INDONESIA COUNCIL OPEN CONFERENCE
Flinders University 3 – 4 July 2017
Australia Plus doesn’t add** Duncan Graham*
Despite a rapid rise in the use of smartphone apps an estimated 80 per cent of Indonesians still rely on television for news.[i] This presents Australia with an opportunity to develop its Australia Plus channel to boost the presenting nation’s image and deliver accurate information about the country – as it once did with Radio Australia and Australia Television International. In those days Australia believed that broadcasting into the Asia-Pacific region was important to sow ideas, counter falsehoods, develop friendships and influence opinions.
The chances of maintaining these principles are being lost as the underfunded Australia Plus service is showing poorly selected content often inappropriate for the market, particularly when measured against other international offerings. This paper examines how successive governments have quietly abandoned the idea that Australia has a responsibility to showcase its achievements and values – and why reviving this objective could help improve relationships with our nearest Asian neighbour.
· Disclaimer: The author was employed by ABC TV and later Channel Nine as a current affairs reporter, producer and presenter. He also helped pioneer public broadcasting in WA and was founder-manager of Radio 6NR. All long ago so relevant only for industry experience.
*Duncan Graham CV Education: M Phil (UWA), Grad Dip Cultural Communication (Riverina), BA (Curtin) Currently employed: Freelance writer for English language media in Indonesia 2002 – present. Currently in Malang, East Java Australian citizen Awards: (All in Australia): Walkley Award for Journalism; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Media Award (Twice); Equal Opportunity Commission Media Prize (Twice); Daily News Centenary Prize; Perth Press Club Award; MBE Health Award; WA Week Book Award (now the Premier’s Prize) for non-fiction.Published books: The People Next Door (UWA Press), Being Whitefella (ed) (FAC Press), Dying Inside (A & U). Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). Book project: The Tyranny of Proximity.
** This paper builds on a commentary published by New Mandala on 22 July 2016 as How Australia Plus became Australia Minus, See: http://www.newmandala.org/through-a-window-darkly/
Australia Plus doesn’t add
It’s common to start addresses with acknowledgements, so a big thank you to Monash University, the Government of Victoria, food supplement manufacturer Swisse Wellness owned by a Hong Kong based company, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
These organisations are largely responsible for me and maybe a few other expats and some Indonesian Australiaphiles maintaining our enthusiasm for Bananas in Pyjamas, the WotWots and the AFL. More seriously if the ABC and the three ‘foundation partners’ hadn’t bonded Australia might have an even more threadbare media presence overseas.[ii]
Radio and TV were once considered a vital part of the nation’s presentation of itself to the world and therefore the financial responsibility of the state. But in 2014 the government suddenly gave the ABC 90-days notice that it would break its AUD 223 million deal to run the Australia Network. Eighty staff – some in Asian news rooms – lost their jobs.
Why did the government do that? As usual the answer is budget constraints, but the more realistic interpretation is politics, paybacks and placating Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
The ABC announced it this way:
The Australia Network has gone off the air after the Federal Government withdrew funding for the broadcaster earlier this year.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cut Australia's international television service, which had broadcast content to 46 countries in the Asia and Pacific region including Solomon Islands, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, in the May budget.
The ABC was one year into a ten-year contract to provide the service, which had a potential audience of 144 million people. [iii]
From the rubble has grown Australia Plus. Image polishers have called it:
…an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavour that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.[iv]
So far few corporates have clapped because their logos have yet to appear on Indonesian screens. If they thought it a ‘positive step’ they’d already be up several rungs.
First some background.
Our presentations to the Asia Pacific used to be different. For decades Australian governments believed that broadcasting and telecasting into the region was an important responsibility, sowing ideas, informing and influencing.
Radio Australia started in 1939 using shortwave, mainly to counter Japanese propaganda. After the war it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of foreign affairs.[v] Other terms commonly found in the literature include ‘globally connected’ and ‘promotion of Australian values’.
Millions learned about Australia through RA; many tuned in to world news because local stations were censored. RA was a trusted source in a region where facts were often scarce.[vi]
Thousands developed their English skills huddled over crackling sets, particularly during the 1950s and 60s. Technology forced changes. Satellites eclipsed land-based transmitters[vii]. Rebrands became necessary but the vision remained and the mission expanded.[viii]
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that ABC Asia Pacific (formerly Australia Television International) would become Australia Network, with funding from Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising.
It would reach 10 million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; maybe one million viewers a month.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering “high quality programmes about Australia and its engagement with the region.” Also promised were “extensive news and current affairs programmes, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programmes.” Note the order of priorities.
