The termination in the 2014 budget of the ABC’s international television broadcasting contract to run the federal government’s Australia Network service, barely a year into its ten-year term, was hardly a surprise.
If, as Treasurer Hockey has repeatedly claimed, this was a budget for the nation, then what do these decisions say about the value this government places on Australia’s international cultural image and internationalism more generally?
Cutting the Australia Network will save the government A$196.8 million over the next nine years. But the real cost of the decision will be far higher.
The network – Australia’s international television service – is currently available to more than 130 million people through 679 rebroadcast partners in 46 countries across Asia, the Pacific and the Indian sub-continent. Available on free-to-air television in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, its termination will inevitably diminish media diversity in these nations.
The ABC will obviously be hit hardest, with its capacity to meet its Charter responsibility for international broadcasting now greatly reduced. But the termination will also impact Australia’s international image, media diversity in the region and the ABC’s Australian coverage of news from the Pacific, in particular.
Prior to the budget, there were suggestions from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and former Australia Network head Bruce Dover among others that the costly television service could be replaced by a pared-back online offering.
The budget papers, however, give no indication that the service will be replaced by Sky News (the unsuccessful tenderer in 2005 and 2011) or any other media outlet, noting simply that:
The savings from [terminating the ABC’s contract] will be redirected by the Government to repair the Budget and fund policy priorities.
The Australia Network has been the subject of concerted and repeated attacks from the Coalition side of politics ever since the highly irregular tender process in 2011. Most recently, the Prime Minister made his displeasure clear over the ABC’s coverage of the “turn back” asylum seeker policy, and the Edward Snowden-Wikileaks affair.
Impact on the ABC
The decision to axe the Australia Network contract will remove an important source of ABC funding. Finalised in August 2012, the contract was worth A$223 million over ten years. While the ABC will receive A$10.6 million in compensation (roughly the budget for the service for six months), this is of course offset by other, deeper cuts to the organisation’s funding in the budget.
After the most recent contract was signed, the ABC restructured its International Division and instituted a multi-platform, audience-focused strategy for its regional offerings. The ABC does not conceive of the Australia Network in isolation; rather it is an integral part of the organisation’s international media program, which also includes Radio Australia and a variety of online, mobile and social media services.
The termination of the Australia Network, coupled with the massive cut to international aid programs, will dramatically weaken the important work of ABC International Development, which operates in Cambodia, PNG, Burma, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to support media training and communications for development.
The decision is also a major personal blow to Mark Scott and his ambitions for the organisation. In a public lecture in November 2009, Scott suggested the Australia Network could be the vehicle for the ABC to become “the dominant regional provider of news, information and English language learning material”.
Just last month, Scott signed a deal with the Shanghai Media Group to provide an online portal in China for ABC and other media services. The Australia Network was at the centre of this arrangement, and it remains to be seen whether this deal will survive.
Impact on Asia Pacific region
The loss of the Australia Network will diminish news coverage of the Pacific both in the region and in Australia, as Ashlee Betteridge of the Development Policy Centre at the ANU, argued this week.
A drop in coverage of the Pacific may mean that we are unlikely to see stories about the regional impacts of the reduction in international aid by A$7.5 billion in coming years.
With the broadcast of several Australian Rules football matches each weekend to overseas audiences, although the audience for these matches is principally Australian expats and tourists, the loss of the service will put a dent in the AFL’s strategy to popularise the sport overseas.
The closure of the Australia Network will also impact on the ABC’s role in English teaching. The CEO of ABC International, Lynley Marshall, wrote in The Australian in February this year that:
[the ABC’s] Learn English community … now includes almost 900,000 followers. The BBC’s comparable English learning community is 498,000 and Voice of America is at 662,000.
What about international engagement?
While programming on the service has been criticised from various quarters, ultimately the decision to shutter the service is not entirely about its content.
It is partly about some senior Coalition MPs’ ideological opposition to funding public broadcasting. And it is partly about the long tradition of Liberal antipathy for the ABC and for the role of the Corporation in the political life of this country.
But the decision will not only affect the ABC. The decision to terminate the service, with no replacement in sight, will raise questions in Australia and around the region about this government’s commitment to international engagement.
Announcing the most recent tender for the service in November 2010, then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said that the Network presents:
a reliable and independent voice in the Asia-Pacific region … presenting, through its programs, an Australian perspective on the world.
Clearly, these things are not valued by this deeply inward-looking Government. We are all the poorer for this.