A hodge-podge is not an international service

Aug 11, 2022
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Logo
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As Opposition Leader touring overseas, Anthony Albanese probably clicked on ABC Australia TV to kill time. If so his claim that ‘it’s a matter of national security that the ABC makes more content that projects Australian values and interests to the Indo-Pacific region’ sounds like despair driving action.

Albanese playing with the remote in an Indonesian hotel room would have been swamped with shame. Channels from Britain, the US, Japan, South Korea, Qatar, France, Germany, Singapore, Russia and China – all with programmes showcasing their nations’ ‘identity, values and interests’ (the PM’s words), and doing so in quality English, sometimes with local captions. Against this line-up Australia isn’t even in the pool.

The PM’s comments were made last week at the ABC’s 90th anniversary shin-dig in Sydney. According to the broadcaster he ‘reaffirmed Labor’s previous funding commitments to restore $83.7 million … as well as five-year funding terms and options for financial sustainability which safeguard against political interference.’

This is a shaft at Julie Bishop, the former Foreign Minister who turned off the Australia Network (the predecessor to ABC Australia) in 2014 to the angst of many independent experts, because it ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’. This followed a heavy artillery assault on the service by Murdoch media.

She offered no facts to back the claim leading to the paranoid seeing revenge as Channel 7 once sought public money to go offshore. The then ABC managing director Mark Scott commented that the decision:

‘…runs counter to the approach adopted by the vast majority of G20 countries. Countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy.’

Because the ABC Charter forces it to be an international broadcaster the gap had to be filled. The result was Australia Plus now ABC Australia with an allowance of $20 million for three years.

Voice of America’s annual budget is $315 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.

The French Government is reported to spend $169 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to get through $434 million every twelvemonth. (All figures in Australian dollars). Much is propaganda (no balance in the Red channels) but so well packaged the messages are subtle and the pictures usually splendid.

Said Albanese this month: ‘On top of every other consideration, it (international broadcasting) is a prudent investment in our national security as well as our national interest … undervalued by the previous government, even trivialised.’ Reason having failed to move governments, China plonking transmitters around the zone has done the trick.

Labor calls its strategy a ‘strong Australian voice’ in the ‘Indo Pacific’. But where is this wonderworld?  The term is beloved by politicians, economists and climatologists, though not ABC chair Ita Buttrose who uses ‘Asia Pacific’.

Either way this is a vast area and includes 48 countries, according to the US Transportation Department. They’re as disparate in culture, language, rule and drive as Mongolia is from Singapore, the only commonality being included in ellipses drawn by Western cartographers.

The last ABC annual report claimed ABC Australia is available ‘in more than 38 markets across Asia and the Pacific, and has a monthly viewership of at least 2,553,000.’ Whether these are regulars, or ten second tries-and-goodbyes isn’t known. Note ‘markets’ not nations.

This is a one-size-fits-all approach. Business experts say products must be designed for consumers for top sales. So why telecast full AFL games on three days a week to the democracy next door where all balls are round, and its 273 million citizens don’t care a damn whether Geelong will thrash St Kilda.

ABC Australia programmes are shunted and shifted without notice. A presenter tells what’s coming next – then something different appears. The channel’s Internet TV Guide is a misnomer; TV Guesser would be better.

Nat Geo docos are subtitled in Indonesian. Likewise the History Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery, BBC Earth and many others, even crime and food programmes. Exceptions on ABC Australia include some one-off docos, a few science and art shows and the worthy Books that Made Us opening the pages on our culture.

These translations are a welcome recent innovation – but costly if done well. Machine jobs are imperfect, particularly with slang and idioms, good for giggles, not grasp.

ABC Australia’s flagship is The World a one-hour news bulletin. Despite its title the programme is padded with parochial yarns. Other news spots get State bulletins wrapped with a local weather forecast. The heat in Halls Creek and rain in Albany may excite viewers in these tiny towns, but get a WTF response in Surabaya and Makassar.

An estimated 64 million households in Indonesia have receivers, the highest saturation rate in Southeast Asia. No focus-group surveys needed to show viewers want wholesome fare to suit their taste, not innutritious trolley-fillers.

In its 2019 report A Missed Opportunity for Projecting Australia’s Soft Power the Lowy Institute claimed ‘international broadcasting is one of the most effective forms of public diplomacy, if managed properly…

‘Australia is explicitly competing for global and regional influence, yet Australia’s international broadcasting has been weakened through a combination of government inconsistency and neglect, ideology-driven decisions, budget cuts and apparent ABC management indifference.’

Extra money for the ABC is fine and dandy, but this isn’t all about dollars. Albanese’s drive for a meaningful service needs to swerve past managers who reckon any show with a roo and a beach will satisfy foreigners.

Maybe once. Not now. Like the PM in a Hilton, viewers can click. Getting the turn-offs to turn on will need translations and curated programming by progressive producers who know the ‘market’ has matured.

[Some of this story is based on a two-part Pearls & Irritations 2020 report (here and here) which analysed the ABC’s international offerings.]

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