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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
16/06/2017

HUA, Mr David, Head, International Audience Strategy, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

MILLETT, Mr Michael, Director, Government Relations, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

[09:12]

ACTING CHAIR: I would like to welcome the officers from the ABC. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Millett : A short one, yes, if I can, with the committee's indulgence.

ACTING CHAIR: Please do.

Mr Millett : The ABC welcomes the opportunity to give evidence to the committee's inquiry into the ABC Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017, which proposes to change the act to require the corporation to restore its Northern Territory and Pacific short-wave services. The corporation appreciates the keen interest that the committee members, most notably the bill's author, Senator Nick Xenophon, have in the ABC and its performance. In fact, this is not the first time that we—in fact, I—have appeared before this committee looking at legislation proposed by Senator Xenophon to mandate aspects of the ABC's performance. On this occasion, we submit that the bill is misplaced both in its intent and in its application.

As this committee would appreciate, the media landscape is changing dramatically. Audiences both here and overseas are responding to technological advances and rapidly changing their viewing and listening behaviours. For example, it is hard to believe that the smartphone only arrived 12 years ago. The ABC Act quite purposefully puts the responsibility for overseeing strategy and allocation of funds with the ABC board. The board is best placed to determine at any given point how the corporation best allocates its resources to deliver charter functions and best service audiences. This can be a challenging task. No-one, including the ABC, likes to shut down services, but the corporation must operate within its fixed funding envelope. Difficult choices must be made at times to ensure that the board delivers on its remit to be an effective and efficient public broadcaster. Legislation which overrides the board's responsibilities and forces the corporation to commit to certain technologies which have limited utility and forces it to do this over an extended period is at odds with that charter mission. It denies the ABC the ability to use savings to deploy to other technologies or to invest in new content.

The ABC notes that the services the bill seeks to restore were permanently switched off on 31 January 2017, nearly five months ago. The response for areas covered by those services has been muted. This response is consistent with the ABC's decision to switch off its Asian shortwave service in 2015, and its Western Australian and Queensland shortwave services in 1990s. The ABC has broadcast Radio Australia to PNG and the Pacific for many decades, first on shortwave in the 1930s and 1940s and then on FM and online. As with its domestic audiences, the ABC has adapted technology to broaden its services. The region is changing its audience behaviour, and this has been borne out by the ABC's own measurements. For example, in 2016 ABC Online received more than 5½ million visits and nearly 12 million page views from audiences in the Pacific across mobile and web. Radio Australia and Australia Plus Pacific Facebook accounts have more than 64,000 followers. Radio Australia has 2.1 million podcasts downloaded from the region, including 191,000 for the Pacific Beat program.

Changes in distribution should not be interpreted as a withdrawal from the region. In fact, the ABC is moving in the other direction. We are developing a new international strategy that recognises these trends and provides a better service to the region, harnessing the strength of Radio Australia and programs like Pacific Beat. The emphasis will be on content. The situation is similar in the Northern Territory. Territorians have the opportunity to listen to ABC local radio on AM, FM, satellite, online streaming, mobile apps and through podcasts. To continue to maintain a costly shortwave service that broadcasts to a small and diminishing audience denies the ABC the right and ability to utilise those funds more effectively.

In repositioning for the future, the ABC has used its dexterity and its efficiencies to provide new benefits for regional audiences, such as the $15 million we are planning to allocate annually in regional investment. We are already recruiting for the first 30 of 80 new content jobs at a time when most media organisations are dramatically shrinking their newsrooms. As indicated earlier, it is never an easy decision to end an individual program or service, no matter how small the audience; however, the ABC is in no doubt that this was a sensible and forward-looking decision in the best interest of audiences and Australian taxpayers. I am happy to take questions. Would you like a copy of the opening statement?

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, that would be very helpful.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Millett, you cannot blame me for trying though.

Mr Millett : I have no doubt about your interest.

Senator XENOPHON: As a friend of the ABC—

Mr Millett : Exactly, and I acknowledge that up front.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you for your comprehensive submission in respect of the bill; I appreciate that. You have said:

the cost of the services was $1.9 million … [but] if the Bill was to be enacted, the total transmission cost would be closer to $4 million per annum, with costs of $1.2 million for the domestic services and $2.8 million for the international services.

Can you explain that given that, on the face of it, that is double the actual cost of what the service was previously costing?

Mr Millett : No, that is the actual annual cost to the ABC for providing those services.

Senator XENOPHON: So you are saying the $1.9 million figure was not accurate?

Mr Millett : No. The $4 million is cumulative for both the international service and for the NT service.

Senator XENOPHON: Right. So you are saying it is costing $4 million per annum?

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: The $1.9 million figure was the figure that was reported in the media.

Mr Millett : I am not sure where that originated from, but it is $4 million annually for the two services.

Senator XENOPHON: I cannot remember if it was an ABC broadcast, which I would have relied on.

Mr Millett : We can go back and check, but, as the submission states, it is $4 million.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay. You have said in your report that it has been:

… well considered, based on a careful assessment of the limited utility of shortwave technology in Australia and the region.

You have said that there are only about 500 listeners in the Northern Territory.

Mr Millett : As far as we can ascertain.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you tell me how you ascertain that?

Mr Millett : It is difficult. If you consider, even with radio, usually it is based on surveys. We do not have analytics like you have for digital. Shortwave is even harder to try to work through. It is based on what the ABC could gauge from the sales of shortwave equipment and from the limited amount of feedback we get. The service in the Northern Territory was actually shut down for two weeks in September-October last year. There were technology issues. The amount of complaints when the service was shut down was minimal. It was next to nothing.

