Four years after the Coalition government cut the ABC’s broadcasting service into the Pacific, followed by further cuts to the public broadcaster’s services in the region, it has announced a new deal with Australia’s commercial broadcasters to fill that same role.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Free TV, a group representing the commercial television broadcasters, announced on Thursday they were “in talks” to beam Australian content into the Pacific as part of a soft power push.
This plan to provide content will fill a gap left by the Australia Network — a contract once held by the ABC to provide a broadcast to foreign countries, including the Pacific, with news and current affairs content specifically packaged for that network. Australia Network funding from the Foreign Affairs Department was cut in 2014, one year into its 10-year contract.
The network had been funded under previous governments as a valuable diplomatic tool, while the ABC retained full editorial control over what was broadcast. In 2006 under the Howard Government, then-foreign minister Alexander Downer said the network was an ”opportunity to project a dynamic Australia — our strengths, our skills and our values — to the region”.
Since the Australia Network was cut, the ABC has cut its shortwave radio service — a decision criticised by Pacific leaders and now under government review — and the frequencies that used to be used by the ABC’s network have now been taken over by China. The ABC has also rejigged its Radio Australia scheduling, including changes to the Pacific Beat program earlier this year.
And now, amid growing concerns about China’s influence in the region, the government is looking for a way to increase its presence.
In a press release, Free TV chair Harold Mitchell said he was pleased to be part of Morrison’s “strategic intent to prioritise the Pacific region”. “This initiative will showcase the best and most popular Australian content,” Mitchell said. “It’s a powerful way to strengthen Australia’s Pacific partnerships and connection to the region.”
The announcement has been made at an early stage — there are no details yet on the content to be broadcast and whether what, if any, news and current affairs content will be aired in the region. Free TV chief executive Bridget Fair told Crikey the discussions were still in the early stages, so there wasn’t any information on specific content available. This included a response to questions about who would retain editorial control over any content broadcast.
The Australia Network’s news content was widely seen as a good example of a strong media and robust liberal democracy, broadcast into neighbouring countries in Asia and the Pacific. It was produced out of the ABC’s Melbourne office.
Morrison’s announcement on Thursday also included other projects such as an infrastructure financing facility, new diplomatic missions and new security commitments.