Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop has raised the Pacific region’s “concerns” about the ABC’s planned abolition of Radio Australia’s shortwave service with the national broadcaster and will “seek an update in the New Year”.
A chorus of criticism from the Pacific greeted the decision to pull the plug on the almost eight decades of broadcasting on January 31, with warnings it would deprive the region of “life saving” information.
Radio Australia shortwave reaches parts of the Pacific lacking FM radio or the internet, from the isolated Papua New Guinea Highlands to remote atolls, and is especially valued during natural disasters and political upheavals.
News of the end of ABC shortwave came a week before the foreign minister called for public submissions on a new Australian foreign policy White Paper due mid-next year - the first in 13 years - to be complemented by a ‘Pacific Strategy’ being developed by DFAT.
“I am aware of concerns regarding more remote parts of the Pacific where alternative services may not be readily available,” Ms Bishop said in a statement to SBS.
“These concerns have been shared with the ABC and the Australian Government will seek an update in the New Year.”
The ABC in a statement said, “the Foreign Minister’s office were fully briefed on this strategy and the changes before they were announced”.
“Consultation between the Government and the ABC is ongoing. However the Government has accepted the rationale for the decision.
“DFAT has been very supportive of this decision and the strategy behind it.”
Ms Bishop was in the Solomon Islands on a Pacific regional trip with three other Australian senators when the ABC made the announcement earlier this month.
As she departed for the trip, also taking in Samoa and Vanuatu, the foreign minister tweeted a video of herself stating, “The pacific (sic), our neighbourhood, our priority”.
The ABC announced the end to its shortwave service, including in the Northern Territory, was “in line with the national broadcaster’s commitment to dispense with outdated technology and to expand its digital content offerings including DAB+ digital radio, online and mobile services, together with FM services for international audiences.”
“An ever-growing number of people in the region now have access to mobile phones with FM receivers and the ABC will redirect funds towards an extended content offering and a robust FM distribution network to better serve audiences into the future,” said head of ABC International Lynley Marshall, who will oversee the last shortwave transmission before she leaves the national broadcaster in February.
ABC director of radio Michael Mason added, “while shortwave technology has served audiences well for many decades, it is now nearly a century old and serves a very limited audience”.
FM radio in the Pacific is limited to some urban areas and access to internet streaming is beset by poor coverage, low bandwidth and the high data costs for some of the poorest countries in the world.
“Nobody in Sydney listens to shortwave!”
Shortwave radio signals bounce off the Earth’s upper atmosphere giving it an over-the-horizon range but FM is a “line-of-sight” frequency with the transmitter, severely limiting its footprint by comparison.
Former ABC Asia-Pacific correspondent and Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) fellow Graeme Dobell has described the decision as “dumb - another bout of recurring Oz amnesia about its South Pacific role, responsibilities and history”.
He said it was not an “evidence-based policy” after the ABC responded to his enquiries about Pacific shortwave audience numbers saying, “while there are no firm figures on audiences numbers in these regions, they are understood to be low … This level of data is not available”.
The ABC confirmed it had no “data” but said it “consulted with key stakeholders in the region and underwent a test switch off period to gauge impact”.
Legendary former ABC Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney backed Mr Dobell's position, criticising senior management's position of “nobody in Sydney listens to shortwave!”.
“It reveals how little we understand the Pacific and Radio Australia has been slaughtered by management for no reason since the ABC lost the Australia Network international television service contract from DFAT two years ago.”
Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat has reported the ABC will save about $2.8m after shortwave ends.
“We have not stated publicly the size of the savings. We have not publicly stated the size of the reinvestment,” the ABC said in a statement.
Lead researcher of the Lowy Institute’s Melanesian program Jonathan Pryke has described the ABC move as “understandable” but “disappointing that such a decision needs to be made at all”.
“I have a lot of sympathy with the ABC's position. Given the budgetary limitations facing the ABC’s international broadcasting services, it’s fair to argue that resources should be focused on the FM and digital services that have the most market penetration.
“It’s particularly hard to reconcile the cuts when you put $2.8 million into context.
“Our government is sending over $1.1 billion to the Pacific in 2016/17 alone. We have more than $20 billion invested in the region. Compared to those numbers, the cost of maintaining the ABC’s shortwave presence is a rounding error.”
Ms Bishop said the Australian government is “consulting with Pacific counterparts on how we can strengthen our work across a range of common challenges not limited to this issue”.
“The ABC has advised this change allows for significant reinvestment of around $1.9 million in expanded content and services, including improved FM broadcasting capabilities, and an increase in ABC staff who focus on the Pacific,” she said.
A position for a senior producer based in Melbourne for Radio Australia’s Pacific service has just been advertised.
The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), the regional body representing news organisations, is unconvinced and has called for shortwave to be retained.
“While PINA appreciates the Australian Government’s plan to redirect savings from the closure of the shortwave radio service into media and journalism in the Pacific, it is of the strong view that Australia will lose one of its strong connections with the Pacific, through Radio Australia,” said PINA President Moses Stevens.
The Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF), a regional media advocacy NGO based in the Cook Islands, described the move by the ABC as a “slap in the face” to its neighbours.
“It's clear that no thought was given to the link between disaster communications and this service, or even the fact that FM is largely unreliable in bad weather and only available in urban areas,” said American Samoa-based PFF chair Monica Miller.
"There seems to be no logic or connection with realities facing Pacific listeners and audiences across the region who will be effectively be cut off from news, information, and life saving information during disasters.”
The Pacific has in the past two years been hit by two Category Five tropical cyclones, in Vanuatu and Fiji, the first of this strength on record.
This month PNG and the Solomon Islands were shaken by strong earthquakes registering almost 8 on the Richter scale.
Tongan academic and politician Sitiveni Halapua told Radio New Zealand International, which has also wound back its shortwave service, modern technology will not replace the vacuum created by the ABC.
"We talk about social media, internet and other forms of modern technology, of communication, but in fact most of these, if not all, are not available, not accessible to the outer islands,” he said.
“Radio remains the number one so I think and I believe it is not really good news.”