Senator XENOPHON: But my understanding is that many thousands of HF transmitters are sold each year in Australia to grey nomads, to truckies and they are also fitted—you can easily adapt them to be able to pick up shortwave.

Mr Millett : We would have to check on the actual sales unit. If someone wants to explain to me—it is a bit like vertical grills. Lots of people have them, it is whether they actually use them.

Senator XENOPHON: If you are driving a truck it is probably hard to use a vertical grill; not so hard to use a shortwave radio.

Mr Millett : I think you have raised the issue of mobile. VAST is a very effective service. It reaches most people in the Territory. The ABC provides all its services on VAST, so you can access it by satellite. I acknowledge there is a particular issue around mobile travellers. With regard to people who work in remote areas, my belief is that if there are issues around travelling long distance and safety and security, I would have thought two-way communication is a much more effective means of looking after those people than ABC broadcasts.

Senator XENOPHON: The ABC does provide a critical role around the country for emergency broadcast, particularly for fire and flood.

Mr Millett : It does. I acknowledge that, but we should also acknowledge there are large parts of WA, Queensland and other parts that do not access shortwave and have been able to function.

Senator XENOPHON: They may be able to access them, but it would only be the ABC Northern Territory local radio.

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: I want to go to the issue where you have said that the ABC is also utilising 'external and internal research on audience listenership trends in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific' and indicated various things. Can you provide details of that research, just the raw material for that research?

Mr Millett : A raw breakdown? We have relied upon a number of surveys, which I have listed here. It might be best to provide them in a written form to you as well.

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry?

Mr Millett : I could recite some of them now, but would you like me to provide them—

Senator XENOPHON: If you could provide them to the committee, that would be useful.

Mr Millett : I will do.

Senator XENOPHON: I am happy for you to speak to them, but if we could get the surveys that you have relied on that you referred to in the submission—

Mr Millett : Yes. I will just list a couple anyway, to give you an indication. There is the November 2012 Lowy Institute analysis paper on the Pacific Islands digital revolution. There is a Vanuatu Citizens Access report. There is the Solomon Islands medical assistance scheme report. And there is a COFFIE report on using mobile phones in Papua New Guinea. That is among the research we have used.

Senator XENOPHON: Although the government of Vanuatu have put in a submission expressing their concerns.

Mr Millett : I acknowledge that they have.

Senator XENOPHON: It is quite unusual for us to get a submission from another government.

Mr Millett : Sure. My response to that is that it would be great if the ABC could continue every service, and I think every stakeholder in the ABC would like to continue every service. Do I like coming here and having to defend decisions about the ABC shifting resources and making resource allocations? It is difficult at times, but they are the decisions that the ABC has to make.

Senator URQUHART: Just in relation to those surveys that you talk about, do they go to the point of identifying how many people in remote PNG and the Pacific have smartphones?

Mr Millett : I think some of them actually do talk about access and use of mobile phones, yes.

Senator URQUHART: You think or you know?

Mr Hua : No, they do. Sorry to jump in, Senator. They do, and they go to broad percentage increases as well. Some of the figures from the 2015 Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility report note that the percentage of cell phones in Pacific households rose from 49 per cent in 2007 to 93 per cent in 2014.

Senator XENOPHON: I think you have partly answered this by saying it is very hard to be quantitative or even qualitative about these things, but do you have any idea what the overseas audience was in the context of the benefits that DFAT spoke about? You may not have heard the evidence, but a fair summary—

Mr Millett : I am aware of their evidence.

Senator XENOPHON: So DFAT said this is a form of soft power in a sense that it gets an Australian voice out in the regions, which is broadly a good thing for Australia.

Mr Millett : I would agree. One of the great assets the ABC has is that it is regarded as an independent, quality news service. That is very good to distribute to the region. The ABC has a charter role in making sure that its expats are serviced with Australian content. That is probably changing, given the nature of modern technology, but the ABC also has a role in explaining Australia to the region. That is acknowledged in the charter as well. My response on soft power is that it is a content matter as well as a distribution matter. The ABC, as I said in my opening statement, should deliver its charter based on what the board assesses is the best way of doing it.

Senator XENOPHON: And we are talking about 6(1)(b) of the act:

… to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:

(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs;

Mr Millett : Yes. I would say that, yes, it is quite explicit there about what you do; it does not state how you do it. I think the board is the best place to decide how you do it.

Senator XENOPHON: The board is not infallible.

Mr Millett : I work for the ABC. I would say they are—

Senator XENOPHON: Of course you would say that!

Mr Millett : but you make your own judgement.

Senator XENOPHON: If you did not say that I would be thinking about planning your retirement, which I hope is not the case. Other countries in the region appear to be expanding their short-wave penetration of the region—China, for instance.

Mr Millett : China is, yes. I acknowledge that.

Senator XENOPHON: I am not being critical of them; I am actually saying they are being quite visionary in that they have increased their influence in the Pacific, and one of the mechanisms they have used to do that is broadcasts that get across the views of the Chinese government and the benefits that come with that. Does it concern you in any way that other countries are expanding short-wave while we are retreating from it?

Mr Millett : I think it is an issue the government is trying to address in its foreign affairs white paper. There has been a bit of an ebb-and-flow debate in Australia about commitment to soft diplomacy and the role that public broadcasting plays within it. There has been a kind of a tortured history of government involvement in funding public broadcasting to that extent. What I will say is that my managing director gave a speech last year, which I will submit to you later, which addresses the whole notion of the role of the ABC in the public diplomacy space. I think the ABC does have a role within it. I think government does too. It does not mean the ABC is putting out its hand for money in funding in international strategy. I referred in my opening statement to the fact—

Senator XENOPHON: But you wouldn't say no to that, would you?

