Coalition’s $17.1m Pacific broadcasting plan was not ‘sought out’ by commercial networks | Media

The Morrison government is set to hand $17.1m to the commercial networks to provide TV programming to Pacific nations but the TV industry says it did not seek the funds and does not know what content to provide.

Last week the prime minister announced the surprise deal while on an official tour of the Pacific but very few details were revealed.

“We’re also announcing the Australian government, in partnership with FreeTV Australia, will commit some $17.1m to provide 1,000 hours of new Australian television content each year for three years to Pacific broadcasters across the region,” Morrison said in Fiji. “That would include opportunities obviously here in Fiji.”

It was the first injection of funds for soft diplomacy in the Pacific since 2014, when the Coalition axed the ABC’s $220m, 10-year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to run the Australia Network.

The FreeTV Australia chief executive, Bridget Fair, said the government approached the industry last year and it was not something they “sought out”.

“I don’t think there is any benefit to the industry in providing the content to the Pacific,” Fair told Guardian Australia. “No commercial networks are building partnerships in the Pacific. We’ve been approached by the PM and we are more than happy to help out.”

Fair said the discussions were “embryonic” and the networks would have to survey the Pacific nations to find out what type of Australian content the local broadcasters would like. She said they were waiting for the government to provide more detail before doing a survey.

The deal has been criticised by supporters of Australian broadcasting in the Pacific, who believe the public broadcasters are far better placed to provide soft diplomacy in the region.

The former head of the Australia Network, Bruce Dover, said the policy did not meet the needs of the Pacific and was effectively a taxpayer subsidy to commercial TV in the lead-up to the election.

“Will episodes of Home and Away, given for free, change lives in the region?” Dover said.

“Content produced by members of FreeTV Australia for Australian audiences is likely to be of little relevance to the people of the region. It’s bad policy, it smacks of white colonialism.

“The announcement makes a mockery of recent government reviews of soft power and Australian broadcasting in the Asia Pacific, both of which are yet to report and make recommendations.”

The former Australia Network journalist Jemima Garrett said the people of the Pacific and their leaders made it clear in submissions to recent government reviews they needed quality public interest journalism and shortwave radio.

Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas, told the review of Australian broadcasting services in the Asia Pacific: “My government hopes that as a result of this review the ABC is supported to begin anew the process of re-engaging with audiences across Vanuatu via shortwave radio services and other co-operative broadcasting endeavours.”

In November, FreeTV, which represents channels Seven, Nine and Ten, said it had entered discussions with the government “to deliver premium Australian content to the Pacific region” and the initiative would “showcase the best and most popular Australian content”.

Australia’s commercial television networks invest over $1.6bn annually in great Australian content and deliver the most popular and well-loved programs on television,” Fair said last year.

“More importantly, our drama, children’s entertainment, news and sports programs reflect our Australian community and our values. We are excited to be able to share the best of Australian programming with our Pacific neighbours.”

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