Australia is not part of the Pacific conversation

The Daily Post sent a submission to the Australian Government review of Asia Pacific broadcast media. This is an edited version of the submission. Some material has been removed because it’s redundant in a local context, and some content has been expanded.

As many others have suggested, broadcast communications is an essential component in the projection of soft power. The lack of access to the eyes and ears—and therefore the hearts and minds—of Pacific islanders works to the detriment of Australian interests.

It also works against the interest of Pacific nations.

The need to recognise and respect agency

Too often, the strategic dynamic in the Pacific is portrayed as a tug of war with Asian powers on one side, and the Australia/NZ/USA alliance on the other. The agency of Pacific island nations themselves is conveniently overlooked. This is not only patronising and parochial, it is a costly blunder, a wilful decision based on an historically inaccurate assessment of the Pacific peoples.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the reason why China has made such strides of late, through its insistence on treating Pacific island heads of government with the same deference and respect as it accords any other world leader.

In this part of the world, politics is personal. Policy is driven by personality. Individual attitudes and abilities are inescapably linked to decisions which can in many—if not most—cases have a decisive effect on the success of endeavours on the ground.

Trust is established only slowly in the islands. Our storied friendliness is hardly a pretence, of course, but it’s only the first of many layers of interaction. Those who fail to penetrate it are doomed to frustration and failure to get traction in their efforts.

As the old joke has it, the day an Irishman tells you to commit unspeakable acts on your own person is the day you know you’ve made a friend for life. The same can be said for many cultures in the Pacific. A rank of smiling, friendly faces should never be construed as agreement or even acquiescence. If anything, it’s a sign they don’t trust you enough to dislike you.

Australia’s ignorance extends far beyond its diplomats’ ability to read the temperature of the room. A general lack of interest and understanding of why Australians should care about the Pacific results in a self-perpetuating cycle of neglect.

 Viewers and listeners don’t care about the Pacific because they see very little programming originating from there. Editors and producers won’t commission stories from the Pacific because viewers don’t care. Politicians don’t rise or fall on their Pacific foreign policy stance because voters know nothing—and care little—about its importance.

Pacific leaders, too often ignored, belittled, or even subjected to baseless ridicule, know when they’re not wanted. And Australians may not know they know. Our smiles may only broaden.

Why not live as peers?

The case for understanding is of course predicated on the argument that Pacific lives are every bit as valuable, every bit as rich, and every bit as important as Australian lives. Australia—largely through the ABC—built much of its identity from the rural areas that still comprise the bulk of its land mass. In the early days of broadcasting, the explicit purpose of the service was to reach even the remotest communities, and to tie those communities together.

A corollary: the legitimacy of Aboriginal culture, perspective, philosophies and even Aboriginal lives was denigrated in large part through its absence on the airwaves and therefore in the public dialogue. These problems persist today, although broadcast media have done much to redress this tragic imbalance.

In terms of Australia’s place in the Pacific, however, little or no progress has been made.

Forgive the impudence, but to say less than this would be dishonest:

It is difficult to convey just how blind and condescending the average Australian looks the first time they set foot in the Pacific islands. The process of understanding even the most basic issues is one that takes months, years, and sadly sometimes decades. The cost of this parochialism cannot be overstated. It affects every aspect of every interaction.

It may not be evident to them—that’s our point—but Pacific islanders with few exceptions find themselves making an unconscious, reflexive adjustment when dealing with Australians. Islanders try to take in stride their ignorance of social mores, of cultural taboos, of visual and verbal cues, of even the most basic elements of interaction.

Despite the linguistic commonalities our education systems inculcate into us, we are separated by a gulf.

This affects lives, it affects development spending, and it impairs Australia’s ability to assure the friendship and support of its nearest neighbours.

It affects, in ways that are difficult to convey and impossible to overvalue, Australia’s security in the region.

The ‘Chinese Bases’

Australian media still insist on repeating the false claim that the government of Vanuatu was in the early stages of negotiating a Chinese military base. The original report was filed before even a single Vanuatu official was contacted.

It was false.

In the weeks following, the story was walked back. The base became a permanent military presence, and then it wasn’t so much as a sure thing, but there was ‘some truth to that’.

It was false.

Australia has effectively shot itself in the foot, diplomatically and strategically, because its media won’t deign to actually talk to local officials. Without any evidence to support the conclusion, they simply assume they’re untrustworthy. The truth is more difficult: Some are trustworthy; some aren’t.

It’s a journalist’s job to figure out which is which.

But ignorance breeds ignorance, and perpetuates itself. Pacific islanders can only watch, bemused by this blindness.

This is but one glaring example among many. The point of this submission is not to engage in a litany of complaint; rather it is to underline the value that media can provide in building context and understanding.

Australian media does help

Broadcasting in the Pacific and reporting on the Pacific is expensive and time-consuming. Nobody knows this better than we do.

Even the most dauntless and determined media organisation faces systemic constraints and sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Primary sources are few. An intrepid Australian investigative reporter might be able to wrangle a string of scoops out of government records searches in Australia. In most Pacific countries, those documents often don’t exist.

