East Timor, or as it’s officially called, Timor Leste, is one of the world’s newest and smallest countries. It lies just 400 miles north west of Australia. During a referendum in 1999 to determine its independence from Indonesia, the website of Radio Australia was hit two million times by East Timorese and Indonesians seeking news from its bilingual service. Australia’s then Foreign Minister acknowledged shortly afterwards the “value of Australia’s international broadcasting activities in conveying accurate news and information to the region as well as providing an Australian perspective … [it] is very much in the national interest.”
Yet Radio Australia’s efforts during the Timorese struggle for independence came after a period of great turbulence for the broadcaster; it had been threatened with closure in the mid-90s, and its budgets had been slashed by half. In response, the prime minister of another of Australia’s near neighbors, Papua New Guinea, offered to return $1 million in Australian aid to keep the Radio Australia service open to his country. The broadcaster ultimately survived and since then, Radio Australia has continued to provide a much-needed independent source of news in the region.
Radio Australia has been providing an international broadcasting service to the Asia Pacific region since 1939. In 1994, its efforts were complemented by the introduction of a television service to the region (now known as the Australia Network). But like Radio Australia, it has weathered periods of government hostility or neglect. Decisions on Australia’s international broadcasting have been made, both by government, and within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation itself, on the basis of budget considerations, the competing claims of the services themselves and the imperative of maintaining domestic public broadcasting. Although the government has recently taken a more consistent and serious approach, the funding for both broadcasters falls well short (on a per capita basis) of their international counterparts.
But the periodically erratic resourcing of the past is not the only factor which has hampered Radio Australia and the Australia Network in their task of attracting and maintaining audiences and promoting Australia’s interests effectively. Government and administrative struggles over the control and direction of both broadcasters have made consistency and strategic coherence elusive goals. This has compounded the impact of the low level of resourcing for international broadcasting and counteracted the benefits that would generally come from its longevity.
Australia’s international broadcasters operate in a unique geopolitical environment. As one of the most prosperous middle powers on the globe, Australia occupies a privileged place within the Asia-Pacific region. Among its neighbors are the poorer and less stable nations of the Pacific and some of the most populous emerging economies in the world, like Indonesia, China and India and the developed economies of Japan, Singapore and Korea. This paradoxical position confers both opportunities and obligations on Australia: opportunities, because among those close neighbors are Australia’s strongest and fastest-growing trading partners; obligations, because along with Australia’s prosperity and unique situation within our region come responsibilities towards our poorer or unstable neighbors. Building trust, promoting understanding, and engaging these nations by projecting our image and generating interest in our culture, expertise, ideals and values can only benefit Australia’s long-term interests. Aside from assisting them with our substantial aid program, promoting stability in the region fosters Australia’s security and prosperity.
In this unique position, Australia must work effectively to project its views and manage its relationships with its increasingly powerful neighbors. However, Australia’s resourcing of diplomacy has eroded damagingly over the last decades, and the impact on its public diplomacy has been acute. With the exception of a significant investment in educational exchanges (mostly through development assistance programs), Australia’s public diplomacy is minimal, and consists largely of its investment in its international broadcasters.
The Australian situation contrasts starkly with the international trend of the last decade which has seen a massive expansion in government-funded international broadcasting as one of the primary tools of public diplomacy. Both potent and versatile, it is used to achieve a broad spectrum of public diplomacy objectives: providing alternative sources of information and ideas to countries without robust media systems of their own, communicating with diasporas, preserving languages, maintaining cultural diversity and projecting national identities.
While the global financial crisis has curtailed the budgets of some broadcasting nations (the BBC World Service has endured significant cuts, and America’s international broadcasters have been threatened with belt-tightening measures), their consistent investments in the past decade have given them an edge in building strategic footholds in places where their international interests lie, including the increasingly pivotal Asia-Pacific. Undoubtedly, the international broadcasting landscape is undergoing rapid transformation. The market is becoming intensely crowded, and short-wave radio, once the staple of the government-funded broadcaster, is waning in influence. But FM transmission is rapidly gaining traction, and the information revolution has propelled the more sophisticated broadcasters into an era of multimedia ascendancy. Australia’s international broadcasters have been operating in a policy and financial environment which has impaired their ability to keep pace with these transformative developments.
