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Submission to the Department of Communications and the Arts review of Australian broadcasting services in the Asia-Pacific

Public broadcasting Radio broadcasting International relations Diplomacy Australia Asia-Pacific

In our role as researchers in the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, we welcome the opportunity to make a submission to the Review of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia-Pacific.

Lowy Institute researchers have maintained a longstanding interest in the tools of so-called ‘soft power’ diplomacy. In 2010, research fellows Annmaree O’Keeffe and Alex Oliver produced a comprehensive assessment of the international broadcasting environment and its relationship with public diplomacy. Several of the Institute’s researchers — including Jenny Hayward-Jones, Jonathan Pryke and Alex Oliver — have at various times expressed concern about the range and extent of cuts to Australia’s international broadcasting services. These included the ending of the Australia Network contract in 2014 and later cuts to various aspects of the ABC’s international services, culminating in the 2016 at the announcement by the ABC that it would cease shortwave broadcasting services to the region.

This review provides an opportunity to look at recent developments in Australia’s international broadcasting, and to identify strategic opportunities to re-engage and renew focus on this important area of public and regional diplomacy. Given the breadth of the topic, we have focused our submission on the following areas:

  • Media and ‘soft power’ diplomacy;
  • Structure and governance;
  • Investment in content;
  • Investment in technology and distribution.

Under-investment, inconsistent government decision-making and strategic missteps by the national broadcaster have plagued Australia's efforts in international broadcasting for more than a decade. This is despite it being a potent tool for diplomacy in a region that is fast becoming a major focus for world powers.

Internal political squabbles have dominated decisions about Australia's international broadcasting capabilities. Questionable strategic re-organisation by the public broadcaster ABC in response to budget pressures has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the scale of its international services. The decision to end shortwave radio broadcasts to the Pacific shows that the ABC’s decision-making may not always be in the national interest.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper highlights the value of “soft-power” diplomacy through projecting Australian values. It is baffling that the White Paper makes no mention of international broadcasting, which is internationally recognised as a proven, cost-effective means to do this.

A renewed focus on international broadcasting would greatly bolster Australia’s public diplomacy efforts and support Australia’s interests in the region. The ABC remains the agency best placed to deliver international broadcasting services. Modest funding, delivered through mechanisms that allow for consultation over content, audience and technology would provide a framework to re-establish Australia's reputation in the international broadcasting space.

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