background briefing 3 ..................6
Friends of the ABC Australia
Australia's international voice fades to a whisper
Dr Errol Hodge
For two years the Cox Peninsula transmitter has been closed down, severely restricting Radio Australia's voice in our Region. Arrangements are now being made to lease the transmitter to foreign broadcasters.
Globalisation has come to broadcasting in a big way, but word of this does not seem to have filtered down to the present federal government. Or perhaps it has, and for reasons that seemed good a couple of years ago, the government chose to ignore it.
First, a brief outline of the astonishing sequence of events.
The Howard government, either because it hated the ABC or because it was determined to slash what it felt was the profligacy of the previous governments in their public spending, or perhaps for both reasons, cut the ABC's budget by $10 million in its first year in office and another $55 million a year since then.
The ABC board, faced with Hobson's choice - to slash the budget for domestic radio and television or the budget for international broadcasting - made the obvious choice, to slash the budget for international broadcasting.
The review of the ABC chaired by Bob Mansfield in 1996 must bear part of the blame. The review recommended bluntly that 'the requirement of the ABC to broadcast programs to audiences outside Australia should cease'.
Mansfield referred unequivocally to 'the closure of Radio Australia'. Mansfield seems to have predetermined the fate of RA right from the start. In all the weeks that his review sat, he spent only an hour with Radio Australia. Everywhere he heard evidence, he asked the fatuous question whether, forced to choose between the two, people would prefer international or domestic broadcasting, and got the answer he wanted.
When I spoke to his review about the value of Radio Australia to Australia's interests, he listened politely, but what I said seems to have gone through to the keeper.
Radio Australia was broadcasting to a huge audience (estimated at between 5 and 20 million) in eight languages, English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Papua-New-Guinea Pidgin and French.
When I headed the ABC's bureau in Indonesia in the '70s, I found that RA was famous throughout that vast nation. I quickly learned that, to get the maximum co-operation from people I spoke to, I should introduce myself not as 'wartawan ABC' - the ABC journalist, but as 'wartawan Radio Australia'.
The recognition was instantaneous -'Waduh! Radio Australia'. At that time, perhaps 10 million of the people of our huge Asian neighbour were regular listeners.
Radio Australia was invaluable to the national interest because it projected an image of a liberal democratic middle power, non-threatening, with a respect for the truth and a concern for human rights. A public relations consultant would charge hundreds of millions to replicate this positive image of the nation and its people, invaluable to those promoting Australian trade, investment, tourism or education.
Despite the damage done to the service in recent years, it must still be the most cost-effective part of Australia's entire diplomatic initiative. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spends $500 million a year on its diplomatic activities. Radio Australia costs less than one-fiftieth of that - around $10 million.
But not all Indonesians were fans of Radio Australia, and perhaps this gives a clue to why the present government has tried to mute Australia's voice in Indonesia. The corrupt President Soeharto and his government were definitely not among our admirers. It's ironic that within a year of the decision by our government to make it impossible for most Indonesians to hear this subversive voice, their corrupt president was forced to resign.
I like to think that perhaps the truths that Radio Australia told the Indonesians about their government played a part in the mass discontent that forced Soeharto's resignation.
So far in the story, there are two villains - the government and the ABC. But now emerges a chapter in the drama that is the government's responsibility alone. Incredibly, the government decided two years ago to shut down the five powerful shortwave transmitters that enabled RA to reach a huge audience in Asia, particularly in Indonesia and China.
The government tended to be very quiet about its motives for closing down Radio Australia's Darwin transmitters, but a couple of ministers, including Amanda Vanstone, leaked remarks like, 'That's not the way we do business in Asia'.
Incredibly, ever since the Darwin transmitters were closed down, the government has been trying to lease them to another international broadcaster. Deutsche Welle and Radio Japan expressed interest, but now the hot favourite is Merlin Communications, which transmits the programs of the BBC World Service.
So Australia's most powerful shortwave broadcasting station, built at the expense of the Australian taxpayer more than 30 years ago, may fall into the hands of one of Radio Australia's competitors for the ears of Asia. At one stage it was suggested that a leasing agreement might provide for two of the five transmitters to be leased back to Radio Australia 24 hours a day. But this is now in considerable doubt, especially with the government's appointment of three new 'dry' members to the ABC Board.
When I lament the loss of much of Australia's shortwave voice, am I just the voice of the past, wedded to an outdated technology? Is shortwave radio on the way out as a method of communicating with other countries?
If so the message hasn't reached some of Australia's competitors. The BBC, the Voice of America and Radio France Internationale have just built new transmitters in Thailand. The Voice of America, run by the US State Department, has also built a new transmitter station in Sri Lanka, and opened a new transmitter in Kuwait.
Two years ago, the BBC announced plans to spend £30 million on a new transmitter site in Oman. Radio France Internationale plans a major drive into Asia as the number one priority. RFI is using two new Russian transmitters to target Vietnam and China.
The new American propaganda service called Radio Free Asia has a budget of $30 million, to broadcast in Mandarin, Tibetan, Burmese, Korean, Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer. The service has installed new transmitters on the Marianas Islands.
China is not being left behind. Radio China International is importing ten new powerful shortwave transmitters of 500 kilowatts to strengthen its daily output in 43 languages.
Religious radio has joined the rush to globalisation. Two years ago, Adventist World Radio announced the opening of 14 new language services, eight of them Asian. Another religious body, Trans World Radio, is building new transmitters on Guam to continue targeting China when it loses its Hong Kong transmission site, as probably it eventually will.
Another station, the 'Voice of Hope', is installing a transmitter on Palau, in the Pacific, to target China and India. The evangelical Christian station HCJB, which stands for 'Hail Christ Jesus Blessed', or 'Heralding Christ Jesis Broadcasting', is about to lease an extensive area of land near Kunanurra in north-western Australia to build transmitters to send its message to Asia. Fundamentalist Islam is joining the Gadarene herd. Two years ago the 'Voice of Islam' opened a new station in Iran, with 10 strong transmitters.
Apparently, nobody thought to tell these whales of international broadcasting, or the minnows for that matter, that shortwave radio was a thing of the past.
An international broadcaster who has reported all this to colleagues in the BBC, the Voice of America and Radio Netherlands says the reaction of each of these international broadcasters has been one of frank incredulity. They just couldn't believe it.
The running down of Radio Australia must have convinced millions of listeners in Asia that the government has lost interest in the region.
One irony of the gutting of RA is that it comes at a time when in other ways Radio Australia has entered the age of globalisation.
It is taking advantage of new methods of delivery. RA's programs in English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Khmer are also broadcast via Indonesia's Palapa C1satellite, which has a footprint reaching from India in the west to Mongolia in the north and Western Samoa in the east.
Satellite transmission is also enabling RA's signal to be heard by listeners to one station in Jakarta and another in Phnom Penh as well as subscribers to more than 20 cable services in six countries in Europe, to 14 cable services in the United States, and 35 AM and FM radio stations in Canada.
National broadcasters in seven Pacific countries have built satellite dishes so they can relay or rebroadcast a signal of FM quality.
RA put its English language news on the Internet two years ago, and the number of people using the service worldwide has been growing at a huge rate, reaching several hundred thousand hits each month.
A member of the Howard government said to me the other day that he thought the gutting of Radio Australia was one of the government's worst mistakes. We can only hope that more members of the present government, or a future government, wake up to this, and do something to restore what a former ABC chairman, Sir James Darling, used to refer to as the jewel in the crown of the ABC - Radio Australia.
Dr Errol Hodge is Head of Journalism at Monash University and former editor of Radio Australia.