If television is a major form of soft power and an important channel for 21st-century public diplomacy, with what Australia offers the neighbourhood, it won’t be long before they are switching off.
For Kuta pub managers Australia Plus is the TV channel to screen Australian Football League (AFL) games. Who needs Hindu temples and Kecak trance dances when you can watch the big men fly, and drink Fosters?
If you reckon television is an ideal expat’s nipper-pacifier, a substitute for the kids playing in the hazardous outdoors, then Australia Plus is your channel too.
It’s also first choice for those without a device to record a cooking show or travelogue. No worries. Your favourite program will be repeated again. And again. And again.
However if Australia’s overseas TV is supposed to project a robust modern Western democracy, a creative explorer of art and technology and a leader in education, then Australia Plus is a turn off.
Our presentations to the Asia Pacific used to be different. Australian governments once believed that broadcasting and telecasting into the region was an important responsibility, sowing ideas, informing and influencing.
Radio Australia started in 1939 using shortwave, mainly to counter Japanese propaganda. After the war it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of foreign affairs.
Millions learned about Australia and its values; many received world news censored by their governments. Radio Australia was a trusted source in a region where facts are often scarce.
Thousands developed their English skills huddled over crackling transistors, particularly during the 1950s and 60s.
Technology forced changes. Satellites eclipsed land-based transmitters and enlarged reach. Rebrands became necessary; but the vision remained and the mission expanded.
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Asia Pacific (formerly Australia Television International) would become Australia Network, with funding from Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising.
It would reach 10 million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; maybe one million viewers a month.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering “high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.”
Also promised were “extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs.” Note the order of priorities.
The Minister included a homely metaphor with his Reithian principles (which position information, education and entertainment at the heart of public broadcasting): “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.”
Australia Network CEO Ian Carroll added: “Our news and current affairs programs provide more than the headlines – it’s quality world class journalism offering a different view from the London and US-centric networks”.
By then there were other 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 A$ 117 million a year on France 24.
Then in 2014 the government broke it’s A$ 223 million 10-year deal with the ABC after budget cuts. Eighty staff – some in Asian news rooms – lost their jobs.
As Australia Network faded to black, Australia Plus flickered to life. Suddenly all the ringing rhetoric about engagement with the region lost its potency. The graffiti scrawled on the cracked and soiled window of the new service asks: does anyone care?
How did this come about? Blame pronged lobbying by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV which wanted to get the contract, spooking governments more concerned with domestic trivia than reaching the neighbours.
Prime among these are the people next door in the world’s third largest democracy. As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship it might be logical to assume we’d be showcasing our best and brightest.
When Australia Network died the then ABC managing director Mark Scott reportedly said the decision “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 it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia.”
Australia Plus took over as a pay-to-view channel with a stated “mission to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with an uniquely Australian perspective.” Note the new order of priorities.
Indonesians and others in the region can enjoy a 24-hour service dominated by Bananas in Pyjamas, Play School and Little Ted’s Big Adventure on a loop for much of the morning plus a few English lessons.
ABC News Breakfast does starts at 3am in Jakarta. World News at 8pm seems to be the only program created for the channel, not just lifted and dumped, like a Bondi Rescue wave.
At 5.30pm Java time key current affairs and news program 7.30 is shown. The popular panel talk show Q & A – think politicians and pundits trading verbal barbs — runs a day late; there are old editions of Australian Story and the brilliant Jenny Brockie SBS series Insight. Weeklies like Insiders and The Drum get a guernsey. Investigative journalism like Four Corners does not. That’s about it for current affairs.
Fans of slick soap opera Home and Away get five episodes back-to-back, relieved by weird monochrome promotions for Monash University that would puzzle and probably frighten prospective students.
Other sponsors are vitamin manufacturer Swisse and the tourist promoter Melbourne, Victoria. Tellingly absent are the 360 Australian businesses which launched a mighty assault on the Indonesian market last year.
What’s the target audience for this dog’s breakfast? Asians play soccer, not AFL. Where are the other sports which SBS does well, the docos, the ‘uniquely Australia perspective’ on the region’?
The fractured Australia Plus window needs ripping out and the gap filled with concrete (a metaphor to warn potential asylum seekers) or reglazed with quality glass, custom made to fit.
None of this seems to concern the major parties. While they enjoy excellence at home from the ABC and other public broadcaster, SBS, their neighbours get Australia Minus.
Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.