Rules show how not to win friends and influence people

May 24, 2024
Jakarta, Indonesia - August 20, 2022: The Croydon Transmitter Mast near Crystal Palace

The ABC is running jolly programmes on and for the Pacific as part of a government policy to counter Chinese influence. But in a closer, bigger and more important region already eyed by Beijing the national broadcaster and its paymaster offer indifference and ignorance. Or is that arrogance?

The flagship of the international service ABC Australia is The World, 60 minutes of “detailed analysis of various national as well as international news stories and events along with insights from experts and correspondents”.

Just the ticket. Six pm – fine. Bedtimes are early in Indonesia. Click now.

Though not on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That’s when the bored schedulers in Sydney switch to like-it-or-leave-it TV. Three hours each evening of AFL games.

Sport is a fine way to bring people together – if it’s the right code.

When Indonesians say sepak bola they mean football as in soccer, the most popular game in the world and the Republic’s 38 provinces. Yet Ultimo producers reckon the 275 million people next door want the AFL.

About 40,000 Australians are living long-term in the archipelago. Not all are keen to see the big men fly nine hours a week. However, many of the 1.2 million plus Australians who visit Bali every year are addicts. They get served in Kuta’s street-side bars where the telecasts help uncap more Bintangs.

Those living on an atoll as part of the ‘Pacific Family’ – a much-used label in the puffery – get targeted. The head of ABC’s international services Claire Gorman explained:

“A shared love of sport offers opportunities to strengthen social ties across the Pacific, and particularly to engage young people.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supports the ABC to produce the only pan-Pacific sport-focused TV show …and a fresh and humorous sport-oriented radio show and podcast, Can You Be More Pacific?

Specific? Certainly. The main sport in the PI is rugby and coverage is generous.

The population of the islands is about 2.3 million. Indonesia’s is 120 times greater.

All this has been explained by this writer and others on several occasions to ABC management. Erin Hayes of the ‘International Distribution Team’ emailed that the “AFL is included in our schedule as it is a uniquely Australian sport.”

Koalas are also uniquely Australian but only get docos. That’s the way to treat the AFL and other ‘Ozzie’ sports.

Showing Australian women’s soccer could skyball the Indonesian fringe game and inspire its hardly-noticed players and supporters by regularly watching the skilful players Down Under.

Hayes again: “Subtitling in Bahasa Indonesia on ABC Australia is available on all programs at (specific times) on Sundays and a selection of current affairs programming such as Foreign Correspondent and Australian Story.” But not news.

Voice of America’s annual government-funded budget is $412 million. The ABC international broadcasting fund set in 2022 is $32 million over four years. A further $8.5 million came last year. (All figures AUD.)

ABC Australia is said to be seen in more than 40 countries with 238,000 subscribers and an average monthly audience of 1,265 million. How many watchers in Indonesia, the biggest country in Southeast Asia isn’t known, but on these stats it’s tiny.

We’re not getting our buck’s worth.

Despite the widespread use of social media through smartphones, Indonesians still like to point-and-press remotes. An estimated 64 million households each of around four members have receivers, the highest saturation rate in Southeast Asia. The data is six years old so will have slipped significantly, though remaining mountainous.

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.”

The confusingly named ABC Australia (formerly Australia Television International, ABC Asia Pacific, Australia Network and Australia Plus) is made free to eight Indonesian platforms,

It’s then churned with offerings from Britain, the US, Japan, South Korea, Qatar, France, Germany, Singapore, Russia and China, bombarding Indonesian home sets by selling to subscribers at prices starting from $25 a month.

The name changes mark political interference. Overseas image projection policy should best be bipartisan. Instead, it’s intensely political. In 2011 tenders were called to run what was then the Australia Network.

When it seemed Murdoch’s Sky News would win the process was scrapped and the task given to the ABC by PM Julia Gillard.

When she was shown the door so was Australia Network. FM Julie Bishop reportedly said there were “much more creative ways” to promote Australia abroad, though made no suggestions.

As written at the time, turning off life support may have satisfied the Coalition’s ideology but the ABC Charter compels an international service.

The result was Australia Plus with a $20 million budget for three years propped up by sponsors. The public service–commercial marriage was a disaster. Dogs have better breakfasts.

In 2018 the ads went and ABC Australia appeared.

Our giant neighbour, soon to have a new government led by a right-wing former general, has already started playing footsies with Xi Jinping. Although he won’t get his elbows on the presidential desk till October, Prabowo Subianto was warmly welcomed in Beijing last month.

Is the ABC serious about its overseas programming? Does anyone care? That question was put to Hayes on 24 April. No reply.

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