Radio Australia and Australia Television are two great Australian
success stories in the very competitive field of international broadcasting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
That policy was:
Radio Australia has a proud place in the ABC. It has been providing overseas
services for half a century benefiting not only Australian expatriates but
also the nationals of many countries, particularly those in our region.
The Coalition is strongly supportive of Radio Australia's existing services
and will ensure that they are not prejudiced or downgraded in any way.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.