By axing Australia Network, Abbott's lost sight of the big picture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:48am

International broadcasting can be a cost-effective way for a nation to win friends and influence people - or exercise soft power. This raises questions about Canberra's decision to shut the Australia Network, while China, Japan, France and Germany have expanded their Pacific services in recent years. It came as the Australian Broadcasting Commission was set to sign a deal with the Shanghai Media Group giving the Australia Network extensive access to Chinese audiences. This would have provided priceless opportunities for presenting a positive image that would have benefited Australian interests. The Australia Network is also a forum for regional interaction that helps reduce the potential for misunderstanding and suspicion arising from China's rapid economic rise and Australia's tough policies against Asian asylum seekers. It is unclear whether another TV station or digital service will replace it, amid fears for editorial independence.

The network is a victim of cuts in the first budget of the new conservative Liberal-National Party government. There is a political context. The previous Labor government had overturned the result of a bidding process that gave the lucrative contract to Sky News, part-owned by Rupert Murdoch, and left it with the ABC, perceived as more sympathetic to Labor. And Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused the ABC of being unpatriotic in airing revelations by Edward Snowden of Australian eavesdropping on Indonesian leaders' phone calls.

Such criticism ignores the basis of the network's credibility - editorial independence that evokes freedom of expression, core values shared with Hong Kong. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has claimed the network is failing as a tool of public diplomacy. Since Australia's relations with China are paramount, ABC executives had hoped the Chinese deal would save the network from the axe. Instead the government has given up a potent instrument of soft diplomacy and sent the wrong message around the region where its future lies. This may prove a short-sighted way to settle political scores.