The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television



Role and responsibility of ABC Management

It is well established that the decision regarding the future role of Radio Australia is one which will be taken by ABC Management, and that the Board operates on an autonomous basis consistent with its status as an independent statutory authority. The current ABC Managing Director, Mr Brian Johns, has vigorously defended the independence of the broadcaster stating that the ABC is "independent of government control", [1] and unequivocally confirmed that it is the ABC Management which is responsible for making the funding decisions pertaining to Radio Australia:

The former Chairman of the ABC Board, Professor Mark Armstrong, clarified the role of the Board in a letter to the then Minister for Communications and Arts:

It is therefore the ABC Board which is responsible for its internal budget decisions. With autonomy, of course, comes responsibility for corporate decisions. As a case in point, the Government Senators regard the recently announced decision by the ABC Board to provide funds to extend the RA service beyond English and Tok Pisin, to include Bahasa Indonesian, Mandarin, Khmer and Vietnamese as further evidence of the Board's responsibility to decide the future of RA. [4]

Witnesses who appeared on behalf of the ABC demonstrated that the corporation was fully aware of the various options and decisions it had to face with respect to RA and ATV. In responding to questioning about what the possible options the ABC might pursue, Mr Lloyd James, the Head of ABC National Networks, stated:

In reviewing its operations, the ABC Board will have to consider its priorities among its broadcasting operations in order to determine where savings might be found. These broadcasting operations can be divided into two broad groups: domestic broadcasting and international broadcasting.

Domestic broadcasting includes a range of programming areas: news, current affairs and information services; regional services; rural and remote area services; youth services and children's services.

International broadcasting can be divided into regions: the Pacific; Papua New Guinea; Asia; and USA/Europe. At present, Radio Australia broadcasts via short-wave radio in seven languages other than English: Mandarin (Standard Chinese), Cantonese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Indonesian, Tok Pisin and French. It also has a Thai language service which is rebroadcast through local stations. The Thai short-wave service was discontinued some years ago when short-wave radio use in that country declined significantly.In considering its budgetary allocations, the ABC Board can be expected to take a view of how to prioritise these services, in the process of deciding the most appropriate future role for Radio Australia and the ATV service. As with every government department and statutory authority, the ABC is subject to certain funding and budgetary constraints. The Government Senators are of the view that there should be some reordering of priorities aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of RA's services.

Acknowledging the ABC's expected budgetary situation and its clearly stated priority (and preference) of directing its funds to its domestic services, it would nonetheless be regrettable if the ABC decided to substantially limit its foreign language international broadcasting via RA. However, it may be necessary to remove some foreign language programming, and perhaps reducing the resources allocated to others, in order to reduce overall programming costs. Certainly, some compromise is likely to be necessary in order to preserve the core function of the RA service - its English language news broadcasting service.

Regional Priorities

A number of witnesses presented persuasive arguments supporting a view that, were the delivery and mix of RA's services to be varied, account should be taken of two fundamental and distinct overseas broadcast regions: the South Pacific and East Asia. The point was made that the provision of the RA service to each of these regions requires different rationales.

Mr Duncan Campbell, gave the Committee the benefit of his extensive experience as a diplomat for nearly 40 years in various parts of the world. He strongly expressed the view that the provision of the RA service should be considered quite separately for different regions:

Dr. Tiffen's independent review of Radio Australia in 1995, resulting in the Radio Australia Review 1994/95, established that audience reception had significantly increased in the Pacific region, and that audiences in Papua New Guinea in particular had dramatically increased. The opposite was true, however, for target audiences in Asian countries such as Indonesia. This finding adds support to the view that RA's services to the Pacific region are particularly effective compared with its other target regions, and should be strongly supported.

In addition, the ABC Committee of Review, convened by Stuart Revill and assisted by Dr. Rodney Tiffen as consultant, referred to the South Pacific region's particular reliance on RA for "consistently reliable information on Pacific and international affairs", given that the former is not offered by other main international broadcasters. [7] This is a convincing rationale for ensuring that Radio Australia's services to the Pacific region are given particular emphasis in any re-evaluation of its future role and function, and the Government Senators recommend accordingly.

It is clear from the evidence presented to the Committee that the role and function of RA is significantly different and distinct in the South Pacific than in the Asia region. There are more competitors in international broadcasting in Asia, meaning increased availability of alternative sources of information should RA not continue to operate fully in this region; Australia has greater ancillary links with Asia than the Pacific, in terms of trade and other services and activities, so Australia will still retain a strong presence in the region; the key decision-makers in the region tend to listen to satellite, and will be able to listen to the ATV service; and technological differences between the regions mean that the role of short wave is declining in Asia much more rapidly than in the South Pacific (eg Thailand). These differences are of fundamental importance in considering the most appropriate future role of the RA service.


Programs currently broadcast by RA can also be sent to local AM/FM radio stations for rebroadcasting purposes, including by downlinking from satellite transmissions.

RA has pursued rebroadcasting arrangements where short-wave services are in decline (eg Thailand) or where countries want to receive downlinks on programming as a means of strengthening signal reception or expanding programming content of local stations. In China, RA's music programs, English language lessons and special programs about Australian life are increasingly accepted for rebroadcasting on local stations. China does not accept foreign news broadcasts for rebroadcasting on its local stations.

In the Pacific, RA extensively rebroadcasts material. Most Pacific nations readily rebroadcast news and other information programs offered by the major international broadcasters in the region, RA, BBC, Radio New Zealand and the Voice of America.

