ABC boss Lynley Marshall defends overseas broadcasting

Lynley Marshall. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Lynley Marshall. Photo: Glenn Hunt

The chief for the ABC broadcasting into the Asia Pacific insists the taxpayer funded network has a growing audience with better programs on the way - despite reports the service is for the chop in the May budget.

ABC International boss Lynley Marshall stoutly defended overseasbroadcasts as a way of promoting Australia, saying the spread of social media and mobile devices in Asia has vastly extended the potential audience.

She told a Melbourne audience on Monday evening the service had morethan 1 million supporters on its Facebook page for learning theEnglish language.

"Imagine if we converted just 10 per cent of that number to come and study in Australia," Ms Marshall said, adding the ABC had struck partnerships with local websites to extent its reach.

"So when people comment on our services and say we've only got a tiny audience, or only expats, it is because they are not understanding the strategy.''

But she conceded the troubled Australia Network television channel, run by the ABC on a government contract, has been guilty of presenting a "hodgepodge" of programs.

The goal of the network is to promote Australia's image in the region,in a manner similar to the BBC World Service or the US Voice of America.

Commercial programs, such as Home and Away, are broadcast alongside ABC News bulletins and football matches but the programming has been panned as dull and repetitive.

Ms Marshall said despite some media reports, the Foreign Affairs department was positive about a new strategy hammered out for the network in July and the ABC was "hopeful and confident" there would be time to demonstrate results.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's office had assured the ABC no decision had yet been taken on the future for the Australia Network, Ms Marshall said.

A report in The Australian newspaper this month stated the Abbott government intended to scrap the service, unhappy with the cost and programming.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer has also been a vocal critical of Australia Network, which presents a mix of news, sport, lifestyle and light entertainment programs to more than 40 countries.

Ms Marshall said in a speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs on Monday that improving the content of a television station took time, and commissioning and producing fresh programs had been held up during a protracted battle for the rights to run Australia Network.

The Gillard government put the service out to tender in 2011 but was heavily criticised for intervening in the process after an independent panel recommended Australia Network be awarded to Sky News.

The ABC was then awarded permanent rights to run the network.

Ms Marshall said the embassies from each of the countries where Australia Network is presented had been involved in the drawing up the new strategy.

The ABC has been criticised by Coalition figures for broadcasting stories on Australia Network that have caused government embarrassment, including details of leaked documents revealing Australia spying in Indonesia.

But Ms Marshall said why there was a "natural tension" inherent in international broadcasting, a free and independent media was a cornerstone of any democracy and a value Australia cherished.

She said the 3.3 billion mobile subscribers in Asia offered an enormous potential audience and other nations, including China, had boosting their international offerings.

She said a trial of a service targeting expatriate Australians was being run in Hong Kong.

This story ABC boss Lynley Marshall defends overseas broadcasting first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.