Mr Millett : What I would say is that what we are trying to develop is an international strategy that the ABC would fund from within its own remit. If the government wanted to leverage that in some way if possible, yes, we would certainly be open to talking to them. We talk to DFAT regularly about what is happening in this space. I await with interest the white paper, which I think will acknowledge the fact that not only China, Singapore—lots of governments—are pouring money into soft diplomacy and using public broadcasting as a way of doing that. I think it is probably a bad way of doing public broadcasting.

Senator XENOPHON: But only if the editorial independence of the ABC is preserved, though.

Mr Millett : That is a given.

Senator XENOPHON: This bill does not say anything, and neither should it ever do so, that would impinge in any way on the content of those broadcasts in terms of the integrity of your news service and your current affairs broadcast.

Mr Millett : I acknowledge that. I think my arguments about independence go to the ability of the board to make the best decisions based on resource allocation. I take it that you would disagree on their decision, that is—

Senator XENOPHON: On the resource allocation, you say there was an analysis done that this was not cost-effective.

Mr Millett : On a per-capita basis.

Senator XENOPHON: The figures seem to be pretty rubbery. We really don't know, because there are no surveys.

Mr Millett : That is true. One of the main gauges you would use is the feedback you get from the decision you make. There have been minimal direct complaints to the ABC. In fact, there has been more response from outside—ham radio operators—complaining about the decision than there has been from people directly affected in either the Territory or the regions. I acknowledge that some people—

Senator XENOPHON: Why ham radio operators?

Mr Millett : They like listening in at night time to international short-wave broadcasts. I would not say that they are actually part of the ABC audience remit, though.

Senator XENOPHON: They are or they are not?

Mr Millett : They are not.

Senator XENOPHON: What makes a ham radio operator excluded as a—

Mr Millett : I would not say there are excluded; I would not say they are the main—

Senator XENOPHON: They still have ears.

Mr Millett : That is true. I would not say they are the main priority. I would argue that our main priority is to the region and to the ex-pat community.

Senator XENOPHON: But you acknowledge that it is harder now for the ex-pat community to access ABC broadcasts if they are in a remote area.

Mr Millett : You are talking about an Australian ex-pat community overseas?

Senator XENOPHON: Yes.

Mr Millett : I think it is easier for them to access now. They have many ways of accessing ABC content.

Senator XENOPHON: Not if they are in a remote area, if they are on the move.

Mr Millett : Do you want to give me an example?

Senator XENOPHON: They are driving their car through the highlands of PNG. What FM broadcast do you have in PNG at the moment?

Mr Millett : I will get Mr Hua to talk about what we are doing in relation to the new transmitters.

Mr Hua : In answer to your question and to follow up on Mick's point, a number of the complaints that came in following the cessation of short-wave from international listeners came from the US and from Europe. They are not the primary target audience for Radio Australia's services.

Senator XENOPHON: But in terms of the cost-benefit analysis, you have no way of knowing how big was the footprint of the number of people who were listening to the ABC.

Mr Millett : In terms of absolute precision, no.

Senator XENOPHON: What is your estimate? You said the ABC utilised external and internal research on audience listenership trends in PNG and the Pacific. Did that external and internal research give you an idea of audience levels?

Mr Hua : The citizen access information report in New Guinea in June 2014 indicated that there was a 50 per cent decline in short-wave listenership from 2012 to 2014. You are right in terms of being able to get absolute numbers with radio listeners, particularly in the region that we are talking about. It is very hard to do surveys—in fact, it would probably be more costly to do a very comprehensive survey than to provide the service itself—so we do have to make some best estimates about this and look at global trends and look at where opportunities exist to better serve audiences.

I think part of this bill and this conversation look at the ABC as being a short-wave radio provider and look at the audience as being a short-wave radio listener. My view, and the view of the ABC, is that the ABC is a media organisation and that our audiences seek to find information, news and content from an independent source. How we go about doing that is part of our decision-making process, and underlying all of that is cost effectiveness for the taxpayer.

Senator XENOPHON: Cost-effectiveness: does that mean you run the cost-effectiveness ruler over all the broadcasts or expenditures of this size? In other words, how does this compare? How does the short-wave audience compare to a similar sort of money that would be spent on providing—I think you are spending more money on digital services in Hobart, and where else?

Mr Millett : You are talking about the expansion of digital radio to Darwin, Canberra and Hobart—they are the three extensions.

Mr Hua : I was referring to digital more broadly in terms of mobile, web, social media—those sorts of platforms—for the Pacific.

Senator XENOPHON: The problem is that you do not have any direct idea of what the audience reach was, other than that it was a very large geographical footprint for short-wave. How far did the footprint go? It was in the Solomons, Vanuatu, PNG, Timor, Indonesia—

Mr Hua : There is a map in our submission with the broadcast zones attached.

Senator XENOPHON: That is right. It was quite extensive. It did not go quite as far as Nauru. It went to Kiribati and Tuvalu, but not quite Timor-Leste. You used to go to Timor-Leste, didn't you?

Mr Millett : We would have to take on notice about what our position is in Timor-Leste.

Senator XENOPHON: China has quite an influence, I think, not just in short-wave. They have built the presidential palace in Timor-Leste. They are going all-out there. I have no questions for now.

Senator URQUHART: Can you detail any monitoring or investigations that the ABC has undertaken on the impact of the cessation of short-wave services to the Pacific on rural and remote communities within the Pacific. Have you done any monitoring?