Further examination should probably be made of the potential for RA to utilise the opportunities presented by rebroadcasting to enhance its services in a cost effective way.Mr Derek White highlighted to the Committee the important role that RA plays in relation to Papua New Guinea:

Comments by DOCA on Radio Australia

The Department of Communications and the Arts provided the Committee in writing with four options for delivery of programming to audiences, other than by short-wave radio. The options are listed below.

Ms Cathy Santamaria, Deputy Secretary of the Department, told the Committee in her opening statement that:

Comments by DFAT regarding RA and ATV

When asked how the views of Australian opinion leaders would be disseminated in the region without RA or ATV, Mr Bill Fisher, First Assistant Secretary, Public Affairs and Consular Division, responded:

Mr Fisher was asked how information is disseminated by posts - by brochures or booklets. He replied:

Mr Fisher was also asked how posts handle matters like the recent race debate, which received considerable exposure in the media in the Asia Pacific. He responded:

It is evident that, in the event ABC Management decides to scale down the size of the RA service, that Australia will still have a significant profile builders in Asia and the surrounding region in the form of ATV, consulates, trade missions and diplomatic representations. The former Minister for Communications and Art, Mr Michael Lee, advised the Government that ATV made an important contribution to "raising Australia's profile in the region". [11]

Mr Duncan Campbell also put the view that, in his experience as a diplomat over many years, it has been the private sector that was central to furthering Australia's interests in the region, rather than publicly funded bodies such as RA:

With respect to the ATV service, the Department of Foreign Affairs wrote in a 1995 submission that it saw television as the major new medium for reaching opinion makers in what it considered the priority regions of Australian interest in this context: East Asia followed by the South Pacific. [13]

Public Funding for Radio Australia

While some witnesses claimed that many overseas listeners depend on RA and ATV for news and current affairs, their English language training and entertainment, it was never satisfactorily established in evidence why Australian taxpayers should fund these types of activities or target groups. This is an especially important issue given that there are 100 or so countries engaged in international information broadcasting. The Government Senators consider this lack of substantive analysis puzzling given the extensive anecdotal evidence on this issue.

The following is an exchange between Senator Troeth and Mr Derek White, General Manager of Radio Australia, about using public funds to broadcast services overseas.

While it is clear that there is widespread community support for the continuation of RA, questions still remain about the degree to which it should be funded exclusively by public funds.

Future role of the ATV service

With respect to the future role of the ATV service, the Government Senators note that it was the Cabinet of the previous Labor Government which initially rejected the ABC's request in September 1992 to trial broadcasting an international television service in the region. It was also the Labor Government which ultimately made it a condition of the proposal going ahead that the ABC use advertising and commercial sponsorship to help fund the project. In October 1995, Minister Mr Michael Lee was of the view that ATV had a "secure future" based on its commercial arrangement.

An ABC background paper released in 1993 stated: 'Sponsorship of the Australia Television service has allowed the ABC to initiate the service without diverting funds from domestic television and radio production'. [14] External Funding, Advertising and Sponsorship, ABC background paper, April 1993. We note that this commercialisation of aspects of the ATV service did not provide an insurmountable clash with the ABC's Charter or stance as an independent broadcaster, a point which was reaffirmed by ATV newsreader Ms Rosemary Church, [15] and see no reason why such a policy view has changed.

In fact, senior executives of ATV had already approached the ABC with the intention of offering a management buyout of the service. In evidence to the Committee, Mr Michael Mann confirmed this:

The ABC Management decision with respect to the future of ATV should be seen as quite separate to the Mansfield Report. By the date of tabling of this report (May 1997), the sale process for ATV is well advanced. As was detailed in evidence to the Committee by Mr Michael Mann, Chief Executive of ATV:

It should be added that it is encouraging in this context that Mr Mann saw no need for there to be an "independent" and "public" international broadcaster. His vision of the ATV service, in fact, is clearly on a much more commercial footing:

Mr Mann also expressed his frustration at being unable to take up certain commercial opportunities because of some of the uncertainty surrounding the sale process, including this Committee of Inquiry:

It should also be noted that the ABC Management had declared its intention to sell ATV prior to the release of the Mansfield Report, [20] and therefore its impending sale should not be attributed to the Mansfield recommendations. This is all the more so given the unequivocal statements of witnesses appearing before the Committee from the ABC stating that the ABC did not consider that the international services were in danger at the time its submission to the Mansfield report was written.

Hence, the ABC Management's decision with respect to the future ATV should be seen quite separate by from the Mansfield review.


[1] Interview, AM program, ABC Radio, 23/4/97.

[2] Committee Hansard, p. 107.

[3] Letter to the Minister for Communications and Art, Micheal Hutchinson, Our ABC Report, March 1995, pp. 60.

[4] Media release, "Radio Australia", Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 April 1997.

[5] Committee Hansard, p. 105

[6] Hansard, p. 342 (Tues 15 April, 1997, Sydney).

[7] Radio Australia Review, ABC, August 1989, p. 14.

[8] Committee Hansard, p. 32.

[9] Answer to question on notice taken by the Department of Communications and the Arts, 3 April 1997, [p.3].

[10] Committee Hansard, p. 184.

[11] Review of the Status and Funding of the ABC's International Broadcasting Services, October 1995, p. 3.

[12] Committee Hansard, p. 338.

[13] Review of the Status and Funding of the ABC's International Broadcasting Services, October 1995, p.iv.

[14] External Funding, Advertising and Sponsorship, ABC background paper, April 1993.

[15] Committee Hansard, p. 233.

[16] Committee Hansard, p. 138

[17] Committee Hansard, p. 133.

[18] Committee Hansard, p. 136.

[19] Committee Hansard, p. 133.

[20] One ABC: The Vision-and the Decision: an update from the ABC to the Review of the Functions and Role of the ABC, December 1996, pp 31-32.