A senior ABC journalist says it would be “an act of vandalism” to strip the ABC of its contract to deliver the Australia Network at the behest of the “insistent urgings of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp”.

Debate is raging about the value of the ABC’s $20-million-a-year contract to deliver the satellite television channel, which blows an Aussie cultural breeze through Asia and the Pacific. Opinion is divided on whether it’s an expensive way to beam the AFL into expats’ homes, or a key “soft diplomacy” tool that increases understanding of Australia in the Asia-Pacific.

The prospect of the ABC losing the Australia Network is a recent focus of News Corporation newspapers (Sky, which controversially lost a bid to run the Australia Network, is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox).

7.30 NSW host Quentin Dempster told Crikey the ABC was doing a good job on the network, and criticism is being run with an agenda.

“The federal government should ignore the insistent urgings of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. They are self-interested as usual. They use smear and vilification as a commercial weapon,” Dempster said.

“No other Australian media organisation can provide the depth and quality of programming across platforms,  television, radio, online, mobile and social media than the ABC can.”

According to Coalition-friendly media commentators Niki Savva and Dennis Shanahan, the Australia Network is likely to be scrapped entirely rather than put out to tender again. Yesterday Savva told Insiders the ABC could kiss the Australia Network goodbye.

So what is the Australia Network, and who’s watching? The network transmits around the clock into 46 countries (the coverage map is below) and is a curious blend of ABC news and current affairs, sport, kids’ programs and dramas from commercial networks — you could watch Home and Away and The Block over the weekend. It covers events like the Melbourne Cup and the Burmese and Malaysian elections. Its website runs news with an Asian and Australian bent in seven languages, including Tok Pisin (spoken in PNG). It carries ads, which earn little.

The network is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, not the ABC. Much of the network’s news content is produced by a separate team of ABC staff. Veteran broadcaster Jim Middleton anchors a nightly bulletin from Melbourne. Many staff work out of Australia, but three journalists are based overseas: in Jakarta, New Delhi and Beijing. There’s some limited sharing of content with the broader ABC. Should the ABC lose the contract, it would have fewer staff covering Asian news.

Reliable ratings are hard to find. A 2010 Lowy Institute report said 7 million viewers watched it monthly. An ABC International spokesman told Crikey AN was delivered through 679 pay TV broadcasters to more than 40 million homes, with the potential to reach 131 million people. Nielsen figures show 830,000 people watched it in Thailand in the past two months, 380,000 in Malaysia. TAM India figures showed 3.4 million people in India watch it per month. Visits to ABC International’s websites jumped 109% in the last six months.

It’s hard to compare, but an episode of Four Corners on ABC1 has an average audience of 1.1 million.

ABC insiders told Crikey the Australia Network’s ratings are high by domestic standards, low by international standards (the BBC World Service is the gold standard, followed by CNN, while China invests heavily in CCTV). The Australia Network does well in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, but India is a tough market. Numbers are believed to be underwhelming in China, partly due to difficulties in securing local rebroadcasters. Insiders claim part of the Australia Network’s appeal is it’s not associated with British colonialism (BBC) or US imperialism (CNN).

The Australia Network does have its supporters, who say it’s a relatively cheap way of promoting interest in Australia in the region set to be the economic powerhouse of the 21st century. Overseas students were worth more than $14 billion to the Australia economy last year; it’s our fourth largest export item (ahead of tourism). Most students come from Asia — turning on the Australia Network as they’re growing up could impact on their choices later in life.

One foreign affairs insider, who did not wish to be named, says there are benefits to broadcasting news from a liberal democracy — which includes criticism of the “home team” (although Tony Abbott opposes this) — to countries with more authoritarian governments. The Australia Network is particularly valued in the Pacific, the expert says. Soft diplomacy is valuable but notoriously hard to measure, making it a challenge to sell the network’s value. The expert says the network suffers because it has competing goals, making it a muddle.

The Lowy Institute provided a robust defence of the value of the network in a 2010 report, commissioned by the ABC. Findings included:

  • “One of the most efficient and effective ways for governments to reach the greatest number of people in foreign countries has been international broadcasting”
  • “Major broadcasting nations have invested heavily in international broadcasting over the last 15  years, particularly in television and 24­ hour newsservices”
  • “Australia’s public diplomacy is poorly funded and lacks strategic focus and coherence”.

The report compared what governments spent on international broadcasting per year in 2010 (in US dollars). The US spent $717 million, France $420 million, the UK $415 million, Japan $215 million and Australia $34 million. It’s hard to get figures for China but spending is believed to be eyewatering. And if Australia abandons international broadcasting, CCTV may fill the gap.

The Australia Network has a chequered past. It’s existed since the 1990s — the Seven Network took it over in 1997, but that failed. The ABC took it back but drama struck in 2011 when the Gillard government scrapped a tender process which seemed on the verge of awarding the contract to Sky. Labor gave the ABC “permanent responsibility” for it (and was forced to pay compensation to Sky). Almost everyone agrees the tender process was a debacle, and ABC insiders say that’s a “poison chalice” for the ABC. This is what Tony Abbott said last week:

“It’s well known that the Coalition had enormous concerns about probity issues under the former government when the Australia Network tender was awarded … I think it was a particularly dodgy piece of work by the former government.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Friday said she was concerned at the number of complaints she’d received about the network and its content. Cabinet is looking at its future (as is the government’s review of the efficiency of the ABC, headed by Peter Lewis). It’s an easy way for the feds to save $20 million a year because it’s relatively victimless.