Mr Hua : We monitor the social media feedback. We monitor, of course, any complaints that have come in and none have. The figures that we have received were 19 in total—two from the Pacific itself—when we made the submission, and that has not changed.

Senator URQUHART: Have you had any feedback from academics, journalists, NGOs and others working across the Pacific as to the impact of the cessation of the service?

Mr Hua : Through the submissions we have.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, through the submissions to this inquiry, do you mean?

Mr Hua : That is right. The submissions through this inquiry.

Senator URQUHART: So you have not gone out and sought it; you have basically read what has been done as a result of this inquiry.

Mr Hua : Yes, that is correct.

Senator URQUHART: Have you had any feedback from your own staff that have been working on programs such as Pacific Beat about the impact on communities of the cessation of the service?

Mr Hua : Broadly speaking, from the feedback that we have received, there has been no impact. The listeners that Radio Australia has have broadly been on FM, and that has been the traction that we have had for a number of years already.

Senator URQUHART: In the last estimates you said that you were planning on building more FM transmission towers to service PNG. Can you give me an update of what that rollout looks like and how it will help the very remote communities in PNG. Do you have any other plans for other Pacific island nations in relation to building towers?

Mr Hua : I can give you an update. The tender process has closed and the three FM transmitter locations are in Bougainville, Mount Hagen and Goroka. We are looking at those potential tenders. We expect that they should be up and running by the end of the calendar year. In answer to your other question, we have not got plans at this point for further FM ABC owned and operated transmission towers.

Senator URQUHART: So you are only looking at PNG in relation to that. Given that the tenders do not close and you are not looking at them being in operation until the end of the calendar year, why was the decision to stop the shortwave service prior to this new process being implemented, particularly in PNG?

Mr Hua : The cessation of the shortwave service released the funds to be able to raise the FM towers.

Senator URQUHART: So it is funding. I noticed, Mr Millett, in your opening statement you talked about the corporation operating within its fixed funding envelope. I guess one of the concerns I have is the fact that the ABC's funding has been reduced is in fact part of the rationale for removing the shortwave service. I think that has been qualified by the fact that you were not able to kick on with the short wave until such a time and get the towers up and running. So there is a window of 12 to 18 months where there is virtually very limited service for those people in those remote areas because of the funding issue.

Mr Millett : What I will say in relation to that is that we are in the third year of a five-year funding reduction. This is not directly linked to the extent that it forced that. What it does is reduce your ability and flexibility you need to made to make investment decisions for the future simply because you have a reduced budget.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, but if you had not had that funding cut you probably would not have had to cease the shortwave service prior to implementing the FM towers in PNG. That is the point I am trying to get to.

Mr Millett : What I will say is it reduces your flexibility to make decisions like this.

Senator URQUHART: Also in your opening statement you talk about adopting technology to broaden services. How does someone in a remote village access ABC now? You said, as with its domestic audiences, the ABC has adapted technology to broaden its service. So the region is changing in its audience services.

Mr Millett : I was talking about it more in the broader sense in the way that digital gives you the capacity to have two-way communication with audiences providing more information rather than through select programming. I think that is how I would directly respond to that. I think what I am referring to—I directly related to this in my opening statement—is the fact that we are trying to develop a new international strategy which recognises that your audience now approaches you through a variety of different platforms. But what we are trying to do is free up funds to put back into content. Previous speakers referred to the quality and commitment of the ABC to Pacific content. I am probably the first to say that at times our focus has wavered a little bit in the past, due to different issues around our international circles.

Senator URQUHART: I guess the issue, Mr Millett, is: what is the point of prioritising content if there are a lot of people that cannot even listen to it because you have stopped the ability for them to be able to listen?

Mr Millett : My account of that is that I think that figures show that audiences are adapting new technologies that enable you to provide that content.

Senator URQUHART: But in remote areas that would not be the case, would it?

Mr Hua : It is very difficult to monitor precisely where audiences are coming from, but I can say that—

Senator URQUHART: I guess that is my concern. You say that your audiences on shortwave are diminishing but you have no real way of measuring that, do you, apart from surveys—

Mr Hua : Apart from surveys.

Senator URQUHART: that do not really get to the pointy end of it?

Mr Hua : Yes, and making deductions on the trends in the surveys—that is correct. But what we can gather from digital data is that, for example, with Radio Australia's streaming service online, that has increased by about sixfold from May last year to May this year.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to pinpoint exactly where that is being streamed?

Mr Hua : We can only pinpoint down to a country level with digital tracking, but we cannot necessarily pinpoint down exactly to where that person might be accessing it from a mobile phone and it might be going via a server elsewhere. But it is far more precise than what we can track with shortwave radio listeners.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you both for coming in. I might, if you like, Mr Millett, set aside the concerns that you have put about having the parliament pushing and prodding around particular kinds of technology and stick to the technical merits of why the service was shut down and the size of the audience. Maybe we can come back later to how you think this might impact your charter or whatnot. I guess what I am interested in is the way that you are gauging your audience for shortwave both in the NT and overseas. It seems like there is something going on I cannot quite put my finger on. On the one hand, you have said it is really difficult to establish what your audience is, but you are also fairly confident that it is declining such that it was safe to shut the service down.

Mr Millett : You deduce what you can from the information you get.

Senator LUDLAM: Right. I am not sure if it was you. I am not sure who put the evidence. Somebody, a few moments ago, said you thought there had been, roughly, a 50 per cent decline in the NT between—was it 2012 and 2014?

Mr Hua : That was for Papua New Guinea.

Senator LUDLAM: That was PNG?

