IN last Thursday's Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture, ABC managing director Mark Scott called for a significant expansion of the ABC as a global media provider, including a phased roll-out of international television, radio and online content, first to the Asia-Pacific region and then the rest of the world.
But before the government allows the ABC to expand its international activities it should assess whether it is consistent with the ABC's charter and whether they're fulfilling their existing obligations.
At present the ABC delivers international radio through Radio Australia to meet its obligation to "transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting ... that will encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs".
In addition the ABC is contracted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to deliver international television through the Australia Network as part of Australia's soft power, public diplomacy program.
The government's 2007 foreign affairs and trade white paper, In the National Interest, described public diplomacy as "a diplomacy which operates in that area of intersection between the soft realm of image and the hard edge of a country's economic and political interests".
Yet in arguing for the ABC to be charged with expanding Australia's public diplomacy program, Scott rebuffed the very essence of public diplomacy, extolling Radio Australia's past when it "stubbornly insisted that the service could not exist as a mouthpiece of government ... [and] that tradition endures".
But for public diplomacy a broadcaster cannot be "independent" and ignore the demands of government who are responsible for setting Australia's foreign policy and the objectives of a "country's economic and political interests".
Instead Scott is simply arguing that the federal government should hand over large swags of taxpayer money to the ABC to go global with a "trust us" promise that they'll promote Australian values. And it is questionable that they can be trusted with such an important job.
For a 2007 Senate inquiry into Australia's public diplomacy program, the Institute of Public Affairs completed a content analysis of the Australia Network's broadcasting of supportive, neutral or negative content against the Australian values of a liberal democracy, human rights and free markets.
Of the current affairs programs broadcast, the ABC sent out positive messages on the importance of liberal democracy, and either supported or was value-neutral on human rights. But there wasn't a single positive message in favour of free markets. Instead the ABC promoted a value-neutral or hostile free markets message.
But a public diplomacy broadcaster cannot be value-neutral.
In a recent interview with The Weekend Australian Magazine, Sky News chief executive Angelo Frangopoulos didn't show the same neutrality, arguing for Sky's right to bid and win the Australia Network from the ABC because "the taxpayer is always best served by the free market of competition". In all likelihood Frangopoulos's declaration to snare the Australia Network contract from the ABC has driven Scott's speech.
Faced with the looming competition of Sky News to bid for the $20 million contract, Scott had to show more vision for the network than the current rebroadcasting of largely existing ABC content.
But true to the ABC's current monopoly model, Scott argued that Radio Australia and the Australia Network should be integrated with new online content delivery. No other bidder could provide all three services so the ABC's successful tender would be a fait accompli.
Scott's global ABC plans align closely with Kevin Rudd's vision for Australia as a major international player that bends and shapes global policy and attitudes. But the ABC cannot do so without compromising its charter of independence from government and the values-laden obligations of public diplomacy.
Australia's support for liberal democracy, human rights and free markets is essential for a prosperous world, and the least we could do is practise them in tendering out the job to broadcast them to the world.
Instead of granting the ABC Australia's public diplomacy responsibilities, Australia should have an open tender process, and include in the selection criteria the obligation to prove a strong track record of promoting Australian values.
At least then, if the ABC fails in its bid, they'll only have themselves to blame.
Tim Wilson is director of the intellectual property and free trade unit at the Institute of Public Affairs.