I respect Eric Beecher’s passionate arguments on behalf of quality journalism in Australia, and I understand his view that the ABC has an ever more important role to play as a part of domestic media offerings.

Where I differ from him is his suggestion that the ABC wants to divert attention from its core broadcasting mission to enter the world of “soft diplomacy”.

The ABC has been in the business of “soft diplomacy” for 70 years through Radio Australia and has been operating an international television network for nearly all this decade. Our international broadcasting responsibilities are in the ABC Charter. Like the BBC and a number of other global public broadcasters, through our international operations we put the nation on show. It is part of our core business. What we offer is not state broadcasting or government propaganda: the ABC’s international broadcasting operates to the same standards for independence as the ABC’s domestic service.

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And while other G20 nations are spending 15 or 20 times Australia’s international broadcasting budget and expanding rapidly, the ABC has never indicated we are seeking to match these ambitions or expenditure.

Unlike other Western nations, Australia is intrinsically linked, geographically, politically and economically, to our region. We need to present ourselves to our neighbours in our terms — not through the media filter of London, Atlanta, or even Beijing. Menzies’ words on establishing Radio Australia still resonate today: “The time has come to speak for ourselves”.

A doubling of the current $35m would allow an expansion of international bureaux, deliver new content that engages more directly with our target audiences and tailored in local languages, double the FM radio transmission in the Pacific, increase the audience penetration of television by nearly 200% and make services available in the Middle East and Africa.

There are strong reasons why the ABC should offer the strongest, most credible independent news service available in the region. And there are doubtlessly opportunities for a seamless integration in Australia’s international services using television, radio, online and mobile.

As I indicated, most other G20 nations are making the investment as they understand the impact of this “second track “diplomatic approach, using expanded media services to build international understanding of their countries. But finally, the decision on any Australian expansion will lie with the Government.

The ABC has always played the role of the international broadcaster and the domestic broadcaster. The activities complement each other and build on the investment and expertise established over decades. It is not a case of needing to neglect one to focus on the other. We need to do both well.

At least Eric’s critique was more credible than the one offered in The Australian yesterday, which complained in part about the “leaking” of the speech to The Sydney Morning Herald. Advance copies of the speech were provided simultaneously to the Herald and The Australian. Why The Australian viewed it un-newsworthy at the time is a question for its newsroom.

The full speech on the ABC’s International proposals can be found here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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