Mr Hua : Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: Firstly, what were your two baseline years—decline between when and when?

Mr Hua : That was a decline from June 2012 to 2014, so there was a decline of 50 per cent from 2012 to 2014.

Senator LUDLAM: How do you establish that given all the difficulties?

Mr Hua : It was from a Citizen access to information report from Papua New Guinea that was published in June 2014.

Senator LUDLAM: Is that based on handset sales?

Mr Hua : I have to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: I would be interested in their method. I believe both of you in the room would have heard from our previous witnesses saying that it is reasonably common practice, particularly in remote parts of PNG, for one person to own a receiver, and then they effectively provide a local rebroadcasting service via text messages and stuff. How do you reckon your audience size when there is that kind of social networking aspect to it?

Mr Hua : That is a really good point in terms of increasing the reach through, essentially, word of mouth, and that word of mouth being text is a really a key note insofar as citizens that were described to have access to mobile technology—

Senator LUDLAM: They do.

Mr Hua : and can share information they want.

Senator LUDLAM: They absolutely do, but the difference between streaming a really expensive data service in the Highlands of PNG—which some people can afford to do but maybe many cannot—and beeping text messages backwards and forwards, I would argue, is really considerable.

Mr Hua : I understand that point. The point that I was wanting to make was that, provided the information is accessed at some point through FM or through a stream by citizens in Papua New Guinea, then it can be amplified through text messaging.

Senator LUDLAM: I am with you, but you only have a tiny handful of FM transmitters which are very short-range in terms of their geographic reach, and streaming services are very expensive. That leaves short-wave, which you have just cut.

Mr Hua : I would also argue that there are very clear trends—and the ownership of mobile devices is evidence of that—that there is increasing use of digital technology—

Senator LUDLAM: I am not disputing that.

Mr Hua : to be able to gather stories and to be able to gather content from the ABC, no less. That is not reliant on a huge amount of streaming data.

Senator LUDLAM: I think that is probably objectively true. I have not sighted the studies that you are referring to, but it still feels as though you have cut quite an important part of the communications ecosystem out from under particular communities that cannot really be replaced by data services. I am presuming you do not dispute the arguments that have been put both in submissions and in direct evidence that, for example, during bad weather the digital services, even for those who can afford to access them, are among the first to fall over. It is similar for the FM services, but short-wave can just punch on through, even through pretty rough weather. That is the case, isn't it?

Mr Hua : In the case of the technology, yes, but I would say that, in terms of the ABC's function in being able to assist in times of, say, natural disasters, internationally we have not been an emergency broadcaster. We do emergency coverage, but we do not do emergency broadcast in the sense of what the ABC does locally.

Senator LUDLAM: I understand the distinction. Mr Millett, you mentioned this before; it is not the first time you have put a view to this committee on this issue. During our inquiry into the ABC Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015, one of the big concerns was the ABC's assertion that very few people access short-wave in the NT—so let's come home for just a minute. You looked at population based in the short-wave footprint, which would be reasonably easy to estimate. Did that methodology take into account the number of itinerant groups—grey nomads, truck drivers, boat crews and others—who were relying on short-wave?

Mr Millett : I would have to take that on notice. It is certainly an issue that we are aware of; I am not sure of what information there is in terms of determining the usage.

Senator LUDLAM: I feel like that is probably quite an important part of that audience, that is all. We also got evidence at the time that, although it was a Northern Territory service, because the range is so broad it was being received and used in the north west of Western Australia and across parts of northern Queensland.

Mr Millett : Yes. If you speak to our engineers, they say the perfect footprint is around—what was the figure in relation to the perfect footprint for short-wave? It is about 200 to 400 kilometres. But you can—

Senator LUDLAM: But it is big. It has actually been received way further than that.

Mr Millett : The thing I would say about that is that it was run very much as an NT service, with an NT program.

Senator LUDLAM: I understand that. But your collateral benefit, by happy accident, is that it can be received way further than that in good weather, and it was being accessed by people way further than that who would not have shown up in your quantitative survey.

Mr Millett : That is true.

Senator LUDLAM: Are you able to check for us the method that you were using to provide those estimates, whether that incorporated itinerant populations and whether any estimates were done at the time of people who, even though they may not have been your target audience, were nonetheless finding the service useful?

Mr Millett : I will take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. How many short-wave listeners do you think did the ABC have in PNG and the South Pacific? Let's just say primary listeners accessing it—we will set aside the text message kind of social aspect of it for the moment. How many primary short-wave listeners do you think the ABC had?

Mr Hua : That is extraordinarily difficult to get a precise figure on.

Senator LUDLAM: I know a precise figure would be difficult but, if you are quite confidently arguing for a 50 per cent decline between two years, then you must be able to at least give us some rough numbers as to what you think the audience wants.

Mr Hua : I would say it would be in the hundreds.

Senator LUDLAM: In the hundreds?

Senator XENOPHON: On what basis do you say hundreds?

Mr Hua : I am being asked for a best estimate.

Senator XENOPHON: On what basis do you make that best estimate?

Mr Hua : On the basis of FM listenership, which sits at around 15,000 per day.

Senator XENOPHON: How do you know that?

Mr Hua : We have some surveys on that.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you send us details of those surveys?

Mr Hua : I will do.

Senator XENOPHON: But you have not done surveys of shortwave listeners?

Mr Hua : No.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you provide those surveys to us. Is there a reason why you have not done surveys of shortwave?

Mr Hua : Largely because the listeners of shortwave, we suspect, might be in regions where it is very difficult to survey.

Senator URQUHART: Have you taken into account the Pacific Freedom Forum petition? Are you aware of that?

