Critical Essay – Soft Diplomacy & Australia Network

This essay’s point of departure is based around the public discourse surrounding the Liberal Government’s 2014 proposed budget and its desire to prematurely terminate ABC’s $223 million, ten-year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for the ABC operated, Asia Pacific broadcasting channel, Australia Network. This essay will explore the federal government’s original intent for funding the ABC over recent years to act as a vehicle for ‘soft diplomacy’ and to represent the nations interests to Asia Pacific regions. This paper will also investigate the challenges the ABC faces in representing the federal government or the ‘nation’s’ private interests while acting as a public service broadcaster that is required by legislation to ‘inform, educate, and entertain all Australians’. To assist in analysing this current issue, this essay will consider the application of ‘nationalism’ along with the public and private interests of both the federal government and the ABC.


The government’s recent budget proposal aims to axe ABC’s 10-year contract for the ABC operated, Australia Network despite ABC only being in the first year of the agreement. The operation of Australia Network is now in jeopardy with Tony Abbot deciding whether to reopen the tender process or to terminate the network altogether. Additionally, ABC’s international operations face a plethora of financial, stability and functionality complications with an estimated loss of $120 million over the next four years along with the prospect of having to discharge numerous foreign correspondents. Abbot labeled the existing contract “A dodgy piece of work”, referring to former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s decision to close the tender process and to hand permanent responsibility of Australia Network to the ABC last year. Commercial broadcaster, Sky News, owned by News Corporation, was told to be the preferred network among the DFAT board to receive funding. However, Gillard ended the tender process stating that it was not in the public’s best interest for the tender to go to a commercial broadcaster.


The ABC had been campaigning in conjunction with the Labor Government in recent years for substantial additional funding for the expansion of ABC’s international arms and to come together with the federal government to act as a form of ‘soft power’ (Scott, 2010). In 2009, The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, put forward a proposal for ‘A Global ABC’. The plan requested significant funding expansions to ABC’s international services along with the ambition for ABC’s international arms to come together for a unified ‘soft diplomacy’ (Irvin, 2010, pg. 1). The proposal envisioned the extension ABC’s international services of Radio Australia and Australia Network as well as expanding ABC’s broadcasting reach to Africa, the Middle East, Latina America, Europe and North America. Scott’s proposal was influenced by the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s ambition for Australia to foreground its position “as a regional leader and global middle power” along with Rudd’s encouragement for the ABC to undertake further roles in “foreign policy activities” (Irvin, 2010, pg. 2). In supporting Scott’s, ‘A Global ABC’ proposal, Rudd stated, “the ABC can play an important role in strengthening Australia’s cultural, commercial and social links in the Asia-Pacific markets, particularly in projecting Australian perspectives and values” (Irvin, 2010, pg. 41)


Scott’s 2009, ‘A Global ABC’ speech delivered to Australian publics, however targeted at the DFAT, relies upon nationalism and nation-ness, perhaps to encourage the expansion of ABC’s international services. Scott (2010, pg. 75) emplaces the ABC as an integral part of ‘the nation’, in stating “As we know, the ABC is one of the nation’s greatest institutions, playing an important part in the lives of millions each day. It embraces the country”. Scott’s statement suggests the communion of the nation with individual publics as well as the ABC – engaging publics in a sense of patriotic passion. Anderson (1999, pg. 5) spoke of the ability of the term, nation to emotionally encapsulate publics in stating, “The term demands profound emotional legitimacy”. Additionally, Scott’s use of nation-ness in his speech to the Australian publics stresses the term’s perceived value. Anderson (1991, pg. 3) states “Indeed nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political time of our life”.


Scott’s speech is an exemplar of Anderson’s view of a nation as an imagined political community. Anderson (1999, pg. 6) states that “The definition of the nation; is an imagined political community – imagined as both inheritably limited and sovereign”. Scott’s speech, that was delivered by the side of Australia’s leader (of the time), Kevin Rudd, addresses Australia’s publics as being in a sense of unity in stating, “As a nation we feel we have a contribution to make” (Anderson, 1999, pg. 75). Many of Australia’s publics will never meet the Prime Minister, or Mark Scott, however Scott imagines a certain intimacy through our geographical and cultural bearings. Another notable element of Anderson’s definition of an imagined political community within the speech is Scott’s perception of Australian as sovereign. Scott (2010, pg. 76) proclaims that Australia is geographically isolated however tells that we are now apart of the information revolution that encourages globalization.


Political and public discourse arose over ABC operating the international channel with sensitivities over Australia’s primary public broadcaster representing the private interests of the federal government and acting as a tool for ‘soft diplomacy’ as well as ABC’s responsibility to function as a service to the Australian publics. Whilst the ABC operates independently from the federal government, it simultaneously relies heavily on the government for financial support and strategic stability (Irvin, 2010, pg. 37). Irvin’s paper (2010, pg. 38) tells that ABC has faces hardships in sustaining their editorial independence from the federal government whilst acting as a key medium for public diplomacy. Notably, section 8 or the ABC Act is to ‘maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation’ and to ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of journalism’. However, the DFAT’s contract for Australia Network (from 2008 – 2011) entails for the service to provide a ‘credible, reliable and independent voice’ to the targeted Asia pacific market.


