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The ABC in China: Australian soft power?

EPA/Parker Song

The news that the ABC is to establish an ‘online portal’ in China that will allow it to ‘represent and sell media content across China’ has been greeted with understandable enthusiasm by the ABC.

The ABC is, after all, well and truly in the firing line as far as the government’s expenditure review committee is concerned. The new role in China could be a way of improving the ABC’s image as well as the country’s.

Unfortunately for the ABC, however, the Coalition regards it as little more than a sheltered workshop for ageing left wingers, and slashing its budget would suit the government’s ideological agenda and save money too. It’s the proverbial win-win situation if ever there was one.

In this context, the Australia Network had looked extremely vulnerable. Many in the Abbott government were unhappy with the way the ABC was awarded the initial contract, and would have much preferred Sky to have provided this potentially vital expression of Australian ‘soft power’.

Despite a good deal of disagreement about exactly what soft power might be, whether it works, or who has it, it’s attracted a surprising amount of attention. Originally developed by Joseph Nye to explain the fact that America exerts a huge cultural and ideational influence even in among countries and peoples that actively dislike its foreign policies, it seemed to be an idea whose time had come.

It has now become commonplace for countries such as South Korea and even China to be described as having soft power. Indeed, there is a veritable cottage industry – especially among Chinese academics – dedicated to explaining and analysing China’s ability to project a more positive image of itself.

Cynics might argue that taking a less belligerent and unilateral attitude toward territorial disputes might have more impact, but the Chinese government continues to pour money into Confucius Institutes in the belief that this will make a difference.

China also has its own English language channel that is widely available worldwide. CCTV’s experience also has some potentially salutary lessons for Australia. CCTV could best be described as earnest, dull and rather uncritical of Chinese policy in particular. It doesn’t make for compulsive viewing. Sadly, much the same can be said of the ABC’s Australia Network.

While I’m personally thrilled to have the opportunity to watch the Dockers fighting out a low scoring encounter in a wet and blustery Melbourne when I’m travelling, I wonder how many Chinese will feel the same way. What will they make of the almost unbroken diet of sport, soap operas, children’s programs and cooking shows? It might actually be better if they don’t watch them, unless we want to project an image of a low-budget, low-brow, national broadcaster catering for lowest common denominator philistines.

True, there is the news. But with the exception of ‘The World’, it can be parochial and interminable. I don’t watch the Drum and its rather self-absorbed ‘personality’ driven content when I’m in Australia. It’s hard to imagine it being a hit overseas. The reality is that most people I know seem to watch the BBC when travelling, and it’s not hard to see why.

The BBC not only has a hard-won reputation for impartiality, but it has the resources and content to run a dedicated global news service. People watch the BBC news because they know that’s what will be showing, and that the coverage and range of stories will be comprehensive.

Despite the ABC’s apparent superior access to a Chinese audience, it will have a hard job to supplant other content providers if the potential audience can’t be confident of regularly watching something worthwhile.

Clearly the ABC does not have the resources or the network of correspondents that the BBC has. Nevertheless, if the Australia Network is to provide a key window for the rest of the world to get a sense of what this country is about, it needs to think carefully about the material it broadcasts.

The target audience cannot be the handful of people like me who happen to be overseas and like watching the footy. Perhaps Aussie Rules will eventually become the world game that we all think it should be, but in the meantime it might be better to give some thought to the preferences of the potential audience. No doubt many in China will be riveted by Bananas in Pajamas, but if the Australian government is serious about exerting some influence in China and elsewhere, it ought to be putting more money into the effort, not less.

Soft power is difficult to measure and utilise. But if the Australian government is serious about projecting a more positive image of this country and possibly influencing the way other countries not only think about us but – even more importantly in the long run, perhaps – themselves, then it ought to put its money where its mouth is.

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