’s coverage of this. Last time around the Sky News bid was supported by anti-ABC stories and op-ed pieces. As the national broadsheet, The Oz thinks foreign policy is its patch, and the idea that a non-News entity, and worse yet the ABC, is a major player in that space galls them.

The policy issue here, however, is what the Prime Minister wants from the service. Rudd — who is famously keen for Australia to pursue “creative middle power diplomacy” — is known to harbour ambitions for a greater regional media presence, although lobbyists say that, when Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, he wasn’t overwhelmed with the quality of the ABC service. Sky News argued in 2005 that the ABC service lacked sufficient news and current affairs content, although that missed the point that the service was not intended to be news and current affairs only, but also project images of Australia via drama, documentaries and sport. Moreover, the region is already served by dozens of news, current affairs and business channels, and the ABC’s $20m pa effort is unlikely to compete with the big international players.

The extent to which the service actually yields any benefits beyond enabling ex-pats and travellers to stay in touch while travelling in the region is unclear. Radio Australia, which has greater population reach via radio (both shortwave and rebroadcasting) and is an institution in the Pacific in particular, might actually provide greater soft-power benefits than just another TV service in the clutter of channels available on satellite.