Though this starts like a fairy story it’s really a frightener: Once upon a time, Australian governments believed that broadcasting beyond our shores – and particularly into Southeast Asia – was an important responsibility, sowing ideas, informing and influencing.
Radio Australia shortwave started in 1939 to counter Japanese propaganda. After the war, it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of Foreign Affairs. It made us ‘globally connected’, able to ‘promote Australian values’.
Now all has turned to froth. Seldom seen by taxpayers is our $20 million presentation to the world. Although called Australia Plus it adds little of value.
When radio faded Australian Television International became our grandstand, later titled ABC Asia Pacific.
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spruiked another rebirth: Australia Network, funded by Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising, would reach 10 million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; at the time maybe one million viewers a month.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering ‘high-quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.’ Also promised were ‘extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs.’
A homely metaphor spiced his Reithian rhetoric: ‘A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programs that present a window on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’
By then more windows were being opened. BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other international telecasters were starting to offer vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend $117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is said to get through US$300 million a year. Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television(CCTV).
Voice of America’s budget is US$ 218 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
In 2011 the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV, which had long lusted after the job. When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company would win the tender process was scrapped and the prize given to the ABC.
The triumph was brief. When the Liberal-National Coalition won government it clicked OFF. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia Network “had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’. No details.
The ABC was given 90-days notice to break its $223 million deal. Eighty staff – some in Asian newsrooms – lost their jobs.
Killing the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced: The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster so the gap had to be filled. Click onto Australia Plus.
The new service started with three ‘foundation partners’ – what straight-talkers call ‘advertisers’: Monash University, the Government of Victoria and food supplement manufacturer Swisse Wellness owned by a Hong Kong based company.
It was promoted as ’an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavour that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.’
The triplets have now disappeared from the screens; no Australian corporate entrepreneurs have grabbed this opportunity to engage with the Southeast Asian markets which Government boosters say are slavering for our products.
This suggests Australian traders either don’t know Australia Plus exists – which would be a failure of marketing – or they’ve researched its reach and decided it’s a dud.
So it seems taxpayers are footing the total bill for this pseudo-service. ‘Seems’ because, despite requests, Nick Leys, the ABC’s Head of Communications doesn’t communicate with this writer to explain what’s happening.
Along with the loss of sponsors has been a shift in programming. As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship, it might be logical to assume we’d be offering the neighbours our handpicked and most relevant best.
However, Australia Plus is delivered as a single stream, meaning one size fits all in the 44 countries that now get the service. Most Indonesians use free-to-air TV; to watch Australia Plus they have to pay for access through one of three cable services which accept Australia Plus at no cost.
These commercial operators offer hundreds of channels. They have about 8.5 million subscribers. There are 260 million people in Indonesia.
Unless cable patrons are Kuta bar owners sucking in expat drinkers with three hours of AFL on Fridays and again on Saturdays, soccer-crazed Indonesians have few reasons to channel surf Australia Plus from their sofas.
Indonesians are early bedders and risers, with the fajar (dawn prayer) wake-up call starting around 4.15 am in Java. Markets open at 5 and the power meter reader is on his rounds an hour later.
Few households are awake after 9 pm. The evening schedule on the day this story was keyboarded started with Stan Grant’s Matter of Fact, followed by The World (news) then ABC News Tonight, then ABC Late News, then ABC News Overnight then a replay of MOF.
MOF is one of the few goodies along with Q and A, Four Corners, The Drum, Australian Story and One on One. But these have been made for audiences which understand the cultural references and political nuances. Outsiders are left nonplussed.
There’s also Home and Away plus some fare for the kids, but the rest is largely uncurated, repetitious fill-a-space. Last year some SBS programs were aired. They seem to have disappeared.
This is Australia showcased to the region to which it allegedly seeks closer ties – trumpeted most recently at the ASEAN Summit in Sydney. The original high-minded plans to ‘present Australian perspectives and values to the world’ are – like our once proud Test Cricket image – no more.
Apart from the noted exceptions, Australia Plus offers little to the locals. It’s a viewer turn-off. The ABC should either follow suit or do its job properly.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham (www.indonesianow.blogspot.com) writes from East Java.