ABC to run Australia Network

This piece was originally published in the National Times 6 December, 2011

The uncertainty surrounding who will run Australia's international television broadcasting is over. The federal government has abandoned the attempt to tender the service and given it to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The tender process for this important government function has been a failure – not for the first time. Ten years earlier the Coalition government found itself in a position of having to request the ABC to run the service when a commercial tender failed. The ABC has had a legislative remit to run an international television service since 1983. Allowing public broadcasting to get on it will provide certainty and consistent international television programming.

The idea of tendering the service was adopted after a series of policy failures. International television broadcasting began in 1993 when the Keating government agreed to a proposal put by the ABC's managing director, David Hill. The ABC suggested that shortfalls in government funding would be overcome by "sponsorship". Very soon this became direct advertising.

An advertising-funded public television service that competed with commercial operators for impact on the markets and politics of an emerging superpower in China was always going to create problems for policy makers.

Underfunding by the Keating government began to be addressed by 1995 with the promise of triennial funding. A study by NeilsenSRG Research Services (Hong Kong) for the Australian International Education Foundation, published in December 1995, found ATV's penetration in the Asia region is equal to CNN and the BBC, and second only to the Hong Kong based Star Television.

However, by 1998, the incoming Liberal Party/National Coalition decided on the complete deinstitutionalisation of international broadcasting at the ABC. Radio Australia was to be closed and the broadcaster's transmission facilities leased to commercial operators. Media scholar Rod Tiffen has observed that without any warning or preparation the government announced the privatisation of the international television service.

From 1998 to 2001, the Seven Network operated Australia's public diplomacy television. Seven's ill-fated service began by battling against the Asian currency crisis of 1998 when hedge funds sold down South-East Asian currencies leading to significant devaluation in local finance markets. Money was tight and the commercial venture was difficult to sell to Asian audiences. At the same time, the fall of Suharto regime, and the culmination of the East Timorese' long struggle for independence, emphasised the importance of a regional broadcaster for expressing national opinions and observations on events of the day. That Radio Australia's influence was sorely missed no doubt contributed to a change of heart around its demise.

In 2001 the commercial television service ended when Seven decided not to renew the contract. The service was actually closed down for a time. At this point the Coalition government decided to put the service up to public tender in line with its commitment to privatisation. The ABC did not apply but, given the recent failure, there was little commercial interest either. Tiffen writes that then foreign minister Alexander Downer privately asked the ABC to apply. At the beginning of August 2001 the broadcaster's managing director Jonathan Shier announced that the government had decided to re-establish the service and increase its financial commitment. The ABC would receive about $90 million over the next five years to broadcast the service, which was renamed ABC Asia Pacific (it became Australia Network in 2006).

Despite this history of failure in tendering when that contract was ended, the Department of Foreign Affairs again decided to opt for a tender process. The original tender documents drawn up by DFAT are reported to have included a service described as "promotional TV" that would be particularly directed to China. This specification had made the process of tendering difficult for the ABC as such a service would be outside their charter. Effectively a key component of the required service was beyond their capacity as a public service broadcaster. Tony Walker in the Australian Financial Review said ABC insiders had referred to this component as "Rudd TV". It will be interesting to see its fate now.

While some political commentary over the recent failure argues tendering is a transparent process, the government's ability to "manage success" through tender conditions provides for significant political influence. Each iteration of a tender is open to ministerial interpretations.

Political influence in public diplomacy broadcasts is inevitable. That means public broadcasting's relationship to powerful agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs needs to be carefully considered and clearly defined. The recent tendering debacle for Australia Network indicates how quickly politics sets in when there are no clear policy settings. Dumping tendering will help clear away the policy confusion.

John Tebbutt, from La Trobe University, has an Australia Research Council grant to research the ABC's role in Asia.