The Minister included a homely metaphor with his Reithian principles: ‘A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programmes that present a 'window' on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’ [ix]
Australia Network CEO Ian Carroll added: ‘Our news and current affairs programmes provide more than the headlines – it is quality world class journalism offering a different view from the London and US-centric networks’.[x]
By then there were other windows to peer though. BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other international telecasters were offering vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend AUD$ 117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$ 300 million. [xi] Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television (CCTV). [xii]
The Voice of America budget is US$ 218 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
In 2011 the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV which had long campaigned to get the job. When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company – no friend of Labor - would get the contract the tender process was scrapped and the job given to the ABC.
It was a short victory. When the Liberal-National Coalition won government revenge was rapid - Australia Network was turned off. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the network “had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’ [xiii] but gave no facts to back the claim. The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said the decision;
…runs counter to the approach adopted by the vast majority of G20 countries. Countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy.
It sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia.[xiv]
Killing the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced: The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster so the gap had to be filled. Click onto Australia Plus.
The new service is believed to cost AUD $20 million a year with three ‘foundation partners’ – in the coy language of one report – ‘signing-on to advertising deals worth in the low single digit million dollar range’.[xv] Presumably this means something between one and three million a year, [xvi] so still a minority contribution.
For this the ‘partners’ get the chance to exclusively back an ‘audience category’. So, for example, in the Explore + Experience category sponsored by the Victorian State Government ‘stories about events, places, travel, arts, culture and music around Australia’ are featured.[xvii]
Absent from the sponsors are the 360 Australian businesses which launched a mighty assault on the Indonesian market in 2015 and again this year with 120 delegates.[xviii]
If they are not using the opportunities presented they either don’t know Australia Plus exists – which would be a failure of marketing - or they’ve researched its reach and decided it’s of no value.
Australia’s overseas TV is supposed to project a robust Western democracy, a creative explorer of art and technology and a leader in education, then Australia Plus is a turn off.
As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship [xix] it might be logical to assume we’d be offering our best and brightest programmes selected specifically for the archipelago.
If only. It seems no-one cares. Programmes are moved around or changed without notice. [xx] Many, like the ad business rip-apart Gruen have us chuckling and Indonesians bamboozled. This is fill-a-space scheduling which treats viewers with no respect.
According to the ABC ‘the service is delivered as a single stream across all territories. Programmes do not have separate versions for individual territories’. [xxi] So one size fits all in the 43 countries that get Australia Plus. This negates the ABC’s claim that:
…the ABC places the audience at the centre of everything it does. Through its international services the ABC has the content and infrastructure to enable it to connect with a range of international audiences in English and their own language, presenting Australian perspectives and values to the world.[xxii]
In Indonesia three pay-to-use cable services carry Australia Plus. [xxiii] They get it free. The ABC says it’s ‘available to three million people in Indonesia’ meaning that’s the number who pay for access to networks each offering 50 or more channels.[xxiv]
Australia Plus TV is almost all in English, though some Indonesian subtitling is starting to appear, though not advertised as such. [xxv] NatGeo programmes are Indonesian subtitled. Likewise the History Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery, BBC Earth and many others.
However there are other Australia Plus sites with stories in Indonesian, including Facebook which scored 365,000 visits last year. [xxvi] Sounds good? Motivational speaker Mario Teguh, who used to perform on Metro TV, gets 20 million visits.
Apart from Singapore we are the closest Western nation to Indonesia with the ability to present a different perspective in the media jungle of Southeast Asia. Australia Plus says its mission is ‘to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with an uniquely Australian perspective.” [xxvii] Note the new order of priorities.
Indonesians and others in the region can enjoy a 24-hour service with Play School and Little Ted’s Big Adventure on a loop for much of the morning plus a few English lessons.
ABC News Breakfast starts at 3 am in Jakarta. World News at 8 pm seems to be the only programme created for the channel, not just lifted and dumped, like a Bondi Rescue wave.
At 5.30 pm Java time 7.30 is shown. Q & A runs a day late; there are old editions of Australia Story and the brilliant Jenny Brockie SBS series Insight. Weeklies like Insiders and The Drum get a guernsey. Four Corners does sometimes, though late.[xxviii]
At the height of the North Korea missile crisis in mid-April[xxix] viewers got to see the news at 1 pm and again nine hours later. In between were back-to-back AFL games. The fearful went elsewhere to know whether Armageddon was nigh. They turn to the trusted brands – the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg – when they could be choosing Australia Plus.
Home and Away fans get five episodes back-to-back, relieved by monochrome Kafkaesque-style promotions for Monash University [xxx] that would puzzle and probably frighten prospective students. [xxxi] It’s voiced by actor David Wenham, not well known in Indonesia.[xxxii]
Swisse also favours the obscure with former Australian cricketer Ricky Ponting talking about perfection in making bats and balls, though not the promoter’s products. Indonesian viewers are not used to subtle in advertising and expect to be heavily whacked with brand names.[xxxiii] They certainly know little about hitting sixes, LBWs and Mr Ponting.
