If you’re a French, Russian, Japanese, Singaporean, American, British, German or Middle East citizen in Indonesia, then lucky you. Most nights you can turn on your TV and be proud that your homeland is broadcasting professionally and showcasing its culture.
Missing from the list is the big nation next door. Once, Australia looked out to the world. Now, it looks in.
Last year, Australia’s overseas TV channel formerly known as Australia Plus, and before that Australia Network, switched its name to ABC Australia. This was the fifth change in 25 years, bemusing viewers and corroding the brand.
The ABC is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, an independent government-funded public service modelled on the British BBC.
In a just-released report titled “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.”
So why does Australia bother to telecast to the Asia-Pacific? Why not yield the space to the Chinese who are keen on using the media to expand their influence?
Unfortunately for ABC management focusing on domestic audiences, the corporation’s charter requires it to broadcast overseas.
Then there’s the moral reason: Australia once proclaimed a responsibility to assist other nations to learn more about the country, its people, and values.
Until recently, Australia took these ideals seriously. The service seemed adequately no longer funded and curated for the markets. Programs televised now are just relayed with no concern about time differences.
If Jakartans and others want to watch Australian current affairs simultaneously with Australian timing, then they need to dash home early because the flagship “7:30 Report” is telecast in Australia during that peak post-dinner timeslot.
In Indonesia, it should be re-titled the “3:30 Report.” Unfortunately, that’s traffic jam time when expats are picking up their kids from school or heading to meetings to catch public servants before they head for the exits.
Australia is retreating from the region when its academics, business leaders, journalists, NGOs, and politicians on all sides consistently urge better education, improved communications, and closer contact to build enduring relationships.
These voices have become louder as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement gets closer to ratification. The IA-CEPA is a free trade agreement signed off in 2019 and now waiting for a tick by the Indonesian Parliament.
Australia’s media presentations to the Asia Pacific were once different.
Thousands developed their English skills through Radio Australia shortwave, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. Many elderly Indonesians recalled relying on the service during the Soeharto New Order dictatorship to open their world. RA was a trusted source at a time when facts were scarce. This gave Australia great kudos.
Australia Television International began transmission in 1993. Nine years later, it became ABC Asia Pacific. In 2006, the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced another name, Australia Network, with funding from foreign affairs and trade plus advertising.
The claims were extravagant: It would reach ten million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; maybe one million sets of eyeballs a month.
Downer said the ABC would offer “high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.” He included a homely metaphor: “A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programs that present a “window” on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.”
By then, Indonesians and other Southeast Asians had new windows to peer though. BBC World, France24, Al-Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle, and other international telecasters were offering vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend US$117 million (Rp1.6 trillion) a year on France 24, while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$300 million (Rp4.2 trillion). Now, China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television (CCTV).The Voice of America budget is US$218 million (Rp3 trillion) all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
When the Australia Network was turned off, the then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “it had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle,” but there were no facts to back the claim.
“Runs counter to the approach adopted by the vast majority of G20 countries. Countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy. It sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia,” the then ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said.
For the reason that the ABC Charter forces it to be an international broadcaster, the gap had to be filled. The result was Australia Plus with an AU$20 million (Rp194 billion) budget for three years partly bolstered by ads, yet few were materialised.
In Indonesia, three pay-to-use cable services carry the rebadged ABC Australia. They get it free, but the consumers don’t, meaning Australian taxpayers are subsidising overseas commercial distributors.
The ABC says its programs are “available to three million people in Indonesia” meaning that’s the number who pay for access to cable networks, each offering 50 or more channels.
ABC Australia programs are almost all in English. Those from Nat Geo are subtitled in Indonesian. Likewise, the History Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, BBC Earth, and many others which include crime and food channels are subtitled in Indonesian.
The Lowy Institute claimed that “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 report suggests the Australian Government funds international public broadcasting and does the job properly, based on reforms to date Indonesian and expats who will have a long wait.
Better use the remote and click onto an overseas service which treats the world’s fourth largest nation seriously.