Australia’s International Broadcasting and Soft Power

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Hon. Marise Payne

Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Hon. Mitch Fifield

Purpose

Ministers, your respective departments are currently undertaking reviews (Review of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia Pacific, Review of Soft Power) that aim to find new ways for Australia to build partnerships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Focusing on broadcasting and cultural exchanges, this brief highlights the shared interests of your two departments and proposes opportunities for joint endeavours in strengthening Australia’s regional relationships.

Background

In 2014 the Abbott Government defunded much of the ABC’s Asia-Pacific broadcasting service, Radio Australia ABC, as well as the Australia Network television service. Then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that there was no need for Australia’s voice on already over-crowded airwaves, suggesting that the BBC or CNN would be adequately informative. These cuts, coupled with the ABC’s uptake of digital radio, led to the end of shortwave broadcasting in Asia in January 2015 and in the Pacific two years later. Digital services are still available in some Pacific nations, but the loss of shortwave limits this to capital cities. Those living remotely or unable to afford digital services are left without regional, world and domestic news.

The Department of Communication and the Arts has recently undertaken a review of Australian broadcasting services in the Asia Pacific, in recognition of the role that broadcasting plays in staking Australia’s claim as a significant partner in the Asia-Pacific and South East Asia,

The relationship between communications and Australian cultural diplomacy has a history dating back nearly seventy years. Australia’s short-wave overseas broadcasting began in 1939, following the outbreak of the Second World War. Originally under the control of the Department of Information and called Australia Calling (later renamed Radio Australia), the broadcaster sought to explain Australian policies and current affairs to the peoples of the Asia-Pacific region. Prominent public intellectuals including William McMahon Ball and Robert Horner joined the ranks of Australia Calling, producing news bulletins that were translated into several regional languages.

During the early Cold War years, with the rise of Asian and Pacific nationalism and the policy of containment, shortwave radio was adopted as a deliberate instrument of foreign policy. A Department of External Affairs report from 1948 suggested that the Australian government should endeavour to create for itself the image of a good neighbour, supportive of “genuine” (that is non-Communist) nationalist movements. This could be aided by “cultural exchanges” aimed at developing knowledge of Australia and its ideals, and support for non-Communist nationalist movements. With plans to expand broadcasting, curate content and provide affordable radio sets to Asia and the Pacific, Radio Australia was flagged as a key tool in achieving this objective. So promising were the opportunities of shortwave radio that during the 1950s, the Department of External Affairs sought to provide Radio Australia scripts from which announcers were to read, specifically to combat foreign influence and Communist ideology. At this point, Radio Australia was part of the ABC, and External Affairs’ attempts to influence content were met by protest as this directly contravened the independence of the national broadcaster. While the editorial integrity of Radio Australia was not directly ceded, from 1955 new commentaries were required to draw on press releases from the Department of External Affairs.

Given the opportunities for radio to engage with and inform Australia’s neighbours, it was also an important element in the Colombo Plan. Throughout the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, Colombo Plan funds were being spent on the construction of radio receivers, the provision of personal radios throughout Asia and the Pacific and training for journalists. Radio Australia has played a role during other significant political and social upheavals in the Pacific. During the period following a coup in 1987 in Fiji, Fijian radio stations and independent media organisations were prevented from broadcasting. Brij V. Lal asserts that during this period, Radio Australia was the only source of independent news available in Fiji over a number of months.

Current Situation

Australia has recently fallen in Soft Power Rankings—for example, the Soft Power 30 where Australia has dropped from 6th in 2015 to 10th in 2018. And while China, often seen as Australia’s soft power competitor in the Pacific, is well down this list at 27th, Australia needs to be realistic about its soft and hard power capabilities.

Key Considerations

Departmental disconnect: The DFAT Soft Power Review aims to “consider new ways to engage and a more systematic and sophisticated approach to harnessing our soft power assets”—broadcasting and communication are soft power assets that require further development. However, as of yet, there is little inter-department activity to harness cultural diplomacy as a tool of soft power.

