GRAEME DOBELL | Australian Strategic Policy Institute
CANBERRA - The wrack and roil afflicting the international system matches the digital disruption of news media. The rules and norms of the foreign policy game and media world both shake, shift and suffer.
Australia frets about threats to the rules-based system as the tectonic plates of geopolitics and geo-economics crunch. Luckily for Canberra, amid all the disruption, there’s a perfect media instrument ready to serve as Australia’s voice in the Asia–Pacific, to do journalism that’ll serve our interests and values.
Well tested by history, with a proud heritage of great journalism and a wonderfully prescient charter, that instrument is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Simple as ABC, really.
Trouble is, as this column has been arguing, Canberra has to rediscover the value of independent media as a foreign policy instrument. And the ABC, too, has to rediscover its history and confront its failure to meet the international dimensions of its charter.
To explain, come into my anecdotage, in a previous life as an ABC correspondent. Two decades ago—many cycles back in the media revolution—a sardonic line rattled around ABC executive ranks: ‘A peasant in Longreach is more important than a peasant in Lombok’.
The bitter point of the comparison—central Queensland versus an Indonesian island—was that the ABC must devote scarce cash to its domestic users, not its potential international audience. When the ABC took the axe to its shortwave service to the South Pacific last year, it simply underlined the corporate view that Longreach is more important than Lautoka or Lae.
Money choices are always an excruciating expression of what’s most important. And the repeated tough fate of the ABC’s international effort shows that it’s a low priority, allowed to wither. Canberra and Aunty are equally culpable for this wastage.
The ABC’s international TV was chopped and changed, treated as a government plaything. The shortwave service, Radio Australia, suffered because it was seen as old technology, weighed down by Cold War history—a recipe for institutional starvation. RA kept paying a post–Cold War peace dividend as it was cut to pieces.
Times shift and the need for our international media voice suddenly looks timely. Power politics zoom back, the digital revolution rages and Australia’s foreign policy dilemmas demand that the ABC get back into the international journalism game, bigger and better.
Three distinct decision strands need to combine for the back-bigger-and-better conclusion to be realised. Strands one and two reside in Canberra.
First, there has to be political and policy consensus that the international tectonic plates are crunching, that the erupting lava is melting the rules-based system. There’s policy agreement about how nasty things are looking: expressed in the 2016 defence white paper, the 2017 independent intelligence review and the 2017 foreign policy white paper.
The Liberal–Labor unity ticket on foreign policy is substantial. As always, argument rages about whether the government or opposition will do a better job on China or the US alliance or in the South Pacific.
What’s not in dispute is the importance of the issues and the troubling trends. Beneath the usual political argy-bargy is a broader consensus, based on a shared sense of foreboding.
The second strand is the tough bit: the shift from description to prescription, from anxiety to action. What can/should/must we do? This series of columns is built around the review of Australia’s media reach in the Asia–Pacific, arguing that hard news must be the sharp edge of Oz soft power.
A strong Oz voice in the Asia–Pacific, based on the ABC, is one part of the answer to the challenge of fundamental changes in the international system, extremism with global reach and accelerating technological change.
The broadcasting review is the chance to move from the agreed description of problems in strand one to a new Canberra consensus on the use of the ABC in support of our interests and values in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and beyond.
Lots more cash is needed to rebuild a powerful and consistent broadcasting voice, to rejoin regional conversations and contests. Tough international times demand good journalism, just as they require steady political attention, economic engagement of every kind, smart diplomacy, good aid, effective intelligence and a strong defence strategy.
Canberra has to agree on the prescription, set the policy response and do the budget numbers for a sustained media commitment.
And that brings us to strand three: how the ABC needs to change. The past two decades show that the ABC will always choose Longreach. It’s a logical ABC response; its priorities are domestic, not international. Yet it fails to serve our interests and values beyond our shores. We need a future ABC that can always do what Australia needs for Lombok and Lautoka and Lae.
In my submission to the broadcasting review, I’ll be arguing that the solution is to resolve the domestic–international tensions inherent in the demands of the ABC charter. The international responsibility must be more than a declining division of the ABC—it must become a new planet in the Australian policy universe. The new planet must be created by the ABC and draw on its values as well as its resources. To focus exclusively on the international job will require a new corporation.
The new entity should be called the Australian International Broadcasting Corporation. The AIBC would have its own chair and board and its own separate budget, meeting the special responsibility for international broadcasting demanded by the ABC’s charter.