All of that messy reality is why the Labor Party’s plan to leverage the ABC to be the voice of Australia overseas will be a nice thing, but isn’t likely to move the markers in terms of engagement and diplomacy in the Pacific.
The Pacific doesn’t need Australia explained to us. We’ve had a gutful of #Ausplaining already. It’s a bit like that boyfriend who’s actually pretty nice when it suits him, but won’t shut up reminding us how thoughtful he is long enough to ask what we actually want for supper.
And like that obnoxiously nice boyfriend, an expanded and amplified ABC runs a very real risk of discounting and even drowning out actual Pacific reporting.
No aspect of democracy or society is entirely zero-sum, but Pacific island countries do often suffer from having very small sums to work with.
So a publicly funded media behemoth with millions of dollars in its pocket is going to suck up a lot of the oxygen that local media outlets need to survive.
Independent media is something every Pacific island country needs more of.
One of the areas where China has made significant soft-power advances is in indulging elite contempt for a free media, transparency and accountability. That’s not something that the ABC has had much success challenging in the past, despite their best efforts.
The ABC’s coverage of Pacific stories works best when they provide cover for their local colleagues. We often ‘launder’ stories that would be too sensitive to break locally, and then approach local muckety-mucks for comment when the story breaks overseas.
But that only works for stories that are of interest to an Australian audience. I don’t know how many times I’ve pitched a hot story to overseas media, only to be told that it’s not important enough to merit coverage.
If our media professionals are being trained and paid to cover stories that are chosen by Australian editors with an eye on the Australian audience, then who is going to be telling the local stories that matter so much to us?
Despite the ABC’s much-improved coverage of regional and national issues in the Pacific, it does not cover a raft of local stories that are critically important to Pacific islanders trying to get from one day to the next.
It wasn’t always this way. The Australian government used to invest in helping the Pacific tells its own stories, to its own people. One such investment that I had the pleasure of supporting and working for (bias alert!) was the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, or PiPP, as we called it.
Among its many undertakings, PiPP ran a series of town hall events for MPs in the run-up to the 2012 election. The photo at the top of this issue is of my mate and then-Communications Director Ben Bohane standing cheek by jowl with camera operators from the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation.
They were covering the first-ever national town hall session featuring then Prime Minister Sato Kilman and Opposition Leader Serge Vohor. For many Ni Vanuatu, this was the first time they’d ever had a chance to directly interact with their national leaders.
It was a bit like… Q&A. In Port Vila.
But shortly after PiPP announced that its annual Pacific Debate (another first for the region) would be on the topic of refugees, the organisation was de-funded by a Rudd government nervous about being seen as soft on illegal immigrants.
Supporting independent media that is by and for Pacific islanders cannot be done by giving money to the ABC. Nor can our media institutions necessarily be built from other people’s money. Not if there are strings attached.
Our news media have suffered setback upon setback. The Pacific is hardly the most dangerous beat in the world, but it is one of the hardest to cover. It costs more, morally and monetarily, than most others, and despite decades of workshops and other training efforts, the media corps remains small, fragile and riven by political interference.
We’ve been trying lately to find ways to save this dying creature. And to its credit, DFAT-funded ABC International Development has been one of the key innovators, turning its training programmes around so that they’re focused directly on generating more, better reporting that speaks with Pacific voices.
I was privileged to be part of this effort, and one of my collaborations with colleagues from across the region has pride of place in my portfolio. This omnibus edition of Islands Business magazine provided comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 in the Pacific, exploring the theme through the eyes reporters across the region.