International Public Broadcasting: A Missed Opportunity For Projecting Australia’s Soft Power

This survey reviewed thirteen international public broadcasters, in addition to the ABC, to determine how international public broadcasting had fared in the years since the publication of the Lowy Institute’s 2010 paper. In contrast to Australia’s international broadcaster, the survey found a number of IPBs over the course of this decade which have consolidated and even expanded their operations, with increased funding from governments which recognise their power as public diplomacy and soft power tools. There are two exceptions: Canada and the Netherlands. Another, Al Jazeera, has been buffeted by regional politics but has endured. New Zealand stands out as comparatively tiny and specialised, but is a reliable broadcaster with a good understanding of its audience.

United Kingdom

This decade, the most positive broadcasting turnaround has been in the fortunes of the BBC World Service (BBCWS). The previous decade, government austerity budgets forced cuts and efficiency savings leading to closure of many language services, especially the European ones. In 2012 the Foreign Office grant-in-aid to the BBCWS was terminated, leaving the BBC to fully fund the World Service from the BBC licence fee (which was not increased).[47]

The austerity period was nevertheless marked by some new investment, notably in Arabic and Persian TV services. The latter, which began in 2009, is now watched by roughly 20 per cent of the TV audience in Iran[48]. However, in 2015 as a result of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK government awarded the BBC extra funding of GBP 85m a year (AUD 157m) until 2020 to fund 11 new language services, enhanced services in Arabic and Russian and digitisation of the existing international services.[49] This brought the BBCWS total annual expenditure to GBP 268m.[50] The government has not guaranteed this additional funding beyond 2020.

The BBCWS’s international broadcasting priorities are clear: strategically they include countering the disruptive efforts of broadcasters such as RT and non-state organisations in the Arab world; geographically the emphasis is on Africa (where the BBC regards itself as competing primarily with China), and South Asia.

In audience terms the BBCWS remains the leading IPB by some distance. In 2019, its claimed global weekly audience is 319 million.[51]

The BBC continues to broadcast on SW in some parts of the world, but is scaling this back. According to BBC sources, in many parts of the world, research shows rapidly declining audiences, even in traditional SW strongholds. The BBCWS approach has been to let contracts lapse as opposed to an overt policy of retrenchment.


After significant investments in China’s international broadcasting in 2009, China has become even more ambitious this decade.[52] In March 2018, it amalgamated its three domestic and international broadcasting networks — China Central Television (CCTV), China National Radio and China Radio International — into one ‘Voice of China’ entity, in a move aimed at strengthening China’s international media presence while consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s control. The media release on the amalgamation issued by Xinhua, the Chinese Government news agency, positioned the restructuring as “significant in following the principle of the Party exercising leadership over media”.[53]

Just two years prior to the launch of Voice of China (known in China as China Media Group (CMG)), the foreign language operations of CCTV, the state broadcaster, were re-branded as China Global Television Network (CGTN). CGTN retains its separate identity but under CMG management and controlled by the Communist Party’s Publicity Department, the agency responsible for propaganda and media censorship.[54] CGTN English is the flagship channel of the multi-language, multi-platform media group, which also broadcasts in Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian across a range of digital platforms.[55] Headquartered in Beijing, it has production centres in Washington and Nairobi.

Despite these investments cementing China’s reputation as one of the world’s largest broadcasters, the effectiveness of its international broadcasting as a propaganda or soft power tool for China remains unclear.[56] Superficially, the headline numbers for CGTN are strong — it has 62 million followers on Facebook, for example — but two-thirds of CGTN’s online traffic comes from China itself.[57]

China Radio International continues to use shortwave broadcasting extensively but has added other communication platforms. It broadcasts in 61 languages, is affiliated with close to 70 overseas radio stations, has 18 global internet radio services and claims to receive 3 million “pieces of audience feedback” annually.[58]

Although the reported investments are immense, secrecy about Voice of China’s budget persists. Adding to the reported US$6.6 billion invested in 2009,[59] the rapid promotion and expansion of its overseas broadcasting services suggests that China continues to invest significantly in its soft diplomacy flagship. A more recent estimate puts China’s budget for “external propaganda” at $10bn annually.[60]

United States

In its FY2019 Congressional Budget Justification, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) highlighted its strategic alignment to the US National Security Strategy, as well as its efforts in confronting state-sponsored disinformation and accelerating the shift to digital and interactive platforms.[61] While the broadcasting conglomerate was requesting a reduction of USD24m over the previous year’s allocation, its USD661m is still very significant globally and serves to highlight its strategic alignment to the US National Security Strategy.[62] USAGM is unique among Western broadcasters in that government legislation explicitly obliges its broadcasting to align with US foreign policy objectives.[63]