Confronting corporate malfeasance or government corruption, the bread and butter of political journalism in Australia, requires vastly more legwork here, and incurs significant risk. The example of the Fiji Times is just the most recent and noteworthy.

Often in the past, Australian media services agreed to take the brunt of a government’s opprobrium by front-running a story provided to them by a Pacific source. This allows the domestic service the cover of simply reporting what everyone else is talking about.

During the now-infamous Presidential pardons debacle, Vanuatu media ensured the ABC’s presence in a key press conference so that the reporter could ask the awkward questions that might have gotten a local journalist beaten up, or worse.

Logistical concerns

Just getting to the story can be a trial, too. Travel is often costly and slow. Adding the price of a plane ticket to and from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane can be prohibitive. Happily, some of us are sitting on this side of the water already.

The flow of information to and from the island of Ambae right now is a trickle at best. Lack of communications and up-to-date information is hamstringing not only operations on the ground, but the government’s decision-making and service delivery.

In non-disaster situations poor communications and difficult logistics still hamper the news media. There are, for example, still no photographs available of a civil disturbance on the island of Tanna in which one man had several fingers hacked off with a bush knife, and which resulted in seven arrests.

Our inability to shine a light on such matters makes it difficult for us as a society to come to grips with this violence, and to address the underlying issues. The plain truth is that our market size means the cost of reporting in the islands is often out of reach.

The difficulty of showing the world what’s happening to the island of Ambae is exacerbated by the lack of engagement and assistance from our regional partners.

Sharing costs

In the past week, we’ve received an offer to share expenses with an Australian broadcaster in order to send someone to report in person. This came as a pragmatic response to decisions made not to send an Australian reporter to cover the story, presumably because of the excuse that it’s hard, and the domestic audience don’t want to see it.

The same rationale was provided for the Australian media’s failure early on to cover the massive earthquake in Papua New Guinea’s Hela province, and countless other cases. Nevertheless, they persevered… in providing hourly live updates during the rescue of a group of Thai boys trapped in a cave.

No one questions the value or importance of that story. It’s a compelling example of heroism and endurance. The point is that there are more than a few of those stories happening right now, in Ambae, in PNG… in fact, everywhere in the Pacific.

Cost concerns can be addressed. If we only had a fraction of the funds and technical capacity available to Australian media, Pacific island journalists could surely find a way to feed material directly the Australian studios.

We may be few in number, but we are not utterly unskilled. There is a vast, untapped potential for improvement in Australia’s reporting on the Pacific—and improving how the Pacific reports on itself—if only Australian broadcasters were willing to formally partner with their island counterparts.

The benefits of improved information flows would be quite literally incalculable. Let’s ignore for a moment the strategic value of allowing Australian officials to have an idea of who’s on the other end of the telephone line, and how to speak their language. Merely broadening the cultural sphere is a net gain.

It works in both directions. Access to Australian media in the islands improves our understanding and makes it easier to defend such basic concepts as democracy, doing business and respect for individual rights.

And Australian access to island media sources could work wonders in improving their approaches to decision-making, peaceful coexistence, diversity and tolerance.

Trust us. It would be a Good Thing.

Communicating in times of crisis

Infrastructure matters in times of crisis. And for reasons that quickly become obvious, we simply cannot rely solely on what’s within our own borders.

Short-wave, HF and other radio frequencies are essential when disasters strike. And domestic SW/HF capacity is not sufficient. We need what technical operations people call geographic diversity.

When cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis hit, offshore SW and HF facilities are critically important. In the 48 hours after the passing of cyclone Pam, over 90% of the nation’s domestic communications capacity was offline due to storm damage. On some islands, emergency assessment teams were reduced to dropping satellite phones from helicopters to people waiting on the ground. People in the northern told researchers they relied on Shortwave news broadcasts from Australia and elsewhere to receive critical information.


So what’s needed?

• Shortwave/HF infrastructure and an international presence similar to the BBC World Service.

• Formal cooperation agreements; pragmatic and workable cost- and content-sharing protocols that can be leveraged both on a programmatic and ad hoc basis.

• Dedicated space online, and time in broadcast media schedules. Again, this would be on a reciprocal basis.

• Investment by donor agencies in media and media-supportive infrastructure. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Internet capacity – cables, 4G transmission towers, urban and rural service availability.
  • Technical training opportunities, specifically apprenticeships, human resource exchanges, cooperative ventures and multilateral journalist-in-residence programmes for Pacific island and Australian journalists.
  • The subsidised technical assistance required to usefully leverage content-sharing agreements involving both content creation and consumption.
  • Equipment sharing/subsidisation. Broadcast facilities in small states are financially unviable, but when revenue potential spreads across larger audiences, they become at least conceivable. Shared or commonly-held facilities are a workable response to small audience numbers and limited revenues.

Every single one of these suggestions implies costs and commitments. The appeal of each of these is limited by existing attitudes and ignorance of the benefits. There are compelling reasons to focus on other priorities, simply because the value of this priority remains unknown.

In a nutshell, the only way to change our understanding of the value of engaging more actively in the Pacific is to… engage more actively and find out why it’s worth it.

You’ll never know unless you try. And what you don’t know is already hurting you.

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