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Broadcasting diplomacy - Australian international broadcasting and its role in soft power diplomacy within the Pacific

Lachlan Cropley


Source: The Canberra Times

Summary

Australia has always been geographically part of the Pacific. However, through its recent history, Australia’s connection with the region has fluctuated, leading to the nation’s need for diplomatic tools that can engage the region. For the Australian Government, one of the solutions to engaging the region exists within the common household. Broadcasting to promote soft power diplomacy. Soft power diplomacy seeks to change the views of others through values based appeal and attraction rather than coercion. By broadcasting Australian media to the Pacific, Australia can seek to promote its own values such as democracy within the region. However, with financial issues historically, this low cost, long reaching diplomatic tool has changed, and with it, Australia’s approach in aiding the people of the Pacific through times of political and environmental crises.


A History


Since 1939, Australian broadcasting has had a presence in the Pacific region and has played a hand in projecting Australian and regional news, becoming one of its first effective far reaching soft power diplomacy tools. Originally in the form of radio transmissions, Australia Calling launched, subsequently changed its name to Radio Australia and is now known today as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Through Australia Calling, though primarily Radio Australia, news from an Australian perspective could be accessed in various languages including Mandarin Chinese, Tok Pisin and French. With these services, its original aim was to reach as many countries as possible to relay Australian views and news to expatriates and its neighbours. 


This reach was mobilised during World War II, when Radio Australia was used as a means to counter Japanese and German propaganda in the Indo-Pacific region. Although at first not as strong as the Axis influence, Radio Australia was encouraged to increase its broadcasting capability to rival the Axis. By the mid-1940s, it was upgraded to become capable of broadcasting to the rest of the world. Post-war, this left Radio Australia with the capacity to have a great influence on Australia’s surrounding regions, specifically the Pacific.


Lifesaving and protective soft power diplomacy


In time, television broadcasts were added to Radio Australia’s broadcasting toolbox. However, further cuts to the budget of Radio Australia continued and, in 2017, the last Pacific region focused radio broadcasts were terminated due to the technology being seen as outdated and that the ABC should not be relied upon to do foreign engagement.


For various Pacific leaders such as former Vanuatuan Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, this caused concern. In an interview with the ABC, he endorsed that radio broadcasts such as those from Radio Australia had the power to reach remote islands in the Pacific that could not be reached by FM radio. For the residents of those islands during an emergency such as Cyclone Pam in 2015, Radio Australia was able to relay emergency information and warnings prior to Cyclone Pam, so that residents could prepare themselves, thus saving lives.


Presenting Australian televised network shows allows Australia to show the Pacific and other surrounding regions Australia’s popular media. This includes Better Homes and Gardens, Neighbours, but most importantly for Australian security, Border Security: Australia’s Front Line. Although a popular show domestically, Border Security is also supported by the Government to help discourage and stop criminal activity before it reaches Australia. For Australia, this protects biosecurity, hinders the international drug trade, but also informs people who may be tricked into smuggling drugs into the country.


However, there has also been criticisms of the presentation of Border Security enforcing a white-english identity complex that presents itself as the default Australian identity, and painting people from different backgrounds as outsiders. This has been cited as an attempt to deter migrants and sensationalise the border security workforce. This, however, deteriorates the friendly and helpful view of Australia’s softer side of soft power diplomacy.


Further potential


Now, primarily presented in the form of television and online services, formerly Radio Australia and now ABC Australia, broadcasts Australian media on the same budget that the ABC’s international operations had in the 1980’s, $11 million AUD. Evidently a larger budget could help Australia provide safety to its neighbours, as well as allow for Australian media to disseminate Australia's fundamental values.

It has already been demonstrated that Australian broadcasting to the Pacific region can save lives, however alongside this, it can also promote one of Australia’s key values, democracy. For areas experiencing civil unrest, Australia can use its broadcasting potential in the region to provide transparent information to those listening. 

This not only benefits the democratic parties of the nations it reaches, but it also helps promote Australia’s regional ambitions of a free and open region, as it is able to evade censors. Such was the case in m 2009 when Myanmar’s then pro-democracy leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, called for Australia to provide radio broadcasts, seeing that Australia could be seen as a trustworthy transparent voice in the region with the necessary technology.


In helping Myanmar, Australia proved to its neighbouring region that it was willing  to uphold international democracy through the empowerment of press freedoms. However, with the severing of services such as shortwave and FM radio, a low cost form of technology allowing outside communication signals to bypass dictatorial efforts through soft power diplomacy wanes. 


Conclusion


Although it celebrated 80 years of international broadcasting in 2019, Australia can continue to strengthen its soft-power diplomacy in the Pacific. In an age of misinformation, institutes such as the ABC are more important than ever to help provide clear and safe information, while also providing warnings and emergency information to help save lives. Australian broadcasting strengthens national security, promotes Australian news and values, whilst reinforcing both Australia’s reputation as a pillar of democracy and the freedom of press within the Pacific.


 

Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (honours) majoring in Indonesian and International Relations, Lachlan Cropley has developed various interests, including Australia's role in International Relations. With his writing, he seeks to create further dialogue and action from his readers.

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