Perhaps the most telling exchange on this week’s Q&A broadcast from Suva came right at the end. Alex Hawke (Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific) congratulated the ABC on its first Pacific broadcast and said, “more of the ABC in the Pacific, I say”. Without missing a beat, host Tony Jones responded, “Give us the funds and we’ll be back”.
Make no bones about it, having Q&A broadcast from the Pacific is a welcome achievement. And it has been a long time coming. I have been personally lobbying for this since 2012 and I have not been alone. It was a good program that gave Australian audiences a much-needed opportunity to hear from a range of Pacific island people about issues that matter to and for them. And the efforts made to broadcast it across the region, including on the radio gave Pacific audiences an opportunity to be part of it all.
But one edition of Q&A does not a Pacific broadcasting strategy make, let alone a regional conversation. This week’s program touched on only a few of the issues that are discussed in kava bars in Port Vila, around betel nut stalls in Honiara and in coffee shops and conference rooms right across the region. One notable exception from the conversation was the threats to media freedom that beset Pacific journalists: this was covered in Media Watchthat preceded the Q&A broadcast on Monday.
The question of ‘what next’ is one that needs to be asked of the ABC, the Australian media more generally, and of the Australian government. The exchange between Hawke and Jones is illustrative of how the crucial issue of where broadcasting sits (or should sit) in the Pacific ‘Step up’ is yet to be resolved.
From the barest mention of broadcasting in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper to the disappointing narrowness of focus of the recent Asia Pacific Broadcasting Review, we have yet to see any meaningful political commitment to ensuring that Australia retains or even regains a place in regional conversations.
The announcement at the beginning of this year of $17.1 million dollars to supply TV content to Pacific broadcasters was never what was needed or wanted. Entrusting this to Free TV was always a flawed approach. Not only did they not ask for this largesse, but the initiative specifically excludes content produced by those broadcasters whose expertise make them most suitable for work of this type. SBS and the ABC have established profiles in covering Pacific issues, especially when it comes to news and current affairs. They are home to the journalists who retain the largest amount of Australian expertise in working in the region, where their work is regarded way more highly than might be the case back home. NITV has much to offer in terms of content that is culturally relevant, especially when it comes to children’s programming. But this is not part of the Free TV offering so will not make its way to the Pacific even though it is a crucial gap crying out to be filled. Nearly a year on from this announcement there is little to indicate that any of this money has been spent.
Tony Jones is right to raise the issue of funding to the ABC. There is no doubt that the ability of that organisation to deliver on its charter obligations to broadcast to the region is significantly constrained by the overall funding environment. The day after we heard from the new Chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, about how important Pacific broadcasting is we were given a serious dose of reality by the Managing Director, David Anderson, who signposted cuts to programming and job losses.
The mixed messages we get from the ABC do not end there. Whilst we have seen some very welcome initiatives, such as the return of Pacific Break, it is still not clear that there is an overarching strategy at play. Given the importance of radio as a medium in the region, we should expect to see Radio Australia being given greater prominence (and associated resourcing) but this does not seem to be the case, a celebration of 80 years of international broadcasting notwithstanding. Most recently, moves to co-locate all news radio broadcasting in Sydney as part of an audio centre of excellence appear to be progressing with insufficient attention being paid to ensuring that specifically Pacific news is a key part of the offering. For a reason it is not possible to fathom, the ABC’s bespoke programm Pacific Beat does not appear in podcast form on the ‘Listen’ app.
The take away from the Pacific Q&A event should be this: There were great Pacific stories before Q&A came along. They’ll still be there even if it never comes back. People across Australia and throughout the Pacific deserve to know more about each other. They need to know more about each other right now. The more we know and understand each other, the more we can work together to face the shared challenges ahead.
Tess Newton Cain is a member of the Supporters of Asia Pacific Broadcasting to the Pacific and Chair of the Melanesia Media Freedom Group and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute.