The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television


1. Radio Australia and Australia Television are two great Australian success stories in the very competitive field of international broadcasting.

2. After 58 years of broadcasting and with an audience of tens of millions of people, Radio Australia is highly respected for its integrity, independence and quality of programming. Many regional leaders have given testimonials to the value they place on Radio Australia's services. A large volume of mail (130,000 letters in 1995-96) attests to the loyalty of its audience. The volume of mail significantly outstrips that received by the BBC World Service and Voice of America in the Asia Pacific region.

3. It is incomprehensible to the Committee that the Government would even contemplate the closure of Radio Australia's Asian language services or, for that matter, the closure of Radio Australia itself.

4. In only four years, Australia Television has, through satellite transmission and rebroadcasting arrangements, made its mark in the Asia Pacific region. A December 1995 study showed that its penetration of the Asian market equalled that of CNN and the BBC and was second only to Hong Kong Star Television. What is remarkable is that Australia Television has achieved this for a cost of between six and eight million dollars a year. In fact, after subtracting revenue, Australia Television cost only $2.38 million in 1995-96.

5. It is also very difficult to understand why the Government would seek to privatise Australia Television, supposedly to improve efficiency, when it costs so little now and is likely to be self-supporting within two or three years.

6. No details are available about the terms of the proposed sale of Australia Television. It is not clear to what extent a buyer would be required to use Australian content material or whether there would be any attempt at imposing restrictions on the owner in relation to programming. The Committee has doubts about the enforceability of any such restrictions, particularly if the service were resold. A privatised service would aim justifiably to maximise profits, even if this were inimical to Australia's national interests. As the service is expected to be self-funding within two or three years, it is nonsensical to sell an entity which furthers our national interests when it will cost the taxpayer nothing.

7. It is obvious to the Committee that the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston, has not considered the future of Radio Australia and Australia Television other than in a most superficial way before making his decisions. In his public statements, he has relied largely on Mr Mansfield's comments and recommendations. Since the establishment of this inquiry, Senator Alston has trivialised the issue by making misleading statements, such as suggesting that short-wave radio is outdated and that this Committee's inquiry is too late to influence the Government's Budget process. Contrary to Senator Alston's assertions, the Committee believes this inquiry has provided an opportunity for all the issues to be publicly aired and assessed.

8. Unfortunately, Mr Mansfield, as he has publicly acknowledged since the release of his report, did not consider the foreign affairs aspects of the two international broadcasters, which obviously should be key elements in any consideration of their future. As the foreign affairs aspects were outside the scope of his inquiry, Mr Mansfield did himself, the ABC and the nation's interests a disservice by mounting a half-baked justification for his recommendations in relation to both Radio Australia and Australia Television.

9. Should Australia Television withdraw from the field when there are many competitors, particularly when it is placed among the leaders? That was Mr Mansfield's bald suggestion. Of course not. Australia is known for its competitiveness. The withdrawal of Australia Television, in view of its market success, would involve much loss of 'face' and respect for Australia.

10. The Committee believes that it is also unfortunate that Mr Mansfield's terms of reference were too narrow to cover rapid developments in communications technology and the globalisation of the media. He would otherwise have been able to consider the future of the ABC in the context of the rapid changes taking place in broadcasting in the Asia Pacific region rather than within the proposed budget for the ABC. The ABC's forward thinking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the consequential establishment of Australia Television, gave the ABC a place in the fast developing satellite television broadcasting market in the region. Despite early problems, including under-capitalisation, and having been subjected to many inquiries, Australia Television is just beginning to blossom as one of the region's main satellite television broadcasters. And now it will be sold.

11. Initial decisions relating to the future of Radio Australia and Australia Television are the responsibility of the ABC, as they are part of the ABC, an independent statutory authority. The lack of public support for the two international services by the ABC has been noted by commentators and the Committee. The support expressed for them by Managing Director Brian Johns at a hearing of this Committee is one of the few occasions the ABC has taken such a stand. The ABC's belated decision, on 30 April 1997, to support four of the six Asian language services in a very reduced form, for an outlay of about $1.6 million, is welcomed by the Committee, but it does not go nearly far enough. The only consolation is that at least this decision maintains in some form these crucial foreign language services.

