In foreign policy circles, it’s known as "soft power". Coined by Joseph Nye, the term refers to the strategic advantage gained by the subtler arts of diplomacy and culture. Soft power, Nye claims, can be every bit as important to national security as the flinty hard varieties of military force.
Soft power remains a controversial idea in academic circles, but for the working diplomat its value is obvious, and it is merely a new name to the arts practiced by statesmen for centuries. Media organisations also have a long history of being supported by nations for foreign policy and strategic reasons, over and above any consideration of the value of the information and entertainment they provide.
Throughout the Cold War, for instance, the CIA and US Congress supported foreign-language radio stations in Europe and Asia, and the famous Radio Free Europe still broadcasts in 21 languages across Eastern Europe and central Asia today. Meanwhile, despite recent attempts by the Cameron government to exert some cost control, the BBC remains one of the largest and most respected international broadcasters in the world, providing peerless coverage of news and current affairs in parts of the world that most news organisations simply can’t access.
Australia does a a bit of international broadcasting too. The federal government’s Australia Network has long been broadcasting to the Asia-Pacific region: according to Australia Network’s website, it beams 24/7 to 44 countries, with a target audience it describes as "the Internationalists of the Asia-Pacific region: educated, worldly professionals seeking a fresh perspective on global and regional events".
These are the sort of people that fly business class and watch BBC World, which is why every second commercial on the British broadcaster is an ad for Qatar Airways or the Incheon Free Economic Zone. As Julia Gillard told reporters this week, the Australia Network "is an important arm of soft diplomacy for Australia".
The Australia Network has been beavering away at this for some time, of course, but it was only this week that it actually made the news headlines. The reason is that the Gillard Government has finally decided to award the $223 million contract for the service to the ABC — and not to commercial competitor, Sky News.
The decision has been a year in the making.
It comes after some bitter internal politics and a farcical tender process. The tender was first announced last year by Kevin Rudd, whose department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing the bulk of the funding. At the time, it was thought that the very fact that the contract had been given out to tender favoured Sky News. Moreover, Rudd was known to be a supporter of giving the gig to Sky, for reasons that had more to do with his ongoing attempts to rehabilitate himself as a possible Labor leader, than anything to do with superiority of the service Sky might offer. Sky certainly campaigned hard on the issue, both informally in the halls of power in Canberra, and openly via its influential (if still relatively little-watched) national subscription news channel.
But all that was before the Milly Dowler scandal engulfed News Limited’s sister organisation, News International, in Britain.
The Gillard Government had been getting some very skewed treatment from the News Limited newspapers in Australia for some time, and the Dowler phone hacking scandal suddenly gave long-suffering Labor ministers an opportunity to make some observations of their own about the darker corners of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. As Labor’s winter gloom deepened, embattled Labor figures began to ask themselves exactly why the government was considering paying a company part-owned by News Limited more than $200 million at the same time that the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and The Australian seemed hell-bent on destroying the carbon tax, and with it what was left of Julia Gillard’s authority.
Crucially, critical details of the ongoing Australia Network tender then leaked: namely, that the tender committee was going to recommend Sky. Gillard and her Cabinet allies reacted fast. The tender was suddenly taken away from Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Stephen Conroy’s Communications department was given carriage of the process. Conroy decided to suspend the tender altogether and called in the Australian Federal Police to investigate the leaks. There were several reports of significant tensions within the government over how to keep Rudd away from the decision.
Finally, this week, Conroy, Gillard and the Cabinet made the decision to make the Australia Network part of the ABC on a permanent basis, throwing away any attempt at a tender. Sky and its cheerleaders in the Murdoch press are predictably furious, with Sky’s CEO Angelos Frangopolous claiming the network should be compensated for the estimated $2 million it spent on the tender application.
Canberra insiders are of course agog at the implications for the frosty relationship between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd — not helped by the latter’s reluctance to mention Rudd during her appearances at the ALP’s national conference over the weekend.
But the real question that should be asked is why the job of international broadcaster to Australia’s neighbours was ever considered for tender in the first place. Whatever the competing merits of the two applications, even a cursory glance at the comparative strengths of the ABC and Sky as news gathering organisations put the ABC way ahead in almost every respect.
Yes, Sky has some handy international tie-ins with its British cousin BskyB and the New Zealand Sky network. Sky can also demonstrate some excellent coverage of Canberra politics; in David Speers it has one of the more respected television anchors in the country. But when it comes to Asia and the Pacific, Sky is nowhere.
Despite recent tight budgets, the ABC’s foreign bureaus are vastly superior to anything the commercial broadcaster can offer. Sky’s foreign affairs coverage, in fact, is largely sourced from international feeds. It has no network of foreign bureaus: and no on-the-foreign ground correspondents like the ABC’s excellent Sally Sara, Stephen McDonnell and Mark Willacy. Sky’s internet presence is vastly inferior to the ABC’s. In short, unless you are ideologically opposed to public broadcasting in and of itself, it’s hard to see how Sky could do a better job of representing Australian interests to our region given its current resources.
Foreign policy analysts, like the Lowy Institute’s Annmaree O’Keefe, agree. She points out that "Australia has been the only country to contract out what is considered internationally to be a core element of a government’s soft power" and that the decision to give the Australia Network to the ABC means the network "will be more effective in carrying out its soft power role".
Of course, soft power can only get you so far, as Kevin Rudd is discovering again. When it comes to the vicious day-to-day politics of Westminster government, hard power — like having the numbers in Cabinet — can be rather important too.
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