You’ve got to feel sorry for Australia’s public international television service, Australia Network. Launched by the Keating government in 1994 under the name Australia Television, its short life has been blighted with funding cuts, death threats, name changes and a failed outsourcing effort.
Its most recent adventure was the messy tender tempest to determine who should be awarded the new contract to manage the network. The tender process started in 2011 and became a protracted, interrupted and revised process that was finally laid to rest last September when the government announced it would award the contract to run Australia Network to the ABC for 10 years. Now, questions about Australia Network’s long-term residency inside Australia’s public broadcaster are again circulating.
One of the less well-publicised elements of the media reforms currently being advanced by the government is to put the ABC permanently in charge of Australia Network. But in the midst of this week’s torrid political debate surrounding the government’s media reforms, opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull has warned the ABC it shouldn’t be too confident the ABC-Australia Network relationship will be permanent if the legislation being put forward by the government goes through. The opposition, if it wins government this September, will want to test the market and expose Australia Network to contestability.
All very laudable from a commercial perspective, but it misses AN’s raison d’etre. It’s not there to replace or supplant Fox or CNN or HBO. It exists because it is supposed to be one of Australia’s most important diplomatic soft power tools.
Funding public international broadcasting to promote a country’s image and influence foreign publics isn’t unique to Australia. We have reputable company including the BBC, Voice of America, CCTV (China) and NHK (Japan). But we are unique when it comes to contracting out what is a core element in Australia’s soft power tool box.
In the Lowy Institute report International Broadcasting and its Contribution to Public Diplomacy, which I co-authored in 2010 with Alex Oliver, we analysed the lessons coming out of the experiences of other countries’ international broadcasters as well as our own. We concluded Australia’s international broadcasters — both Radio Australia and Australia Network — operate in a unique geopolitical environment that is of core geo-strategic interest to Australia.
Public broadcasting is a versatile tool for achieving a breadth of public diplomacy objectives, which include providing an alternative source of information and ideas to countries without robust media systems of their own, communicating with Australia’s diaspora and projecting national identities.
But we identified five essentials for an international broadcaster to achieve public diplomacy goals: credibility, financial security, legislative protection, strategic direction and longevity. Sadly for Australia Network and its predecessors, successive governments’ handling of its public international television service has stretched the first essential, undermined the second, been two decades late in considering the third, lacks understanding of the fourth and questioned the fifth.