A new era for ABC International

A new era for ABC International

ABC’s international division, which for more than 80 years has played an important role as part of Australia’s soft power diplomacy in Asia and the Pacific, has recently launched a new weekly current affairs program, The Pacific, on its regional TV service, ABC Australia, with domestic airing on both ABC TV and ABC News, and on iview.

Helen Grasswill over Pacific Islands with a quote from the article

Hosted by Tahlea Aualiitia and featuring stories from local reporters around the region, it’s a lively, high-quality production so do check it out if you haven’t done so already. 

The Pacific is the first program among a range of new initiatives made possible by the injection of an extra $8 million per year over four years to ABC International, under the federal Labor government’s Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy

This new funding is a welcome reversal of savage cuts and neglect by the former Coalition government, and boosts ABC’s $11 million core operating budget allocation for International to $19 million per year. 

And already it’s been put to very good use.  

Three other new TV shows and two audio programs for ABC Radio Australia have also been launched, with more in the pipeline for all platforms including online. 

While much of the concentration to date has been on the Pacific, ABC International also has big plans to amplify its reach in Asia, notably in Indonesia, the Mekong and the Indian sub-continent. 

Work is underway for increased transmission capability. Later this year the ABC Australia TV channel will be split into two services, one designed for the Pacific and the other for Asia. Radio Australia’s FM capacity in the Pacific is being extended from 13 to 20 transmitters. And a new overarching digital brand for Asian audiences is not far off, in addition to the already up and running ABC Pacific digital channels.  

Importantly, too, ABC International’s renowned development unit (ABCID) is going from strength to strength, providing greater public media training and assistance for other media organisations especially across the Pacific. 

All this is an impressive start but, with freedom of the media and democratic principles under attack across much of the broader Asia-Pacific region, there’s a lot more ABC International could do with more funding than it has now.

The peak lobby group Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) says around $75 million per year is needed to fully engage with the region, and this would still leave Australia well under the spend of comparable OECD nations. 

Just how much the government is prepared to allocate to ABC International remains to be seen in the forthcoming federal budget, and beyond. 

This raises the question of Australia’s overall commitment to regional engagement and security.

An extra $8 million per year to a valuable service like ABC International is a paltry sum compared to the whopping estimated $368 billion over 30 years for the recent AUKUS submarine deal. Moreover, the usefulness of the submarines, most of which won’t come on line for decades, is heavily debated – most notably by former Prime Minister Paul Keating whose own policies had a strong focus on accepting Australia’s geographic reality and shoring up our security in and with Asia: this meant co-operative engagement with nations of the region while retaining and, if necessary, recalibrating traditional ties.

While some expansion of military defence systems is no doubt warranted as a precaution for worst case scenarios requiring defence of our shores, there’s a strong argument that it must go hand-in-hand with better-funded soft power diplomacy measures, not simply to be a good neighbour but hopefully also to help build alliances and prevent talk of war becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Ironically enough, given the recent fracas, the current government has in fact applied many of former PM Keating’s philosophies to its engagement with the region. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have prioritised visits to regional nations.

So too has ABC International.

Since the allocation of the new funding, the division’s head Claire Gorman has spearheaded delegations – some including the ABC's Managing Director, David Anderson, and Head of Strategy, Mark Tapley – to India, Fiji, PNG, Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and Malaysia. Broadcast agreements and several Memoranda of Understanding are being renewed or new ones entered into.

For eight decades, ABC’s international services – along with aid projects, study scholarships, trade and cultural missions and, where needed, co-operative peace-keeping efforts – have proved effective for Australia in relationship-building and fostering enduring grassroots connections that transcend politics.

Now, with a dramatic rise in misinformation, disinformation, censorship and fake news, the work of ABC International has never been more important to rebuild these relationships and support the values of democracy in our Asia-Pacific region.

It’s important work that can be achieved at a minuscule fraction of the cost of a nuclear submarine.

For more information: ABC Alumni Deputy Chair and ABCF member, Helen Grasswill, has put together a comprehensive report, ABC International Spreads Its Wings: An ABC dove among the hawks, on ABC’s plans and the history of the ABC’s international services and soft power impact.

Helen Grasswill is a former journalist, author, editor and television program-maker, and is a co-founder of ABC Alumni, and its current Deputy Chair.