Dr Ken Harvey, Adjunct Associate Professor in Monash University's Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine has raised alerts about the ‘partnership’:
Swisse have an unenviable reputation for marketing their products, both in Australia and internationally. Their sales success reflects the large amount of money they spend on marketing hype and celebrity endorsement, not on science.
… Swisse have had over 20 upheld complaints over the last few years for misusing scientific claims such as ‘clinically proven’ and ‘clinically tested’. Their advertising claims have also been the subject of a number of satirical segments on the ABC Checkout programme.’[xxxiv]
There have been criticisms from other quarters, [xxxv] some so strong and mocking it’s a wonder the company hasn’t walked away. The ABC response implied complainants didn’t understand the law, should be better informed and that all editorial decisions were made independently by ABC staff alone. [xxxvi]
Apart from being ideologically hostile to advertisements on the ABC, commentators feared the brand may be damaged by links with a company that’s attracted concerns from reputable Australian and overseas scientists. [xxxvii]
The Victorian Government’s ads focus on produce and exports from the Garden State. They are informative but mainly sell tourism, foods and claims for port efficiency.
What’s the target audience for this curious mix? Asians play soccer, not rules. Australia Plus broadcasts six games a week during the Toyota AFL Premiership season, all matches in the Toyota AFL Finals Series and a ‘weekly highlights programme across 28 weeks’.[xxxviii]
Splendid for Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian fans in Asia – but are footy-crazed expats the prime market for Australia Plus? There is an AFL team in the Republic called the Indonesia Garudas but they say they are struggling with no oval and no money to buy boots and balls. [xxxix] Nonetheless they plan to send a team to Melbourne this year.
Where are the other sports which SBS does well, the docos, programmes featuring the ‘uniquely Australia perspective’ on the region’? They’re still in Australia.
Indonesian viewers comparing Australia Plus with other nations’ offerings might conclude that we’re a poor country offering an inconsistent fare and indifferent to audience needs. There’s little that’s made for the market. The dramas are little understood.[xl]
This situation may not concern the Government but it appears to worry the ABC. In March this year it made an untitled submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper. The document noted the expansion of the BBC World Service and other TV networks into overseas telecasting while reminding DFAT of some original principles:
Australia requires a strategy for engagement which enhances mutual understanding and respect and which encourages an exchange of ideas. Establishing strong cultural and social links with international populations will facilitate stronger economic ties and more productive collaboration.
A strong, vibrant and trusted public and international broadcasting capability will be critical to Australia’s ability to engage economically, politically and culturally with the Asia-Pacific and beyond.[xli]
Perhaps this late conscience-pricker might someday get a reaction. However, so far none of this seems to stir the major parties. They enjoy ABC and SBS excellence at home and offer heart-warming statements about Australia being respected in the region.
Meanwhile their neighbours get Australia Minus and are expected to believe that we really are serious about improving and sustaining relationships – as we so regularly proclaim.
Unfortunately Indonesians don’t like us according to a recent survey of attitudes. To the question: Which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government? respondents put Saudi Arabia first (47 per cent), followed by China (38), and the US (6). Only two per cent said Australia.[xlii] Clearly we have problems.
Australia Plus could be a splendid showcase in Indonesia and the 42 other nations where it’s available, spreading Australian news, culture, values and opinions, equal to its international competitors. We have the skills and talent. What we lack is political will.
[i] http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbcreut_country.html But who are the viewers? ‘We should understand that 60 percent of Indonesian viewers are either elementary school graduates, or have not graduated. Those people are the ones watching TV.’ Ishadi Soetope Kartosapoetro, the chairman of ATVSI (Indonesian TV Broadcasting Association) quoted by AMCHAM – http://www.amcham.or.id/politics/5381-indonesia-s-tv-industry-a-sinking-ship
[ii] The official statement in the ABC Annual Report reads: Australia Plus is produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and presented with the support of our Foundation Partners.
[iv] http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/australia-plus-abc-international-means-business/ However ABC International CEO Lynley Marshall put it more bluntly: ‘DFAT cancelled the contract two years into a ten-year agreement, leaving the ABC with a significant challenge in meeting its ongoing charter commitment to international broadcasting’ https://www.abcfriends.org.au/index.php/2016/09/19/swiss-advertising-response-from-abc-international/
[vi] For an analysis of the service’s importance in the Pacific see researcher Nic Maclellan’s The Gutting of Radio Australia: http://insidestory.org.au/the-gutting-of-radio-australia
[vii] The one in Darwin was felled by Cyclone Tracy in 1974.
