DUNCAN GRAHAM New name, old menu, but hope looms

Jul 12, 2018

Fresh news for stay-at-homes: The ABC has abandoned spin to reveal its overseas TV service is not aired to showcase the nation, but amuse expats.

On 1 July it surreptitiously abandoned Australia Plus, a failed experiment to pollute public broadcasting with advertising, and rebanner itself as ABC Australia.  The tautology ensures viewers don’t think it’s Disney Media’s American Broadcasting Company.

There are some zingy promo entrees but the menu is the same fare – back-to-back local news, repeats and more repeats, plus hours of AFL. Many individual programmes are fine – they’re those seen in Australia. But the toss-in mix is uncurated and untranslated; it doesn’t serve foreign tastes.

An ABC submission to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper said:

 …the ABC places the audience at the centre of everything it does. Through its international services the ABC has the content and infrastructure to enable it to connect with a range of international audiences in English and their own language, presenting Australian perspectives and values to the world.

The song has changed. ABC Australia now says its content is ‘for Australians living abroad and local audiences living outside of Australia’.

 Note the priorities. Sports-crazed Okkers, whacked after a day clicking selfies in temples, can relax with a few ales in Bali’s Jalan Legian and never miss a mark when the big men fly.

As outlined in this blog the ABC Charter requires it to broadcast internationally. TV started in 2001 as ABC Asia Pacific and has since been through more brands and slogans than a Clive Palmer bid for political relevance.

At first the service was worthy, its vision articulated in 2006 by CEO Ian Carroll. When relaunched as Australia Network he said:

‘Our news and current affairs programmes provide more than the headlines – it is quality world class journalism offering a different view from the London and US-centric networks.

“While we still look at and cover news from around the globe, we focus on the region we live in so our perspective is from this part of the world.

Perhaps that was the real intention, but Carroll, who became ABC Director of Innovation, died in 2011 so we’ll never know. Since then our window to the world has become starred, chipped and fractured; all the damage has been done by missiles hurled  from within.

A brief background: In 2011 tenders were called to run the $223 million Australia Network. There were just two serious bidders, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV. This was a channel Julia Gillard’s government would never select, so the ABC continued to run the show.

Though not for long. Two years and a new government later, FM Julie Bishop said Australia Network ’had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’. She turned off the ignition leaving the ABC to drive on an empty tank.

The nearest parking spot was corporate sponsorship and Australia Plus. Five years later it’s now ABC Australia on subscription in 40 Asia-Pacific countries.

The problems are ideological – why support public broadcasting when commercial media can do the job? – and parochial.  There are few votes in spending big on a prestige overseas TV service to challenge BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and other flagship services many nations sail abroad.

Now (cue cautious applause), those who do worry about our image have a chance to vent their wrath. Till 3 August the dismayed and concerned can gripe to the Review of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia Pacific.

The inquiry is ‘assessing the reach of Australia’s media in the Asia-Pacific region, including examining whether shortwave radio technology should be used.’

The terms of reference also canvass TV and ‘commercial, community and publicly funded services’.  This puts ABC Australia under the lens.

The inquiry wasn’t sought by the government or the ABC.  It exists only because the Coalition promised the probe to get Senator Nick Xenophon’s vote for media law changes.

Ironically Xenophon is no longer a political force. After nine years in the Senate he quit last year, then failed to get into the South Australian Parliament.

It was all ho-hum until another event suddenly made the review get serious: The new Red Threat.  Last year the ABC cut shortwave broadcasting in the Asia-Pacific. Radio New Zealand has since reported that China is filling the void.

Pleas by global citizens and Aunty fans may not move the government, but closet Sinophobia should stir. Former ALP Senator Margaret Reynolds, now president of the activist group ABC Friends is optimistic.

She’s been telling members the inquiry is being championed by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne who, she claims, has convinced PM Malcolm Turnbull that ‘there is a considerable gap in Australia’s soft power in the region’, adding:

‘While at first glance it may just seem another inquiry, its timing suggests the government may be gearing up to restore some funding to the ABC through foreign and defence policy rather than communications; it does suggest some softening of attitudes in sections of the government.’

Stay tuned, as you can at any Kuta bar.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia

















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