ABC faces challenges in maintaining the organization’s independence from political power and to uphold the public sphere’s best interests. Irvin (2010, pg. 38) argues that by being a vehicle for public diplomacy, it encourages “the presentation and advocacy of the nation’s interests, values and perspectives on the world stage – positions which are at any given time defined by the government of the day and are often inherently political”. Habermas (2009, pg. 75) relays Karl Bucher’s observation when reflecting on the evolvement of a bourgeois public sphere in 19th century Europe and the role of news media in telling “newspapers changed from mere institutions of the publication of news into bearers and leaders of public opinion – weapons of party politics”. In perspective, the ABC is facing certain hardships is some elements of their framework to maintain the best interest of the public and the public sphere’s voice due to political interference and dependence. Additionally, the up-rise of the bourgeois public sphere and their involvement with news media allowed them to act as a public body and to create public discussion and discourse around state issues to challenge the ruling authorities. In the ABC’s case, their ability to maintain an open discussion among the public concerning political issues could potentially be compromised due to its relationship with the federal government.


Concerns of whether the ABC is acting in public or private interests have been a long-standing debate. However, recent representations in the media convey a different story with Abbot labeling the ABC un-Australian in its news reporting practices. Additionally, Abbot condemned Mark Scott last year for the publication of an article based on a phone hacking scandal in Indonesia, stating, “It was a very very poor decision”. Scott defended the ABC and argued that the editorial decision was in the public’s best interest. Despite ABC’s agreement with the federal government to represent a ‘soft diplomacy’, ABC’s Managing Director, Mark Scott states that upholding ABC’s editorial integrity is firm as it has no goals in presenting information to the Asia Pacific and is only there to act as a public service (Irvin, 2010, pg. 39). “It’s not like we’re walking in, taking off our ABC hats and trying to get a partnership in this, or a film distribution deal here, or trying to get out DVD’s in, or trying to build a theme park… There’s no other media organization in Australia that can say that”, Scott expressed in an interview with Irvin (2010, pg. 40). Notably, Baker (2003, pg. 28) states that the relationship of a public broadcasting service to its audience is not driven by economic gain, but by a prevalent intuitive of “cultural responsibility and social accountability” which differs largely from commercial providers who aim to give the audience what it desires for monitory gain.


The influence of Australia’s foreign polices, particularly those concerning the Asia Pacific regions, has the potential to affect audience perceptions and ultimately disrupt efforts of ABC’s broadcasting services in Asia Pacific regions, if only by association (Irvin, 2010, pg. 40). Furthermore, the Abbot government’s policies and implementation of ‘hard power’ on immigration could dramatically affect the groundwork ABC’s international arms have so far achieved. Abbot’s ‘boat people policy’ as well as his asylum seekers attainment on PNG’s, Manus Island has already proven to directly affect relationships with publics and parliamentary figures in Asia Pacific regions. From this observation, I am suggesting that the Abbott government’s ‘hard power’ over their foreign affairs and polices, and those that directly affect Asia Pacific regions, perhaps has a greater affect on the targeted market than ABC’s international broadcasting services and application of ‘soft diplomacy’.


Australia’s changing political sphere proves to be a primary obstacle for Radio Australia and Australia Network’s efforts to act as a form of ‘soft diplomacy’ to the Asia Pacific regions. Additionally, Australia is perceived to have long-term problematic foreign affair policies. The Director of ABC’s International division, Murray Green, states that upholding the nation’s long term strategic aims is hard to align considering that governments often change hands and along with it, their goals (Irvin, 2010, pg. 39). However, Green argues that although Australia is custom to changing governments and with it, foreign policies, it is the responsibility of the ABC’s international services to overcome such inconsistencies. In doing so, Australia Network and Radio Australia are determined to “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs” (Irvin, 2010, pg. 40).


The measurability of public service broadcaster’s success has demonstrated to be problematic with the inability to directly gage an organization’s achievement of its goals. This is vastly different to commercial broadcasters whose success is measured by the quantity of viewers and not the quality of a program. The difficulty with determining a public service broadcaster’s achievements is mainly due to the orientation of their aim to “inform, reform, educate and serve the public” (Ang, 1991, pg. 29). Analysing the success of ABC’s international arms has also proved to be challenging for analysts’. Irvin’s (2010, pg. 40) research paper is an exemplifier of those difficulties. However, Irvin has gathered material that shows substantial value from ABC’s international services, illustrating key cultural and political progressions in various Asia Pacific regions, particularly in Indonesia. Interestingly, Irvin’s (2010, pg. ii) research paper argues that although there are various opportunities for the ABC to act as a form of soft diplomacy to the Asia Pacific market, ABC’s international arms – Radio Australia and Australia Network, have been unsuccessful in operating as a tool for soft power due to numerous political, financial, cultural and regulatory constraints.


This paper has explored the hardships ABC’s international broadcasting services – Australia Network and Radio Australia have faced in representing the federal government to act as a vehicle for ‘soft diplomacy’ to Asia Pacific markets. Furthermore, this paper has investigated ABC’s ambition to maintain its organizational values and to act on the public’s interest whilst serving as a medium to represent the Australian government’s private interests to Asia Pacific regions. This paper has also delved into the effectiveness of Australia Network and Radio Australia’s efforts – considering the political changing sphere, the influence of Australia’s foreign policies on the Asia Pacific market as well as problems in measuring a public broadcasting service’s achievements.



Word Count: 2110



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