SYDNEY - A move to broadcast Australian commercial television, including Neighbours, Border Security and Masterchef in Pacific nations could be counterproductive in promoting Australia’s relationship with the region, an expert media group has warned.
The new PacificAus TV program will allow Australian content to be aired free of charge by broadcasters in seven Pacific nations, at a cost of $17.1m, in a move seen as an attempt to combat Chinese influence in the Pacific region.
Thousands of hours of lifestyle, news, drama and sport will be played on local free-to-air TV networks in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji and the initiative will be expanded to Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru over the coming months.
Announcing the initiative on Monday, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said: “Having the opportunity to watch the same stories on our screens will only deepen the connection with our Pacific family.”
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said it was a chance for local productions to grab a bigger audience.
“Our close neighbours across the Pacific can now enjoy more Australian television content,” he said.
Jemima Garrett, co-convenor of the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative and former Pacific correspondent for the ABC, said the initiative was a welcome recognition that Australia should have a broadcasting voice in the Pacific, but it needed additional programs to be fit for purpose.
“Australia needs to talk ‘with’ not ‘to’ our region and include the rich diversity of Australian voices and voices from the region,” Garrett said.
“Watching rich, white people renovate their homes will not ‘deepen the connection’ with the Pacific or overcome perceptions that Australia can be paternalistic. Nor will providing Border Security in a region in which visa access is a sore point.”
Garrett said that to be effective, Australian broadcasting in the Pacific region should provide content that directly addressed the needs of the region.
“If the PacificAus TV initiative is about building relationships, then co-productions made by Australian and Pacific media companies working together are the way to go,” Garrett said.
“If Australia wants to distinguish its approach from that of expanding Chinese state-owned broadcasters it needs to engage with the region in real partnerships.”
The announcement has been welcomed by some broadcasters across the Pacific, but also received criticism from some journalists and Pacific analysts.
Shailendra Singh, head of the journalism program at the University of South Pacific in Fiji, said the reaction to the news in Fiji had been “lukewarm”.
“Money certainly would have been put to better use developing local content,” he said. “Even if the strategy meets Australia’s geopolitical needs, does it meet the needs of Pacific Islanders? Is Australia putting its needs ahead of the Pacific? These are some of the questions that people are asking.”
Dan McGarry, the former media director at the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper, wrote that the announcement seemed “silly, seen from here”.
“Pacific islanders want news, they want weather updates, especially during cyclone season. But language and cultural differences make shows like Neighbours irrelevant to most islanders. Entertainment wasn’t what we asked for (except for The Voice – everyone loves that).”
China has increased its diplomatic presence in the Pacific in recent years, leading to two countries – Kiribati and Solomon Islands – switching diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China last year.
Last year China’s state-owned broadcaster took over the frequencies left idle when ABC’s Radio Australia ceased shortwave transmission in the region in 2017.
In 2014 the Coalition government closed the Australia Network, the ABC’s international service, which had broadcast TV to 46 countries in Asia and the Pacific.