John Menadue.The vendetta against the ABC and the cost to Australia

May 28, 2014

Tony Abbott’s vendetta against the ABC is prejudicing Australia’s regional diplomacy.

The ABC is the most trusted media organisation in the country but Tony Abbott wants to bring it to heel. He has grown used to the fawning Murdoch media.

According to Essential Research, 70% of Australians have a lot of or some trust in ABC TV news and current affairs. For commercial news and current affairs, it is 38%; for news and opinion in daily newspapers it is 48% and for commercial TV news and current affairs it is 41%.

In his attacks on the ABC, Tony Abbott has become quite brazen, suggesting even that the ABC is unpatriotic.

In the recent budget ABC funding has been cut by $29 million p.a. But the real attack on the ABC was the decision to axe the $223 million contract which the ABC has to produce and broadcast Australia Network which Australia needs to project itself into the region.

The cutback to Australia Network will not only damage our projection into the region but it will also prejudice the ABC’s already limited number of correspondents in Asia, even though the ABC’s coverage and performance in Asia is superior to other media.

The Coalition made it clear in advance that it would axe the Australia Network. It was pay-back for the ABC even though the ABC has seven years to run on the contract.

Yet this axing came within weeks of the ABC signing a contract with the Shanghai Media Group to broadcast Australia Network throughout China. Only CNN and BBC have been able to negotiate such an arrangement. Rupert Murdoch tried for years to get a foothold in China but not surprisingly he failed ignominiously.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications, to whom the ABC is responsible, did not effectively defend the ABC. Julia Bishop the Minister for Foreign Affairs won the day.

It is noteworthy that during Tony Abbott’s recent visit to China we were told by the embedded Canberra Gallery journalists who travelled with him that the ABC had been able to secure this arrangement in China because of the good relations that Tony Abbott had forged with China. There must be some red faces in the Canberra Gallery to now see what’s happened to the ABC in China.

I have no doubt that the ABC is better equipped than any other media organisation to undertake this soft diplomacy in China and generally in our region. But close observers would conclude that Australia Network’s performance has been quite ordinary. It cannot be compared with the successful projection of the UK through the BBC World Service. The ABC’s performance in Asia reflects the derivative nature of all our media. Our media still perform as is if we are an island parked off London and New York.  Not one member of the eight-person ABC Board has lived or worked in Asia. Only one out of the eleven senior ABC executives has worked in Asia.

The very ordinary performance of the Australia Network is not surprising. It has not had leadership that understands and knows about our own region. ‘Soft diplomacy’ requires a close knowledge of the nuances and sophistication of the people of our region. The ABC, along with other media in Australia, is not sensitive or seriously interested in our region. Domestic trivia invariably wins the day.

The botched tender process and the performance of Australia Network have not helped the ABC’s case. But even allowing for that, Australia’s interests would be better served if the government had not pursued its continuing vendetta against the ABC and allowed our national broadcaster to continue and to develop its services into China and into our region.

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