Australian report on international broadcasting and its contribution to public diplomacy

imageDespite the dozens of reports on U.S. public diplomacy, it is actually quite rare to see an in-depth study on public diplomacy, particularly in the areas of government broadcasting. The “too many” reports have often focused on specific cogs without regard to their place in the greater bureaucratic machine that spans the whole of whatever government the agency happens to be in. Even more rare is an in-depth public analysis of the public diplomacy of another country by another country. This week, an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, published such a report.

This report, International broadcasting and its contribution to public diplomacy by Annmaree O'Keeffe and Alex Oliver, is focused on the argument Australia’s government broadcasting needs to be taken seriously and properly funded. In supporting this argument, the authors smartly look at how broadcasting fits into the whole of government public diplomacy efforts as well as examines the activities of peer countries.

The overview of these other countries is valuable. Al Jazeera’s English operation is configured to “follow the sun” with four media centers around the world. China’s CCTV reaches 140 countries with television broadcasting expanding from one to six channels in the last ten years, four of them in the last three years.

The authors note that NHK in Japan has all-but global coverage: domestic broadcast is prohibited, like the U.S. "This is increasingly seen as an empty measure (as for the USA),” the authors write, “since much of the international broadcaster’s programming can be viewed by domestic Japanese audiences via the internet.”

The authors argue the broadcasting is cost effective, noting the cost to reach an estimated 7 million visitors to the Australia pavilion at the Shanghai Expo will be around $13 and compares this to $2.75 to $4.20 “per audience head” for Australia Network and Radio Australia, respectively. Of course the type of contact is different. The report describes the broadcast mediums as providing sustained engagement that can lead to better understanding.

The drawback of the report is its emphasis is on broadcasting rather than engagement. This medium-specific approach limits the utility of the advice as it reinforces media segregation when information consumption is increasingly platform-independent. The authors do mention “new media” and “social media” once (each) in single paragraphs on “alternative delivery mechanisms” and that “[m]ost broadcasters see their multimedia and new media offerings as one of their key priorities this decade, and treat their online presence as an integrated part of a comprehensive multimedia strategy.” This is, in my opinion, in adequate appreciation of the multiple mediums available in different markets and demographics.

That said, the report is required reading for anyone interested in international broadcasting. The authors conclude with advice any government with skin in the game should heed:

As a central component of that public diplomacy effort, international broadcasting has the potential to play a significant role in advancing Australia’s national interests. The debate about international broadcasting is not about protecting fiefdoms, but about the much broader question of how to manage and resource Australia’s public diplomacy and its powerful tools. Unless the Australian government addresses this, it runs the risk of shackling a valuable contributor to Australia’s foreign policy goals.

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