[viii] This year veteran journalist Graeme Dobell took his concerns about the ABC’s ‘dumb decision’ to close the South Pacific short wave services to the Senate Communications Committee. See: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/abc-gets-wrong-south-pacific-service/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=Weekly%20The%20Strategist+CID_bc46d88f018103445b9873c69105b487&utm_source=CampaignMonitor&utm_term=The%20ABC%20gets%20it%20wrong%20on%20its%20South%20Pacific%20service
[xiv] In late 2015 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Jakarta and smoothed the path for a delegation of 360 traders led by then Trade Minister Andrew Robb. Another group, about a third of the size, went to Indonesia in early 2017 fronted by Trade Minister Steven Ciobo.
[xv] Lewis Hirst of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry writing in The Diplomat: http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/australia-plus-abc-international-means-business/
[xvi] The ABC won’t reveal the figures or length of contracts claiming ‘commercial in confidence’
[xvii] The Australia Plus sponsors’ guidelines curiously claim ‘the Victorian State government (is) one of the prime tourist destinations in Australia ...’ Presumably it means landscapes and events rather than the politicians and public servants. See: http://www.australiaplus.com/international/sponsors/
[xix] This is now a standard chant in Australian politics, and like all over-used phrases has become a cliché and lost its meaning. See: http://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2016/jb_mr_161025.aspx?w=tb1CaGpkPX%2FlS0K%2Bg9ZKEg%3D%3D
[xx] A couple of examples: At the end of 7.30 on 17 April presenter Leigh Sales threw to a programme of tributes to the late satirist John Clarke. However viewers in Indonesia instead got an episode of Gruen first telecast in September 2015. Unsurprisingly the topical gags were out of date. On 23 May Q & A didn’t appear though advertised on screen and in the Internet TV Guide.
[xxi] Personal correspondence with ‘an ABC spokesman’.
[xxii] ABC Submission to Foreign Policy White Paper
[xxiii] First Media, Indovision and Telkomvision.
[xxiv] The ABC conducted audience research using Skype interviews in six Indonesian cities. Participants were recruited through the Australia Plus Facebook site. The research confirmed ‘strong audience interest in connecting with Australian stories and opportunities … (and) also highlighted shortcomings in market-specific user interface design.’ Changes were made in May 2016. http://about.abc.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ABCAnnualReport2016.pdf
[xxv] ‘An ABC spokesman’ said that ‘due to budgetary constraints not all programmes can be subtitled.’ In fact I’ve caught only one with BI subtitles – an edition of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery first telecast in Australia on 15 Feb – on Australia Plus on 16 May. The Dreamhouse has also been captioned.
[xxvi] Personal correspondence with ‘an ABC spokesman’.
[xxviii] ‘The ABC spokesman’ says the Four Corners delay is because ‘there may be third-party footage present which needs to be cleared …’
[xxx] The latest available figures show 26,201 (37 per cent of all students) came from overseas. Of these 929 (below 3.6 per cent) were from Indonesia. The major sources are China and Malaysia. https://www.monash.edu/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/676304/pocket-statistics-2016.pdf
[xxxi] The Question the Answers campaign is on the Internet as a Vimeo video. Vimeo is banned in Indonesia.
[xxxii] If Indonesians did know of Wenham they might not be too enthusiastic as he featured in the TV film Answered by Fire as an Australian policeman. The film was a fictional account of Australia’s role in the 1999 East Timor referendum, an event which severely damaged relationships between Indonesia and Australia.
[xxxiii] Some commercials are immediately repeated in case the viewer didn’t notice the first time around. The blunt force approach like that used by Harvey Norman ads in Australia is popular in RI.
[xxxiv] Personal communication. Dr Harvey stressed that ‘my views regarding Swisse and their partnership with ABC International are obviously my own and do not reflect those of Monash University.’
[xxxv] See https://mumbrella.com.au/checkout-producer-slams-abc-partnership-vitamin-brand-swisse-390341 and here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0WHvFI2I20
[xxxvi] ‘I suspect many members of the public do not realise this history, nor do they understand ABC International has always carried advertising on its platforms,’ Lynley Marshall, CEO ABC International. Full text: https://www.abcfriends.org.au/index.php/2016/09/19/swiss-advertising-response-from-abc-international/
[xxxvii] The ABC submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper includes this statement:
Reputation - The ABC is one of the most recognised and trusted brands in Australia and the region. As Australia’s primary public broadcaster with a Charter that requires editorial independence, the ABC’s core strengths are its enduring credibility and integrity.
[xl] In the early 1980s the TV soapie Return to Eden was a huge hit in Indonesia with lead actress Rebecca Gilling mobbed when she visited Jakarta in 1987.
[xlii] The survey was conducted in March this year. http://perthusasia.edu.au/getattachment/Our-Work/America-s-Role-in-the-Indo-Pacific/PU-20-ARIP-BOOK-WEB.pdf.aspx?lang=en-AU