This is Australia calling

First published at ABC Unleashed

The phrase ‘the national interest’ is regularly abused, but by any reasonable interpretation, keeping the Australia Network in public hands is in the national interest.

The first thing to get on the table is that by virtue of living here, most Australians probably have very little idea of what the Australia Network is. This is our TV broadcast voice in the Asia Pacific region, on a much smaller scale fulfilling an equivalent role to the BBC World Service or the Voice of America.

It’s not entirely like the ABC we know – it carries ads, it is funded partly out of the Foreign Affairs budget, and it carries local programming from across the region.

This week the Government’s troubled $223 million decision to outsource the service finally hit the wall. With exquisite irony, the series of strategic leaks that have blighted the tender process have been cited as the reason for temporarily shelving it, buying the Government six months in which to work out how to unscramble the egg.

For understandable reasons, media commentary has focused on internal skirmishes within the Government, as a dispute between the Foreign Affairs and Communications portfolios over how the station and its resources should be deployed. However these issues are resolved, bigger questions will remain well after the political dust has settled.

There is a tension here between the Australia Network’s diplomatic or ‘soft power’ function, and its role as a carrier of Australian voices and values in the region. Most importantly, the question of why the service was ever put out to tender has been starkly exposed.
The idea that a commercial entity would represent Australian interests and culture to the region better than our national broadcaster should be set to rest. This is not to dismiss the technical credentials or news gathering competence of Sky – which are considerable – but to point out the obvious. A commercial broadcaster’s primary obligation will be to its shareholders. From time to time this incentive will find itself in contradiction with the real purpose of Australian taxpayers’ funds being spent on overseas broadcasting.
For example, acquiring broadcast rights to inexpensive regime propaganda produced by organs of the Chinese Communist Party may well sit comfortably with a commercial operator, but would be unlikely to survive contact with the ABC’s Charter, which emphasises editorial independence.
There are major sensitivities involved in outsourcing a small but important component of Australia’s diplomatic voice to a majority foreign-owned media consortium, behind which stand proprietors who have never shied away from using their media assets as political weapons.

Lastly – and I’ll declare an interest here – we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of being able to call the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott before Senate Committees to account for his spending, strategic decisions and contracts with external providers. Shunting this service off to a corporate player cuts the taxpaying public off from a wide variety of materials glibly dismissed as ‘commercially sensitive’.

For these and other reasons I’ve introduced a bill to set the matter to rest, amending the ABC Act to ensure that these services are provided by the ABC and not subject to repetitive tender.

Further down the track, let’s use this as an opportunity to bring the Australia Network into the fold of the widely respected Radio Australia broadcaster, and properly resource an ABC World Service.

In the shorter term, let’s use the debacle of this tender process to settle the question of why we do this at all: let’s put the service back where it belongs, with our national broadcaster the ABC.