Australia unleashes ‘Neighbours’ to counter China influence

Australia will beam Neighbours, MasterChef and other popular television shows into seven Pacific island nations in a soft power push designed to counteract Chinese influence in a region Canberra considers its own backyard.

The decision represents a change of heart for the Liberal-National coalition over using media and “soft diplomacy” to expand its international influence. In 2014, it terminated funding for the international broadcasting contract of state broadcaster ABC.

The announcement came as diplomatic relations with China have sunk to their lowest level in a generation over Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Beijing said it would implement punitive trade sanctions on some agricultural goods.

From this week, up to 1,000 hours of Australian commercial programming will be made available free of charge to Pacific broadcasters in seven countries, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, under a three-year scheme costing Canberra A$17m ($11m).

The programming includes current affairs show 60 Minutes and several reality TV shows such as Border Security, a programme that takes viewers behind the scenes of the nation’s hardline customs and immigration policies.

“Having the opportunity to watch the same stories on our screens will only deepen the connection with our Pacific family,” said Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, on Monday.

Australia and other western nations are stepping up their diplomatic presence in the Pacific in response to Beijing’s soft power diplomacy in a poor region that provides votes at the UN and is a vital source of natural resources.

Jonathan Pryke, an analyst at Lowy Institute, a think-tank, said: “Canberra has become increasingly alarmed at the growing Chinese influence across the Pacific, which includes a growing media interest in a region that it considers strategically critical and in its immediate neighbourhood.”

During “culture wars” between conservatives and progressives, the government imposed swingeing budget cuts on the ABC, which reduced Australian programming output and coverage in the Pacific at a time when Chinese media were expanding their presence.

In 2014 the Liberal-National coalition withdrew funding for the ABC’s Australian Network, a 10-year international contract worth almost A$200m to beam Australian programming to 46 nations across the Pacific and Asia.

In 2018 the ABC cited budget pressures as one of the reasons it ceased short-wave radio broadcasting to the Pacific — a decision that enabled China Radio International to take over some of those frequencies.

Beijing has introduced study tours for Pacific journalists and expanded state-owned news media coverage throughout the region. In Australia, it has paid for supplements published in local newspapers that are penned by the China Daily, the Chinese Communist party’s English-language mouthpiece.

Jemima Garrett, a former journalist and co-convener of Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific, said the government rethink on media was welcome but questioned whether beaming commercial shows into the Pacific would have much impact.

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“I’m not sure TV programmes depicting rich white people renovating their homes in Australia is going to grow the relationship,” she said. “We need to co-produce programmes with broadcasters in the Pacific and make more bespoke programming for a Pacific audience.”

Free TV Australia, an industry group that represents commercial broadcasters, said Pacific broadcast partners were fully consulted on the Australian content that they felt would best suit their audiences.

“The government scheme aims to make available content that best reflects Australian culture and values and shows like Neighbours certainly do that,” said Bridget Fair, chief executive of Free TV Australia.