Happy 70th birthday, Radio Australia

Happy 70th birthday, Radio Australia

30 Nov 2009

john-tebbutt-thumb Dr John Tebbutt
Email: john.tebbutt@latrobe.edu.au

Radio Australia has been broadcasting for 70 years (see their birthday site). It’s a remarkable achievement for a broadcaster that began with a government fiat to support British external broadcasters in the propaganda effort in second world war.

International broadcasting did not have any legislative backing until 1983. When the Australian Broadcasting Commission was reformed as a Corporation clauses were added to the new legislation to support an international role for radio and television.

Now Radio Australia’s English and regional language broadcasts, are provided free-to-air throughout Asia and the Pacific via satellite and a network of more than 400 re-broadcasters.

Yet RA was always somewhat marginal to mainstream ABC culture. The lack of an legislative basis, its a history as a propaganda broadcaster (even though it was feisty in trying to maintain independence) and broadcasting in non-English languages without a local audience meant that international broadcasting was in a precarious position.

More than once it was nearly cut altogether. In the 1980s the Dix Report recommendations and funding cuts combined to place RA under threat. Significant changes were made to its operations. In 1997 the Mansfield Report argued that international broadcasting was not core business for the ABC. The Liberal Coalition government sold off the international transmitters and instead, a private Christian broadcaster began operations to Asia from Australia. Eventually, after staff and audience protests and a greater realisation by the government of the impact of broadcasting in Asia, RA was back on air.

Television has had  a  similar turbulent history. Australian Television International began broadcasts in 1993. It was sold to Channel 7 when the radio transmitters were privatised but bought back for the ABC once the service began to lose audiences and money. In 2005 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade put a public tender for international television services. Now all comers can compete to deliver the services. The ABC won the tender but the TV rights come up again in 2011. Could we once again see international services marginalised in the overall ABC operations?
 
In the meantime it seems the radio and tv services are on a strong footing. In 2000 additional Australian government funding enabled Radio Australia to equip a number of Indonesian affiliates with satellite downlink facilities for the live replay of news and current affairs programs which was the beginning of the extensive re-broadcasting that characterises RA improved delivery through the regions.

More recently the ABC’s current Managing Director, Mark Scott, argued that in the age of social networking the ‘soft diplomacy’ of state-funded international media is all the more important. And it’s competitive as well: with broadcasters from Germany’s Deutsche Welle to the pan-Arabic Al Jazeerha increasing their Asian and Pacific presence.

But soft diplomacy, public diplomacy or cultural diplomacy – whatever way you want to describe it – is not a new phenomenon. Once the hostilities of the second world war cooled into the Cold War new forms of government expression were developed. RA and its television sister Australia Television are the most recent exponents of this tradition.

Here are a range of ways in which Australia has historically projected its image and voice in the Asia and Pacific region specifically but also to the world in general – a role continued today on-screen and online.

Broadcasting to specific Asian audiences in various languages: Recently Radio Australia has added Burmese, the eighth foreign language in its programming (there are no foreign language television broadcasts).

Broadcasts for Australian troops overseas: from 1948 until 1962 Australia sent troops to conflicts in Malaya, Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam. Currently RA broadcasts to Kabul and the Solomon Islands, both places where Australians are based today.

The ABC collects news from Asia: from 1956 when an office was established in Singapore, the ABC oversaw the extension of reporting in radio and television though a network of local stringers – sometime colonial expatriates sometimes local Asian journalists and film makers. Later \the broadcasters own bureaus were established. Currently there are plans afoot to put more journalists in Asia and the Pacific.

The ABC assisted in modernising processes in Asia and institution building: through the Colombo Plan and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the ABC developed farm and educational broadcasting in Asia. John Douglass who initiated the ABC Rural Service with the Country Hour in 1945, went on to be a senior consultant to the FAO based in Rome in the 1960s.

In 1965 the Asian Broadcasting Union (ABU) was formed. The ABC recently retired general manager Charles Moses was elected the ABU’s founding Secretary General. The ABC continues with International projects in the Pacific and Asia (including in Vietnam, Vanuatu and the Solomons) with a particular focus on training and institutional governance.

Today with new forms of broadcasting and increasing pressure for the nation to have an international profile (see the 2007 report from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s public diplomacy: building our image) radio television and the internet are important for projecting Australian opinion and images abroad.

Under Mark Scott the ABC plans to expand the service’s regional news-gathering capability with five additional news bureaux in Asia and the Pacific. These would largely cater to Australia Television (ATV) operations. The ABC would have 14 bureaux in Asia, the Pacific and India, more than CNN and the BBC. China and India the two biggest regional markets are a particular focus of soft diplomacy although the ABC’s ATV has yet to secure “landing rights” for a service in China.

Will the ABC role in international broadcasts continue after 2011 when the television service comes up for tender again? Recently Murdoch’s Sky News chief executive Angelo Frangopoulos argued for Sky’s right to bid and win the ATV contract from the ABC because taxpayers are better served “by the free market of competition''. Watch this space…

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