Mr Hua : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: It has 1,116 supporters on that site.

Mr Hua : Yes.

Mr Millett : We have been monitoring the feedback that is coming from other areas, both directly to the ABC and through other circles.

Senator LUDLAM: If you do not have the info at the table, I would be keen to see any evidence you have to back that up. You have given us an order-of-magnitude guess, and that is fine because it is what I asked you for. My guess, based on much less evidence, is that your audience would have been in the thousands, but if you are able to provide us with anything that can back that contention up, I would really appreciate it.

One of the submitters to the committee has reported that, in 2014, Radio Australia surveyed its audience in PNG and found that 80 per cent of the respondents received the service by shortwave. Did the ABC receive a copy of that survey, or at least the results?

Mr Hua : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: If you could. And could you tell us, if you are able to establish whether that was the case or not, whether those figures were taken into account in your decision to cancel the service. In your statement of December 2016 about the termination of the service, you stated:

The ABC believes that technological advancement has improved accessibility of FM and online and will negate the impact of no longer offering shortwave services.

which is practically what you have put to us this morning. Previous witnesses pointed out that power, for example, is a real issue in remote parts of PNG and the South Pacific. It is extremely unreliable, particular during the day. How do online services get accessed in times of emergency, for example, or even during the semiregular power blackouts?

Mr Millett : I would have to take on notice what effect intermittent power is having on existing transmitting range. It is probably something we should pursue in terms of the tender contracts for the new transmitters as well. I am not aware of it being a problem, not to the extent indicated by the previous speakers.

Senator LUDLAM: How effective are online services—and maybe you have some case examples you can provide for us—during extreme weather events such as major Pacific cyclones?

Mr Millett : In terms of the impact on those services during cyclones?

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, the accessibility and reliability—what is able to keep ploughing on through? We have heard evidence—and I do not think I have heard you dispute it—that shortwave can plough on through some pretty rough conditions where other broadcasting technologies fail. If there is any material evidence you can provide us that would give us some comfort that that is not the case.

Mr Millett : And that relates to domestic services?

Senator LUDLAM: No, in this instance I am more interested in some of the examples of tropical cyclones out in the Pacific, where being able to maintain contact can be something of a life raft.

Mr Millett : We can get some information on that.

Senator LUDLAM: I would appreciate it. Just finally, could we get a commitment from you, or even just an update, on not chopping down the Shepparton transmitters for the time being while this gets hashed out?

Mr Millett : We have had some correspondence with Senator Xenophon. It is a BAI site; they own the site.

Senator LUDLAM: You were their paying customer.

Mr Millett : We were. We are no longer their paying customer in relation to that site. My information is that it is entirely up to them what they do with the site.

Senator LUDLAM: You have got me on that. All right, we might have to pursue that further. I will yield for the time being; go ahead.

Senator XENOPHON: The ABC said, in support of its decision to terminate shortwave services that overseas broadcasters, including the BBC, no longer use or have decreased its shortwave services. Is that right?

Mr Hua : That is true.

Senator XENOPHON: But evidence has been received that the BBC recently spent 20 million pounds refurbishing a key VHF broadcast site on Ascension Island and that the BBC also transmits shortwave from the UK, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan and other places. What you say to that? Isn't that contradictory to the ABC's assertions in relation to this?

Mr Hua : It is a mixed picture. I think that the point we were making around BBC's withdrawal from shortwave was for this region.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay, but it spent 20 million pounds and it still broadcasts out of Singapore.

Mr Millett : We could probably provide an update. I know that the British government recently gave the BBC a large sum of money in the interests of soft diplomacy. I do not know whether that initiative may be connected to that. I think that was largely based around security interests.

Senator XENOPHON: So the British understood that there was a security interest in that soft diplomacy?

Mr Millett : Yes. They made a major commitment to public broadcasting as an element of soft power.

Senator XENOPHON: Could you provide more details on that? One of the submitters said that the ABC will be providing funding to build extra FM transmitters in the South Pacific. Is that actually the case?

Mr Millett : No. I think there were some short discussions earlier on after the decision was made. I think the government explored the prospect of that, but I do not think it went any further. There certainly have not been any discussions with us about it.

Senator XENOPHON: Does the ABC pay for the use and accessing of FM transmitters in the region?

Mr Hua : Does the ABC pay for the use of FM transmitters in the region?

Senator XENOPHON: Yes—for accessing FM transmitter, in terms of FM.

Mr Hua : Yes we do.

Senator XENOPHON: How much does it pay?

Mr Hua : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: If you could tell us how much they pay for each country that would be helpful. Do you know how many FM transmitters Radio Australia utilises in PNG?

Mr Hua : I will take that on notice, but I believe it is two.

Senator XENOPHON: Are there any plans to expand the number of FM transmitters in PNG?

Mr Hua : Yes there are.

Senator XENOPHON: From two to?

Mr Hua : To five in total, so there are a further three.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you give us an idea of what the costs of that will be?

Mr Hua : Currently, we have received the tenders from our RFP and we are reviewing those at the moment.

Mr Millett : The price is probably a sensitive issue at the moment, but there is probably some way in which we could work our way around that.

Senator XENOPHON: Could you just give us a very broad band that does not in any way compromise the tender process? If you gave us from the low to the high figures—

Mr Millett : We will take it on notice and work out how we can best answer that.

Senator XENOPHON: Or just a ballpark figure. I understand the commercial sensitivities of that. So on notice, could you provide the additional cost of those transmitters and the coverage that will be provided with these new FM transmitters in PNG, compared to the previous coverage.

The Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee noted in a 2009 report that the ABC was working with National Public Radio in the Pacific to help strengthen public broadcasting. Is that still occurring?

Mr Hua : I am not aware of that specific report, but the ABC does have international development services in the Pacific.

Senator XENOPHON: With NPR—the National Public Radio?

Mr Hua : I am not aware of that specific report.

Senator XENOPHON: Could you take that on notice? The committee has received extensive evidence regarding the efficiency of digital shortwave using Digital Radio Mondiale technology. Can you provide the committee with the ABC's view on this technology?

Mr Millett : Is that a question we can take on notice?

Mr Hua : We will take that on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: Submitters have stated that Radio New Zealand International, the BBC World Service and All India Radio use digital shortwave. Is this the case? Are you aware of that?

Mr Hua : They do use shortwave, yes. I am not sure if it is a digital shortwave, but I am aware that they use high-frequency technology.

Mr Millett : Are you referring to a 2009 report?

Senator XENOPHON: Yes.

Mr Millett : The situation may have changed since then.

Senator XENOPHON: I know—but whether there has been some continuum, and whether that has started a policy that has been followed through to this day. Your managing director, Michelle Guthrie, discussed the ABC's capacity to wield soft power in an address in August 2016 to the Lowy Institute.

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: I think you are going to provide us with a copy of that.

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: According to a report on the ABC's website, so obviously it is an impeccable source—

Mr Millett : It would have to be!

Senator XENOPHON: It would have to be! I quote:

Ms Guthrie told an audience at the Lowy Institute that the ABC is looking closely at strategies to increase its audience in China, Indonesia and the Pacific, where there will be new content in English and Tok Pisin.

How does the cessation of shortwave services align with the strategic vision outlined by Ms Guthrie?

Mr Millett : I will start, and Mr Hua will take over. It does relate back to the international strategy that I referred to in my opening statement. In the past we ran a separate international division which provided international services. We have brought that back within the ABC proper, so we now service international via all our content divisions. What we are doing with the new strategy is trying to leverage the entire ABC to provide a bigger range of services. What we would like to do is, in fact, provide iview and our main news service, once we can clear contractual rights, to all our audiences in the region, which I think would be a much better way. It provides a much broader range of services, and provides the best of Australian content. We can leverage across our entire content makers to provide services to the region, and Mr Hua can talk a bit more about that.

Senator XENOPHON: But there will be costs involved. Are you saying you would be doing it through the digital platform—

Mr Millett : Yes. There are rights issues involved, but our plan is to try and make both iview and our news services available to audiences in the region, and that would also work for expats as well.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure.

Mr Hua : That is correct, and to expand on that, it is about broadening the available content to international audiences, particularly in the Pacific, and about curating a better service for our audiences. Previous witnesses have mentioned the content mix on Radio Australia, and I guess it would be, as my colleague Mr Millett has pointed out, an area whereby we can invest more in in terms of better services for all.

Senator XENOPHON: If you could take on notice what the cost will be. I have a few more questions. It will not take too long.

Mr Millett : We will provide more detail about what the nature of the strategy is and how we intend to do it.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure. In the same address to the Lowy Institute, Ms Guthrie said that she believed the ABC's approach to soft power was underpinned by its reputation for independence—

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: rather than acting as a medium for government opinion. No complaint from me or anyone here on that, but regarding soft power, does the ABC accept that its influence in the sphere of soft power will be impacted by the fact that many listeners in the Pacific can only receive Radio Australia by shortwave?

Mr Millett : My response, as I said before, is that you exercise soft power both in what you say and how you say it. The ABC is looking at how it best provides a service based on its content and its many distribution platforms. Yes, we have made changes to some of those distribution platforms. To an extent, it is about how we best get the mix that provides the best service.

Senator XENOPHON: But there is no suggestion that this bill would in any way impinge on the editorial independence of the ABC.

Mr Millett : I know. I accept that.

Senator XENOPHON: Can we go back to the bill. Your submission raised a number of concerns regarding reconstitution of the terminated transmission contracts. I think you have raised that to some degree. Have the transmission towers owned by BAI been decommissioned yet, or are they still in place?

Mr Millett : I am not aware.

Senator XENOPHON: It is a BAI issue?

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure. The ABC has indicated that it will cost approximately $4 million per annum to provide shortwave services to PNG, the Northern Territory and the Pacific. Has the ABC ever sought additional funding from the government to support these services?

Mr Millett : No.

Senator XENOPHON: Is there a reason for that?

Mr Millett : Is your question that, in making the decision to shut it down, we should have gone to government and said, 'We're about it shut it down, will you fund it in exchange?'

Senator XENOPHON: No. That is not my question—it was a very direct one. I suppose you have answered it in saying that you have not sought it. Is that because there are other priorities, in your view, in terms of the ABC's request for funding or its funding priorities?

Mr Millett : Yes, my view is that, in determining how best to advance our international strategy, that is the decision we would make.

Senator XENOPHON: Does the ABC consider that Radio Australia should be funded through Foreign Affairs on the basis that its editorial independence is maintained and not in any way impacted and also on the basis that it is an important mechanism to promote Australia's interests in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific?

Mr Millett : It goes back to my earlier statement, in the sense that I think our new international strategy will recognise that Radio Australia needs an investment. It needs life to be brought back into it, and that is what we are looking at. I think that is an ABC decision. As I have said in the past, if governments would like to leverage the ABC's reputation in its own soft diplomacy views, that is a discussion they would have to have, but any discussion would have to recognise that it would be around the ABC's editorial independence.

Senator XENOPHON: Without question. So has the foreign minister been approached at all in relation to this? Have there been any discussions?