12. The recent decisions of the Government, as reported in the media, in relation to the future of Radio Australia, supporting only English language services and Tok Pisin for Papua New Guinea, carry with them overtones of Australian policies in years gone by. The disregard for the Asian language services, to which the bulk of Radio Australia's audience listen, is inexplicable given the stated policies of the Government to have close relations with Asia and the desire to increase trade with regional countries. The threat of the loss or down grading of Radio Australia services would not have endeared tens of millions of listeners to Australia, particularly as Australia is seen as a developed and relatively wealthy country, which could afford to operate short-wave services to the region in local languages. As all countries in South East Asia and North East Asia (except Burma), including countries to which Australia gives considerable development aid, operate international short-wave services, there does not seem to be any justification or logical reason for the Government's indifference to the closure of the Asian services. Certainly the Government has not given any valid reason for its decisions. The Government's pre-election policy sits very uncomfortably with those decisions.
That policy was:

13. Nevertheless, the future of Radio Australia and Australia Television are ultimately a matter for the Government. It was the Minister for Communications and the Arts, in his media release of 16 July 1996, who suggested to the ABC that it investigate privatisation of Australia Television. Senator Alston has also supported Mr Mansfield's recommendations regarding Radio Australia. The Committee believes that it is disingenuous for the Government to suggest that this is just the ABC's responsibility, when the Government proposes to slash the budget of the ABC by about $55 million.

14. The Committee believes that Radio Australia and Australia Television complement each other. Radio Australia's short-wave radio services require only relatively cheap receivers for listeners to receive the broadcast. They do not require a television set or a satellite receiver to pick up satellite signals or rebroadcasts through local free to air or cable subscription television services. Some countries do not allow private ownership of satellite receivers and prohibit rebroadcasting of foreign television news services. For a vast number of people in Asia, radio is the only medium to which they have access. Many local services in some countries, such as Indonesia, also use short-wave rather than medium-wave for their broadcasts.

15. In countries, or areas of countries, where television is the dominant form of electronic media, Australia Television is the preferred service. It is also a unique service in the Asia Pacific region in that it broadcasts a wide range of programming, mostly Australian content. Other international television broadcasters tend to specialise in particular program genres.

16. The Committee examined the appropriateness of short-wave radio as the mainstay of Radio Australia's services. Although old technology, as is medium-wave, it is by no means out-dated technology. Other international broadcasters have invested heavily in short-wave transmitters in recent years, particularly to upgrade their services to the Asia Pacific region. NATO has gone back to short-wave transmission for some of their communications systems because of satellite failures. The Australian Defence Force has recently invested one billion dollars in the Jindalee over the horizon radar, which is based on short-wave technology. With the prospect of digital short-wave transmission for both domestic and international services in the near future, short-wave will continue to be an important broadcasting mode for the foreseeable future.

17. Radio Australia already uses other transmission modes to broaden its audience. It uses satellite, rebroadcasting and the Internet. Technology is changing rapidly and, undoubtedly, broadcasters will have to adapt to these changes in the future to maintain their place in the broadcasting market. For the moment, however, short-wave radio remains the most effective means of transmitting programs to a large audience which is dependent largely on radio broadcasts.

18. The broad foreign affairs aspects of international broadcasting cannot be valued in dollars and cents. It is about the subtle messages conveyed to the peoples of the region, about life in Australia, the beauty and sometimes starkness of our countryside, our hopes and disappointments, our achievements in many fields, our democratic principles and our perceptions of issues and events which affect Australia, the region and the world. It is about creating an awareness of Australia, an understanding of our way of life and the multicultural nature of our society and showing that our future is inextricably linked with Asia and the Pacific, even though we maintain strong ties with countries in other regions from which many Australians have come. It is also about programming which draws attention to things which relate specifically to trade, business, education, tourism or diplomacy from which Australia might benefit directly as a result of those broadcasts.

19. Radio Australia and Australia Television project images of Australia to Asian and Pacific countries. There is no other viable and cost-effective means of projecting and promoting Australia to tens of millions of people in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. Without Radio Australia and Australia Television, there would not be an effective Australian voice or images of Australia to inform the region about our country.

20. As the audiences of the two broadcasters include many of the political and business decision-makers of the region, Australia must benefit from the knowledge and understanding about Australia which the two broadcasters disseminate.

