He may not like the comparison, but Mark Scott’s pitch for a dramatic expansion in the ABC’s international presence is direct from the playbook of former ABC managing director David Hill.
And as it was in Hill’s era, international television broadcasting is a vanity project — driven by the vanity of the ABC and Australian politicians.
For 70 years Australia has had an outstanding international broadcaster in Radio Australia. It has little glitz and glamour, although apparently it was popular in the region in the 1960s because it was one of the few means of hearing Western pop music. These days you’re more likely to hear a talk on governance in Pacific states than pop music, but it has substance and credibility in the region that counts for us, the Pacific and South-East Asia. It is not overstating things to say Radio Australia has played a critical role in the development of Pacific island states.
Since the early 1990s, however, all the attention has been on television.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
David Hill saw the success of CNN early and wanted the ABC to get into the same space. He repeatedly pestered the Keating government for funding to start an Australian international television service. Hill was also involved at the time in a battle with Keating over the establishment of an ABC subscription television service (the point of which, according to Keating, was “so Hill could f-cking strut down Sunset Boulevard”). Hill secured $5 million from a reluctant government and Australia television was born.
But Hill had already stored up problems for the ABC on another front. The ABC had infuriated the government during the first Gulf War, with its coverage and because it declined to fund the extension of Radio Australia broadcasts to Australian forces deployed in the Gulf. Then-defence minister Robert Ray never forgot or forgave the ABC. Neither did communications shadow minister Richard Alston.
When the Coalition arrived in office, it set about mauling the ABC budget. Part of its plan was to shut Radio Australia and sell off the shortwave transmitters it used, and end funding for Australia TV, which John Howard’s friend, Kerry Stokes, in an apparent fit of madness, thought would be better off at Seven. In an intervention for which he has never been given sufficient credit, foreign minister Alexander Downer tried prevent the complete destruction of Radio Australia, contrary to the views of Alston. Radio Australia survived, barely, its services slashed and its network pared back, particularly to south-east Asia.
But by 2000, the Seven-run ATV was in a dire state, subsisting on a diet of Here’s Humphrey, Hey Dad and Seven’s domestic news. The only popular program was the ABC’s netball coverage — pleated skirts were a hit with regional males, apparently. Major upheaval was occurring across the Pacific, and the term “arc of instability” came into usage. Downer used the opportunity to revisit the issue, and secured additional funding for Radio Australia that enabled it to fund more retransmission of its services.
Foreign affairs ran a tender process to reboot the Australia TV concept, with broadcasting veteran Malcolm Long brought on board to advise. A company run by David Hill was among the tenderers, which included a bizarre proposal to run the service from a train carriage that would travel around Australia.
The ABC, by this time under Jonathan Shier, did not apply — reflecting Shier’s wise judgement that international broadcasting was a waste of time given it could at that stage barely run a domestic broadcasting service due to lack of funding. In one of the stranger moments of the Howard government’s relationship with the ABC, however, Shier was encouraged, along with Nigel Milan at SBS, to lodge a bid. In the end, a somewhat reluctant ABC won it.
Hill jacked up, complaining about the process. It was heavily vetted every step of the way by an experienced probity auditor and the panel undertook a strictly merits-based assessment. Even so, it seemed like, somehow, it had ended up right where Downer wanted the process — with an ABC international television service.
Just to show that vanity is not confined to the ABC, Sky News’ Angelo Frangopoulos launched a bid when the initial ABC contract neared its end in 2005. Sky was strongly backed by News Ltd as part of its campaign against the ABC, but even the Howard government, at that stage virtually at war with Ultimo, couldn’t bring itself to move the contract, merely insisting on a name change to Australia Network. Frangopoulos and News Ltd luminaries such as Malcolm Colless still maintain the delusion that they could secure the service in the future.
Radio Australia, meanwhile, kept plugging away, unobtrusively, providing a high-quality radio service via retransmissions, online and shortwave. It was moved into the same division as the television service by Russell Balding, prompting complaints about the television service leeching off RA.
Now here we are back where we were in the early 1990s, with an ABC managing director saying that Australia’s diplomatic role needs the support of “soft power” via an international broadcasting service. The acronyms might have changed — now it’s all about the G20; in Hill’s time it was APEC — but the argument is the same: the US, the UK, China, France and the Japanese all spend much more than we do on international broadcasting; therefore we should dramatically increase our spending in order to have a greater regional presence.
It’s almost Cold War thinking, and assumes that regional audiences are vacant minds just waiting to be shaped by the first broadcaster that can get into their lounge rooms — that there’s a contestable space that Australia must compete in or lose out.
In truth, Australia can’t compete in that space even if it existed. “Soft power” must be backed by a powerful culture. That’s why the Americans and the Brits and the French can have a strong international broadcasting presence. We’re an Anglophone branch office with little in the way of heavyweight, globally recognised cultural product. International television can only ever be a delivery mechanism, and we haven’t got anything to deliver through it.
Where we are a heavyweight culture is in the Pacific. RA has credibility and substance and is relied on by regional audiences and leaders. If you want to build the ABC’s regional presence, Mark Scott, then aim first for an extra million dollars for Radio Australia. That would go a lot further in terms of diplomatic impact than an extra $20 million for the Australia Network.
It lacks the glamour of television broadcasting, and the Pacific isn’t exactly the centre of world diplomatic action, but it’s important to Australia’s national interests and we already have the capacity and credibility there. If you get that, you’ll have done a lot more than your predecessors.