Meaningful commitments: The policy space around broadcasting and cultural diplomacy in Australia is virtually empty. This provides an excellent opportunity to build something new. This necessitates:

  • Meaningful and long-view funding: The question at hand is not simply about restoring the infrastructure for shortwave broadcasting, it is one of committing to a new and robust platform and content that will ensure a consistent and trusted broadcasting voice in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Authentic regional partnerships: Reaching and holding audiences in Asia and the South Pacific is about talking with, not just talking to. Any future attempts to use broadcasting and public and cultural diplomacy to develop Australia’s soft power must be built on the basis of a two-way relationship with regional neighbours; a process of exchanging meaning, values and socio-political understanding rather than simply projecting Australian views. ABC radio programs such as Pacific Mornings are a good start, but more needs to be done to pitch this content to Australian audiences as general interest rather than special interest.

Reasserting regional influence: Recent reports indicate that Chinese government broadcasters have taken an interest in—and in some cases have taken over—Australia’s old shortwave frequencies in the Asia-Pacific. While this is not necessarily a cause for concern, it does point to competition for soft power and the critical role that broadcast can play in this competition. As Paul Dibb, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU has noted, Australia “should focus more on our region of primary strategic concern”, reasserting “our influence in these areas as China moves increasingly to challenge our strategic space”.

Options

Both the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Communications and the Arts are exploring strategic opportunities to re-engage and renew policy focus in the Asia-Pacific region. They can continue to do this independently or explore joint projects in the area of public and cultural diplomacy.

Research shows that the ABC is Australia’s most trusted media provider. The Department of Communications and the Arts is already working with the ABC to explore the role it can play in Australian–Asia-Pacific relations. DFAT can follow a similar path, keeping in mind the critical importance of ABC independence in its role as a trusted media provider.

Recommendations

  • The Australian government must restore funding for ABC international shortwave broadcasting on a long-term contractual basis. The ABC must recommit itself to broadcast services in the Asia-Pacific region across shortwave, digital and television platforms. Australia’s understanding of its neighbourhood is low. We recommend an expansion of content across all ABC broadcasting platforms to include more Asia-Pacific news, current affairs and cultural content.
  • Concurrently, we also recommend that Australian public servants of the future must come from more diverse backgrounds and be better-educated in the issues of our region. The APS should draw on those with demonstrated understanding of a second language, preferably from the Asia-Pacific region, and/or demonstrated engagement through study or travel with a country in the region. This practice links well with the goals of the New Colombo Plan.
  • “Australia by Degree” is a good example of a joint DFAT and Department of Communications and the Arts initiative. We encourage further inter-departmental collaboration in the form of a joint educational program. We recommend the inclusion of media and communications as a specific area of study within the Australia Awards for targeted recipient nations (especially the Pacific Island Countries) and funded internship/mentorship programs for both Australian and Asia-Pacific media and communications students and early career professionals, perhaps through the Endeavour Fellowship program. These positions could sit within the ABC and Radio Australia.
  • The Australian Government should encourage and reward those content creators forging people-to-people links in the Asia-Pacific region. There are good ad hoc examples of collaborations in creative industries such as game design; for example, the Next Door Land game funded via the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. We recommend the expansion of the Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program to include a media and communications category. For instance, funding long-form investigative journalism projects that focus on one of the four Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program priority regions that generally require larger funding streams and time commitments.

Contact Officer:   Honae Cuffe

                                      School of Humanities and Social Science

                                      The University of Newcastle

                                      honae.cuffe@newcastle.edu.au

Contact Officer:   Anna Kent

                                      Contemporary Histories Research Group

                                      Deakin University

                                      anna.kent@deakin.edu.au

Honae Cuffe is undertaking a PhD in history at the University of Newcastle. Her doctoral research aims to explore successive Australian government’s attempts to integrate national interests within the changing Asia-Pacific order in the years 1921-57, with a particular focus to the role of trade, commerce and diplomacy in the development of this foreign policy. Drawing parallels with the current Australia-US-China debacle, Honae’s research explores the downfalls of Australia’s binary foreign policy approach, specifically the risks of hedging bets and attempting to meld two distinct geopolitical outlooks.

Anna Kent is a PhD student at Deakin University in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, researching the history of Australian government education aid to the Pacific. Her research interests include international education, international development, education and foreign policy. Anna is especially interested in the intersections between foreign policy, international education and international development.

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