The resilience of Radio Australia and the Australia Network following their near demise in the 1990s suggests that Australian international broadcasters have the potential to further Australia’s national interests in a strategic and beneficial way. Yet the anemic funding of public diplomacy in Australia demonstrates that Australian governments of all colors have a limited appreciation of its value in projecting Australia’s soft power. Uncertain even of the appropriate corporate model for international broadcasting (privately or publicly managed) and hesitant to commit meaningful resources to it, Australia is unlikely to reap the benefits these tools can offer.
The value of international broadcasting—and conversely, the danger in not comprehending that value—was reinforced pointedly by Hillary Clinton in Senate testimony in early March 2011 when she argued that the U.S. was “in an information war, and … losing that war,” particularly against emerging new broadcasters like Al Jazeera and China’s CCTV. At the end of the Cold War in the late 80s and early nineties, Western nations, confident of a lasting peace, began to neglect the tools that had sustained them in the ideological war against communism. In the United States, institutions of public diplomacy and strategic communications were disbanded and foreign service hiring was frozen in what Defense Secretary Robert Gates called a “gutting” of the U.S.’s ability to engage, assist and communicate with other parts of the world. Other countries blindly tagged along. Then came 9/11, and the U.S., along with the rest of the West, was unprepared. Its international broadcasters like the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe which had performed vital roles in the Cold War were losing credibility, hobbled by years of government cost-cutting. The West’s voice to the world had gone quiet, precisely at the time when the information revolution was giving vocal power to a whole generation of non-state actors: individuals, non-government organizations, extremists, terrorist groups.
The first decade of the 21st century was spent rebuilding those tools of communication. The BBC World Service expanded aggressively with foreign language TV into the Middle East, Voice of America regrouped and powerful, well-backed new operators like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya emerged. China stepped into the fray, reportedly committing over $6 billion to its international broadcasting alone, through CCTV and international radio.
But there are signs that complacency is settling in to the West again, and there are serious concerns that inattention to the basic tools of public diplomacy will find it unprepared for whatever the world has in store for it next. Right after the BBC World Service was forced to announce deep cuts to its budget affecting even its Arabic-language services, Egypt and Tunisia evicted their Presidents, and the impact is reverberating across the Middle East. Both the BBC and Voice of America have announced that their Chinese language services will be cancelled due to budget pressures. The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives just voted $60 billion in budget cuts, with the Chairman of Appropriations dubbing them the “largest reduction in non-security discretionary spending in the history of the nation.” Yet even Defense Secretary Gates has argued that America cannot simply “kill or capture its way to victory” and that its non-security efforts in persuading and inspiring foreign publics were pivotal in the outcome of the Cold War.
The recent events in the Middle East have surely reinforced the power of the media (new and old) to inspire, engage, and propel change. International broadcasters are just as important now as they ever were.
As a Western nation on the edge of Asia, Australia is neighbor to a couple billion people living in vastly different socio-economic conditions, with different religions and political systems. But while we ramp up aid spending in the region by doubling the aid budget over the next five years, we have sliced our public diplomacy budget in half and resource our international broadcasting services feebly.
In a region undergoing dynamic transformation, Australia will struggle to maintain an effective voice if it persists in its course of under-resourcing public diplomacy and international broadcasting. History shows that this is a dangerous course.
Alex Oliver and Annmaree O’Keeffe are research fellows at the Lowy Institute for International Policy based in Sydney, Australia. In 2010, they co-authored the Lowy Institute paper International broadcasting and its contribution to public diplomacy, a study commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation focusing on the international broadcasting operations of ten major broadcasting nations in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.