ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose, delivers Lowy Institute Annual Media Lecture

20 October 2019

Ita calls for more ABC Asia Pacific funding; announces international iview

When ABC Chair Ita Buttrose was asked to deliver the Lowy Institute’s annual media lecture she was also asked to deliver ‘news’, and she did. A call for more funding for the ABC in Asia and the Pacific and the announcement of the launch next month of an international edition of its streaming application iview - no mean feat considering the complicated and expensive rights issues this entails.

The international edition – to be called ABC Australia iview - will include selected episodes from dozens of ABC titles including Australian Story, Four Corners, Gardening Australia, Waltzing the Dragon, Foreign Correspondent, Q&A and an un-geoblocked stream of the ABC News channel, Ita told the Lowy media dinner. The ABC’s flagship discussion program Q&A will also venture into the Pacific for the first time, with a broadcast from Fiji with an international panel on 2nd December.

Is the ABC back with a real commitment to its international mandate?

Yes, according to Ita. And the resolve of this media trailblazer who has worked across all parts of the industry should not be underestimated. With or without new funding Ita says international broadcasting is a ‘bedrock’ ABC charter responsibility.

“Whatever budgetary constraints we may face, the ABC is committed to it because we recognise its intrinsic public and national value,” Ita said. “ABC Australia iview is an example of how, with determination and drive, we can deliver great value for international audiences, Australian taxpayers and the national interest,” she said. Ita’s commitment is real. She spoke passionately at the Lowy dinner and when SABAP delegation met with her earlier this month she promised to circulate our briefing notes to other members of the ABC board.

The pitch for new funding

The ABC’s case for new funding is based on the benefit of quality journalism for Australia’s ‘soft power’ in ever more complex geopolitical times and the ABC’s existing expertise in a complicated business. “The importance of journalism to our country’s Asia-Pacific interests cannot be underestimated and I believe a renewed ABC focus on international broadcasting would greatly benefit Australia,” Ita told the Lowy media dinner. “The ABC is Australia’s trusted voice in Asia and the Pacific.

“It has a proud record of achievement, having told Australian stories, reported fairly and fearlessly, taught generations to speak English and delivered critical information in times of crisis for 80 years,” she said. At this stage the pitch broad with a focus on two-way communication in the Pacific. “With additional support the ABC could expand its ability to reach out and share Australian perspectives to the world and enable Australians to better understand their Pacific neighbours,” Ita said.

ABC Asia Pacific Now

Despite the swingeing budget cuts since 2014 the ABC has more foreign correspondents in the region than any other Australian media outlet, provides television to 40 countries (albeit limited in many), radio in the Pacific with programs including Pacific Beat, Pacific Mornings, Island Music and Wantok as well as the ABC listen app and other multi-platform and social media options. It also has Dfat-funded International Development team. The ABC’s less well-known services can have unexpectedly significant impact too, according to Ita.

Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid told a function in Sydney in 2002 that he and many of his fellow students learned English by listening to Radio Australia. “It was not just the language, but the content which gave a strong sense of Australian society and democratic values that he and many other future leaders came to admire,” Ita said. “The sound of the majestic fanfare was a clarion call of trusted, reliable news, information and entertainment from a respected friend and neighbour. The ABC’s English language learning Facebook page now has well 0ver 4 million likes.

ABC Asia Pacific in the Future

Ita is well aware of the ABC’s assets in the region and the fast-changing technological, media and geopolitical landscape. “The ability to report critically on our own political system is a powerful demonstration of democratic values, particularly to countries with limited press freedom,” she said. “As a statutory independent broadcaster, the ABC has a reputation throughout the region for its credible, frank and impartial coverage. In a world being challenged by social media giants and in which misinformation and fake news are growing, the value of independent, quality journalism is all the more important. The conversations Australians have with the region through international broadcasting have changed fundamentally, and must continue to evolve, Ita told the Lowy Media Dinner. “Throughout the Indo-Pacific we have mature, sophisticated countries that are economically and culturally diverse and who engage in complex and multilateral global arrangements.

“Australia’s relationship with our neighbours is more nuanced than ever, and so, naturally, must be our conversations. “This type of engagement requires a high degree of expertise, investment, infrastructure, and above all commitment,” Ita said.

The ABC and Australia’s ‘Soft Power’

Since the cuts to the ABC’s international services began in 2014 Australia has dropped from 6th to 10th place on the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy Soft Power 30 index. It is no coincidence, according to Ita, that the top five countries on the ‘Soft Power’ Index - the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States and Japan – all recognise the value of international media and fund these services accordingly.

“Along with China, the heaviest investor in international broadcasting, many of these countries compete with Australia for influence and engagement,” she noted. The UK - number one on the list- has recently given the BBC World Service its biggest funding injection since WWII.

Where to from here?

There is growing awareness that Australia’s voice in the region has been reduced to a whisper and that the time is right to remedy this. At the Friends of the ABC dinner in Sydney in September Ita faced more questions from the audience on the ABC’s international services than on any other topic.

Submissions to the review of Australian Broadcasting services in Asia and the Pacific and the Soft Power Review – from the region and within Australia - called for a revitalised ABC service and for support for Pacific media to have their voices heard. SABAP is working to build support for a sustainable bi-partisan major new multi-platform media initiative in the region based around partnerships between Australian and regional media. We see joint-content creation as the key to new two-way conversations that see Australians talking 'with' not 'to' the region.

Opportunities for the involvement of all Australian media, especially media involving Australia's Asia Pacific diaspora communities, will add diversity, creativity and long-term durability to new initiatives in the region. The ABC has a crucial role to play and welcome another sign there is commitment at the top. We have been talking with government and other industry players. With any luck we will see at least an initial initiative as part of the Pacific Step-up.