Mr Millett : We have had some discussions with DFAT. They are interested in what we are doing in the area. As the submission points out, in the wake of the shortwave decision, they acknowledged that the ABC has the independent right to make that decision. They are interested in our statement at the time that we would commit to a new international strategy which would look very closely at more content and better servicing the Pacific region, and they are interested to see how we do that.

Senator XENOPHON: So there have been discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

Mr Millett : Sure. I think it is more in the sense that they are interested to know what we are doing. I think, like everyone else, we are interested to see what the white paper says about the government's interest in soft diplomacy as a means of diplomacy.

Senator XENOPHON: Just to wrap up, you have indicated concerns at the bill's proposal to broadcast programs in languages appropriate for the countries to which they are broadcast. I think you have already alluded to that. In the early 2000s, Radio Australia was broadcasting in English and eight other languages. Could you provide the committee with an indication of the languages used and when broadcasts were limited to English and Tok Pisin.

Mr Hua : The languages that were used were Mandarin Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Vietnamese, French, Tok Pisin and English. I think I have captured all of them there. We are still continuing to publish and produce content in Chinese. Sorry, added to that is Bahasa Indonesia. We are continuing to produce content in Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia and Tok Pisin, but Tok Pisin is a Radio Australia program. There are no longer Radio Australia programs in other languages.

Senator XENOPHON: SBS provides radio broadcasts in 74 languages, and please do not ask me to name them all! If the bill were to pass, would there be any scope for some SBS broadcasts to be provided through Radio Australia, for instance? What level of cooperation is there between the two public broadcasters?

Mr Millett : It is an interesting question. There has been some low-level discussion between us and SBS about how we can better combine our resources in this area around language. That would be one area that would have to be looked at.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: I just have one final issue I want to quickly pursue. Mr Millett, in your opening statement you alluded to but, I think, did not really focus on the fact that generally governments and the parliament have allowed the ABC to make decisions about operational matters.

Mr Millett : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: In your experience from your time at the ABC and your knowledge of the ABC, is there any precedent for this kind of legislative intervention in an operational or management decision of the ABC?

Mr Millett : No. I have been at the ABC about nine years. There have been a number of inquiries over the years in which various people have sought to try to mandate how the ABC does things. Invariably, those inquiries always end up with a recommendation that says that the board is best placed to make those decisions.

ACTING CHAIR: So there has never, at least in your knowledge, been a time when the parliament has passed legislation directing the ABC to undertake its operations in a particular way?

Mr Millett : No. There was a change to the charter a few years ago which acknowledged the role the ABC played in providing digital services, but that is not quite the question you are looking at. No, there has been nothing that mandates how the ABC operates.

ACTING CHAIR: Other than the charter, which obviously sets the broad scope of the ABC. For instance, we have never either directed the ABC or passed a law to require the ABC to open, or keep open, a regional news centre or anything like that.

Mr Millett : I would say there are a few politicians who would like to amend that provision.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, I am aware of them!

Mr Millett : The act is quite consistent in the way it works. It specifies what the ABC should be doing. It does not go into any detail, nor does it mandate how the ABC should do it.

ACTING CHAIR: It would seem to me—and you might like to comment on this, but if you do not wish to, feel free not to—that if we cross this threshold with this issue and direct the ABC to maintain services in this area, then why not in any other area that the parliament—

Mr Millett : I think the precedent is there. I have had many discussions with Senator Xenophon, and I always think he has the ABC's best interests at heart, but we may disagree on the best way of resolving that. I think it is dangerous, particularly at this time of widespread media change, to try and lock into legislation anything about how the ABC should operate. It is ineffective, and it makes it too difficult for the ABC to work within a very, very challenging space.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you provide the brief that went to the board and the board's documented decision?

Mr Millett : There was another inquiry that looked at this. What we produced was the information that helped inform the board in making its decision, which I can provide to you.

Senator XENOPHON: But that was not the totality of the documents relied on by the board?

Mr Millett : Yes—documents that helped the board make its decision.

Senator XENOPHON: What did the board rely on—the written documents plus an oral presentation?

Mr Millett : Without going into too much detail, yes. Radio provided information and gave an oral briefing to the board before a decision was made.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you provide us with a copy of all the information that the board had?

Mr Millett : It was given to the last committee, so I should have no problem providing it to you.

Senator XENOPHON: But that was not the totality of the information that was provided, was it?

Mr Millett : I would have to go back and check. It was the information that provided the basis for the board's decision.

Senator XENOPHON: I understand that, but was there any other information that was provided to the board that has not been provided?

Mr Millett : No.

Senator XENOPHON: And the board's documented decision, in terms of any discussion or the minutes.

Mr Millett : The decision is the press release that was issued.

Senator XENOPHON: But was there a minuting of the board's discussion at the time?

Mr Millett : I will have to go back and check.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you provide a copy of the minutes of the board meeting?

Mr Millett : I will take that on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: When the shortwave service was terminated, the ABC said it would provide FAST receivers to the RFDS and the HF Radio Club. We then heard evidence from the RFDS that it has no plans to use FAST. What has happened to that proposal?

Mr Millett : I will have to take it on notice. We did make a commitment at the time that we would set up an advice and help bureau to deal with any cases that were raised by politicians or any other group. I can provide some information on what has been done in relation to that.

Senator URQUHART: I would be interested, given that the RFDS are not going to use FAST, to know what has happened to that proposal and if there is any other assistance that the ABC has offered them.

Mr Millett : I will take that on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Thanks.

ACTING CHAIR: If there are no further questions, I thank officers from the ABC for their evidence.