21. Whether it is in international diplomacy, business, education, tourism, the arts, sport or any other human endeavour, the goodwill engendered by Radio Australia and Australia Television provides a basis for Australia's relationships with regional countries. What Australia puts into the region, other than in a mercenary way, Australia will get out of it. The two broadcasters provide services to the region from which Australia benefits.

22. The Committee was told in many submissions from people living in the region that Radio Australia and Australia Television programs telling listeners and viewers about Australia as a successful multicultural society had helped to dispel doubts about Australian racial tolerance following accounts of the race debate broadcast on local media stations in the region. In other words, the two broadcasters provide an Australian voice in the region to counter news items which may hurt Australian interests. Without such a voice, there is no other viable means to tell Australia's side of the story to tens of millions of people.

23. Australia spends more than two billion dollars a year on foreign affairs, overseas aid and trade promotion. A large amount of that is focussed on Asia. In comparison, in 1995-96, Australia Television cost less than $2.5 million (after deducting sponsorship revenue) and Radio Australia cost between $20 and $25 million (including transmission costs). The Committee believes that for such a relatively small amount of money, the two broadcasters are particularly cost effective in projecting and promoting Australia, as well as our many national interests.

24. Comparative studies done in 1995 by Radio Australia and in 1996 by KPMG of Radio Australia and nine other broadcasters showed that Radio Australia was very cost-effective in comparison with other international broadcasters across the range of measures used in the studies. In other words, Australia is getting value for money for Radio Australia.

25. With regard to Australia Television, in 1995-96, it kept costs within the target range but revenue was higher than the target level. With total costs, including transmission, of a little more than six million dollars, it is hard to conceive a more cost-effective organisation, particular given its performance measured against the BBC and CNN.

26. Having come to the conclusion that Radio Australia is a respected and cost-effective broadcaster attracting a large audience using appropriate modes of transmission and providing programming that obviously meets the needs of the audience, the Committee believes that it would be foolish in the extreme to cut its range of services. The Committee therefore recommends that the Government provide sufficient funds, at least at current levels, to allow Radio Australia to continue to provide its current range of English and foreign language services through a variety of media, especially the medium of short-wave radio.

27. The Committee also recommends that additional funding be provided to Radio Australia to fund a Burmese language service and to expand the Khmer language service.

28. The Committee also concludes that as a result of Australia Television's success in market performance, in overall programming and in exceeding financial targets, Australia should not be deprived, by privatisation, of its services in furthering national interests in the Asia Pacific region. The Committee therefore recommends that (a) Australia Television not be privatised and that (b) the Government maintain funding in accordance with the three year funding package entered into by the previous Government and supported in its election policy by the current Government.

29. The Committee then considered whether the two broadcasting organisations should remain with the ABC, merge with another organisation, such as SBS for Australia Television; move to another portfolio, such as the foreign affairs and trade portfolio; or be restructured in some other way. The Committee concluded that the two bodies should remain with the ABC but each should have a separate board comprising representatives of the ABC, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Communications and the Arts, expert or interested individuals (one of whom should be the chairman) and the head of the respective international broadcaster. This would enable the two organisations to have more attention and direction from more focussed boards for developing strategies to meet the challenges of a dynamic market, emerging technologies and moves towards the globalisation of the media.

30. The Committee strongly believes that it is crucial for Australia's interests that we continue to be part of the developing media arrangements in the Asia Pacific region. Consequently, the Committee recommends that Australia continue to operate international public broadcasting services to the Asia Pacific region and that such services continue to be associated with the ABC but with separately identified funding.

31. The Committee is aware that the ABC finally relented and agreed to fund four of the six Asian language services with reduced transmission time and significant staff cuts. If Radio Australia had been forced to stop broadcasting to Asia, the respect, trust and goodwill which it had built up over 58 years would have disappeared overnight. If the Government or the ABC does not relent in relation to the proposed privatisation of Australia Television, so too will the respect earned by Australia Television in the short time it has been broadcasting to the Asia Pacific region. In Asia, loss of 'face' and respect has a very negative effect. The respect for Australia engendered by respect for Radio Australia and Australia Television will also evaporate. And it will take a long time to replace.