And thus after nearly 19 years, Australia’s international television broadcasting service is back where it started, embedded with the ABC, after an exotic journey around all points of the media and political compass.
I’ll get my pro forma whinge out of the way: the idea of an Australian international television service is risible. It’s a complete waste of time, achieving absolutely nothing except enabling footy-starved and otherwise homesick Australians in the region to get their fill of domestic content. $20 million a year, chucked away. No one can demonstrate otherwise. There’s not a skerrick of evidence of any positive impact by the television service. Never has been.
And the idea that somehow we could compete with the Brits, the French and the Germans on this stuff is laughable, unless you’re prepared to bring serious money to the table. That’s why Foreign Affairs never wanted the thing and why Jonathan Shier correctly resisted tendering for the revamped service in 2000.
The idea that the service is core ABC business and therefore should never have been put to tender fundamentally misunderstands what the service is about. Radio Australia is a natural extension of the ABC’s domestic function, providing high-quality, comprehensive programming for the Asia-Pacific (particularly the Pacific), that makes RA in some ways the Pacific’s own national broadcaster, playing a public interest role that many smaller public broadcasters in the region can never aspire to.
The television service was always about selling Australia, and not so much to our own backyard in the Pacific but to Asia, about projecting an appropriate image of us abroad. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of an Australia stall at an expo. There’s no obvious reason why the function should rest with the ABC, even if the ABC happened to have the best means of leveraging its existing content into a cost-effective service, and even if the last commercial provider, Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network, ran it into the ground in the late 1990s.
In an email to ABC staff, Mark Scott said “this decision will allow the ABC to create a fully converged broadcaster, using a combined audience strategy to pull together the work of Australia Network and Radio Australia. It will enable us to seamlessly provide quality content to international audiences through radio, television, online and mobile services.” It’s a peculiar thing to say, because as far back as the early part of last decade, the ABC merged Radio Australia and “ABC Asia-Pacific” as it was known then, into a single division, with the goal of creating synergies between the functions and raising concerns within Radio Australia that they might find themselves cross-subsidising the television service. That’s where the units remain still, under Murray Green in the international division.
As for the politics, well, it remains impressive that this government has managed to botch the whole thing even worse than the Howard government. It was the Howard government that tried to close Radio Australia, passed the David Hill-created international service to Kerry Stokes and flogged off RA’s SW broadcast facilities near Darwin to a right-wing American Christian outlet that proceeded to pump offensive religious propaganda into the region.
Only Alexander Downer’s intervention prevented the closure of RA and it was Downer who revived the TV service and got more funding for RA in 2000, something for which the much (and correctly) maligned foreign minister has never received due credit. And the Howard government was able to run a thorough tender process in 2005 that saw the ABC easily beat Sky News.
This mob have overseen a debacle, blame for which will never stray too far from the Foreign Affairs portfolio. What’s the cliché — couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery? Try “couldn’t organise a simple two-bidder broadcasting tender”. Particularly when there’s virtually open war between the prime minister and the foreign minister.
The only thing that could have saved the process was if the government had realised what a waste of money the service is and redirected the $20 million per annum into consolidated revenue or explored options for funding quality journalism domestically. Better yet, they could have given one-tenth of the annual cost to RA to further improve its programming and presence in the region. But that has none of the glamour of an “international television service”, something that inexplicably bewitches politicians into abandoning all logic.
*Bernard Keane worked on tenders for the international broadcasting service in 2000 and 2005 in the Department of Communications