ABC sending a strange message to the region.

The slashing and burning of ABC workers, their goodies and services seems to have missed the overseas TV service ABC Australia. That’s no reason to whoop. Further cuts will kill.

It has to be seen to be disbelieved.

ABC Australia is our TV showcase to 37 Asia Pacific nations we want to impress, particularly the biggest on the block – Indonesia. Tune in! We belong here, have aid projects, can give a hand with a few jolly education slots, warn you about druggies.

More importantly we can sell tucker you want. Might share a nod and a wave. Mateship’s too strong. That needs closeness and trust.

Definitions can be a turn-off, but this one’s necessary. Patience, please. ‘Asia Pacific’ is a pendulum term and this story is more about the western arc. For Canberra right now it’s swung east with the ‘PacificAus TV initiative’.

For $17.1 million across three years, seven Pacific states including PNG will get 1,000 hours a year of free-to-air Aussie TV. So far islanders’ reactions have been muted, noting the info-flow is one-way colonisation by media – big countries produce, small ones consume. MasterChef should go down well in dirt-floor kitchens with no running water.

Officially PacificAus TV ‘complements a range of initiatives to enhance Australia’s engagement in the Pacific’ which is a load of guff, though Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland sees Reds under the hammocks:

‘While the Morrison Government has been cutting the ABC and diminishing Australia’s soft power, China has been making significant investments in its global media footprint and growing its reach and influence in the region.’

‘Soft power’ also oscillates. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer defined it as ‘a credible and independent voice through programs that present a window on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’

Logically we’d be putting money and imagination into revealing who we are and what we do. That’s been our overseas media policy for more than a quarter-century but needs re-glazing. Now’s the time, using the new free trade agreement with Indonesia.

Instead the panes on Downer’s homely metaphor are cracked and smeared, the frames rotten. The place is going downhill. The residents don’t care a damn about separating plastics, tins and food; they bung the lot into one wheelie bin and put it out on the wrong days. The homeowner is the ABC, the rubbish ABC Australia and its transmitters the trash truck. Bundled together the result is an embarrassment.

But who’d know? The service can’t be easily seen in Australia so little interest. Even ABC Friends, the ‘promoter and defender’ of the Corporation and chaired by former Labor Senator Margaret Reynolds didn’t respond to questions about ABC Australia.

So here’s an appraisal of the menu:

Our overseas viewers are being served with so much ill-prepared, repetitious, boring and inappropriate fare customers shop elsewhere. They have choice aplenty – the BBC, Al Jazeera, DW (Germany) France 24, Arirang (South Korea), Voice of America, NHK (Japan) RT (Russia) and other channels offering quality programs screened to suit the locals.

Now that sport is back from quarantine Okkers abroad can watch the big men fly three hours every evening from Thursday to Sunday on ABC Australia. No matter that the AFL isn’t played in the target countries; this service is for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t get home before borders closed.

Head of ABC International David Hua offered this justification: ‘The code is uniquely Australian and being able to showcase it to audiences overseas is important.’ So viewers get 12 hours a week of physical clashes, about the same for the occasionally cerebral 7.30 Report, Insiders, The Drum, and the daily news The World combined. This last program is produced for the service and does have merit.

Before the lockdown when about 1.3 million Australians went to Bali every year, Kuta bars billboarded Rules and Rugby to suck in thirsty fans. No point now.

Our Embassy in Jakarta reckons about 3,000 Aussies remain in the Republic. Most are in business or retirees on the Hindu-majority island. Some footy fanatics may need to hear sirens; it’d be good to think others moved to the archipelago to experience different cultures and live without a nostalgia kick.

Getting through to the masses is easy in Indonesia; TVs are as common as street eateries where sets are as essential as woks. Likewise in shops, restaurants and government departments where the idle watch plot-thin sinetron (soapies) while waiting for work.

An estimated 64 million households in Indonesia (pop 270 million) have receivers, the highest saturation rate in Southeast Asia. This is a legacy of last century’s Soeharto era when huge sums were spent using satellites to beam government propaganda into every nook of the 6,000 occupied islands.

During much of the dictator’s 32-years, the national broadcaster TVRI had a monopoly. Now there’s democracy the cables and free-to-airwaves jostle for frequencies. Many channels owned by tycoons are so partisan they make Fox News look balanced.

Our overseas TV ventures started in 1993 with Australia Television International. Nine years later it became ABC Asia Pacific, and in 2006 Australia Network with funding from Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising. Downer claimed it would reach ten million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; maybe one million viewers a month. The budget was $200 million for a decade.

He 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.’

Australia Network CEO, the late Ian Carroll, added: ‘Our news and current affairs programs provide more than the headlines – it is quality world-class journalism offering a different view from the London and US-centric networks’.

In 2011 the Australian Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV which had long campaigned to get the job.

When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company had the nod the process was scrapped and the task given to the ABC.

Revenge was rapid. After the Coalition won office in 2013 Australia Network was switched off. FM Julie Bishop said it ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’ though gave no facts to back the claim. The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said 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.

‘It sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia.’

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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