Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Diplomacy in the post-broadcasting era

Wanning Sun, The Interpreter [Lowy Institute, Australia]

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The Department of Communications is now reviewing submissions on the issue of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia-Pacific region. This is timely. As always, communicating Australia’s views and voices to the Asia-Pacific region is important. And, more than ever before, finding effective pathways for accessing audiences in this region presents the utmost challenge.

It seems that the debate has so far focused on the role of the ABC. Implicit in this is the assumption that broadcast transmission will continue to be relevant as a means of content delivery.

Shortwave radio broadcasting is no longer a viable option. As early as 2010, I led a team that investigated the prevalence of shortwave radio listening in China, and found that the number of listeners there was negligible.

Shortwave is often subject to deliberate disruption by the censorship mechanisms of receiving countries. The signal is also increasingly disrupted by the battery-powered bikes that are now ubiquitous in urban spaces throughout Asian countries.

While public diplomacy [JB emphasis] through international broadcasting, such as the BBC, has been in operation for many decades, the broadcast transmission model – whether by satellite or terrestrial – is no longer viable. Public diplomacy in the digital era demands a very different suite of approaches from those of days gone by. The sooner we rid ourselves of a simple sender–receiver transmission model of communication and start to adopt a more flexible, agile, multi-platform, interactive, diffused model, the sooner we will begin to make progress in identifying suitable solutions to the challenges facing public diplomacy today.

There are two main reasons that demand such a paradigm shift, the first of which is technological. We have now truly entered the post-broadcasting era. While many locations in the Asia-Pacific region still do not have extensive internet coverage, the most populous Asian countries – India, Indonesia, China – are highly digitalised. Most people nowadays typically access audio (including radio) and visual (including TV) content via online platforms delivered to mobile devices. The future clearly lies in the effective online delivery of a wide variety of content in an assortment of different forms, including written-word content, podcasts, vodcasts, and digital radio/television.

The second reason that a new paradigm is needed is social. The size of Australia’s migrant population from the Asia-Pacific region has grown exponentially. Migrants now routinely and frequently travel between Australia and the Asia-Pacific for business and for pleasure. Moreover, the media consumption practices of these migrants have also changed. There is an unprecedented high level of interface and overlap between what these migrants consume in Australia and what people in their home countries consume.

One important implication of these developments is the potential of diasporic ethnic-language media to function as de facto instruments of public diplomacy on behalf of Australia. The Australia Government’s Public Diplomacy Strategy (2014–16) rightly points to the importance of “diaspora diplomacy”, by making active use of “online and social media as public diplomacy tools”. The latest Foreign Policy White Paper also reinforces this point.

In moving away from a transmission-based broadcasting model, we must also embrace something closer to narrowcasting, as the underlying philosophy of content development. This means that, while we will increasingly need to adopt a country-specific approach, we must also think about how to use multiple approaches, simultaneously, to target one particular country/region.

This may involve setting up digital platforms that can reach these destinations directly. Ideally, there should be a public service–led digital strategy, plus good offline support and localisation. It may also involve partnership with foreign media organisations – government, commercial, or independent. Finally, we must take concrete steps towards making good use of the diasporic language media in Australia.

For instance, China presents a most challenging case due to its censorship practices and a regulatory framework characterised by a suspicion and distrust of foreign media. At the same time, there is a vast and growing number of Chinese migrants in Australia, and a near-saturated uptake of the Chinese social media platform WeChat both in China itself and among PRC migrants all over the world.

It therefore seems logical for Australia to explore how to access Chinese audiences through such subscription accounts, particularly those that are used by diasporic Chinese. In this way, the Chinese social media platforms are potential intermediaries for reaching Chinese audiences in China.

Some may say that WeChat is subject to the Chinese government’s censorship – and indeed it is. But so are any other forms of foreign content going to China. Moreover, compared to broadcasting, digital platforms present more opportunities for dealing with, if not bypassing, censorship.

Current thinking about Australia’s exercise of public diplomacy and soft power within the Asia-Pacific region has more or less ignored this sector. It is time we started regarding diasporic language media in Australia not only as isolated pockets of ethnic language media, but also as potentially powerful gateways for projecting Australia’s interests and values into the heartland of a number of Asia-Pacific nations.

It is also time we went beyond the traditional understanding of public diplomacy and started exploring how people-to-people diplomacy can work towards the same goal as public diplomacy via media.

Public diplomacy in the digital era requires not simply a rejigging of the current broadcast transmission model, it requires a complete paradigm shift. And the process of identifying strategies and solutions within this new paradigm should draw on research from fields such as business management, political communication (particularly theories of nation branding), and cross-cultural studies, as well as from international relations.

This article is based on a submission by the author to the review of Australian broadcasting services.

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