USAGM, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors, has five fully funded international public networks: Voice of America (VOA) which was first broadcast in 1942 into Nazi Germany; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which started in 1950 broadcasting into communist Czechoslovakia; the Office of Cuba Broadcasting with its Radio and TV Marti which started in 1985 and 1990 respectively; Radio Free Asia which commenced in 1996; and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks which started in 2004. Together, these five networks broadcast in 58 languages reaching a weekly audience of 345 million.[64]

The agency claims that a firewall insulates journalists from US Government influence and political pressure, aside from its foreign policy mandate. This does not isolate them completely, however, with any new agency CEO now to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the US Senate under new legislation.[65]


Deutsche Welle’s Federal government funding was €358m in 2017, a 13 per cent increase over the previous year.[66] Its funding is based on an agreed 4-year plan, with strict limits on how much advertising it can accept. It claims a 157 million weekly audience and has grown considerably since 2013, when the audience was 101 million.[67]

Celebrating its 65th anniversity in 2018, DW began in 1953 as a German-only SW radio service, adding other languages the following year. Its academy, DW Academy, was founded in 1965 and has trained journalists worldwide. DW’s TV and internet services commenced in the 1990s, and now has online output in 30 languages and TV in 4.[68]

The significance of DW’s standing as an effective public diplomacy tool was put under the spotlight in 2018 when the right-wing populist AfD party called for changes in DW’s statutory basis. In a debate in the Bundestag they particularly attacked DW’s support for “tolerance”. All other parties expressed strong support for DW.


France was an early mover in establishing an IPB, starting Le Poste Colonial in 1933, the predecessor of today’s Radio France Internationale (RFI). The current framework dates from the mid-1970s after significant political and financial disruption as a wing of the dysfunctional domestic broadcaster, ORTF.[69]

The successful renaissance for RFI is largely due to its focus on Africa, particularly Francophone countries, and targeting local audiences rather than expatriates.[70]

Further reorganisation in the mid-2000s placed RFI within the remit of a new agency, France Médias Monde, together with other French public international broadcasters France24, and the Arabic language radio station Monte Carlo Doualiya. France Médias Monde is an “implementing agency” of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, which provides most of RFI’s funding of 256 million Euros in 2019.[71]

Unlike the merged radio/TV/online presences of BBCWS and DW, RFI and France24 remain separate platforms. France24 is a video-based news channel on air and online 24/7 in French, English and Arabic along with Spanish TV broadcasting 6 hours daily.[72] RFI has radio and online services in 14 languages, available on FM, MW and SW frequencies.

The third network, Monte Carlo Doualiya (now known as MCD) targets audiences in the Middle East, Mauritania, Djibouti and South Sudan; its radio output is available on FM and MW but no longer on SW. It also has an audience among Arabic speakers in France.

The Francophonie channel TV5MONDE is a joint endeavour between France Médias Monde, and the national broadcasters of Switzerland, Belgium and Canada.


RT, as Russia Today has called itself since 2009, is a later and very different entrant into the international broadcasting arena.

RT describes its mission as “to make available an alternative point of view on world events, especially Russia-related ones.” It asserts that it is not a propaganda vehicle for the Russian Government but covers stories overlooked or underreported by the mainstream media; provides alternative perspectives on current affairs; and questions assumptions and clichés that may underlie other presentations of news and current affairs globally.[73]

Launched in 2005, RT now has eight TV channels broadcasting in Arabic, English, Russian, and Spanish. RT America, RT UK and RT France are dedicated channels for their respective target countries.[74] There are also online news services in French and German. RT’s main focus is on Europe and the Americas, largely neglecting the Pacific.

The Russian government investment in RT is significant: reports range from 19 billion rubles[75] (approx AUD400m) in 2016 to USD300m[76] (AUD420m) in 2017. Advertising brings an estimated GBP 750 000 (AUD 1.4m) a year for the UK channel.[77]

Organisationally separate from RT but pursuing a similar agenda is Sputnik International which combines international radio and online services (formerly Voice of Russia) with an international newswire (the international services of the former Novosti Agency). Sputnik has approximately 800 hours a week of radio output in some 30 languages; languages include English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. Sputnik is widely regarded in the West as a key element of Russian efforts to spread disinformation.

New Zealand

Radio New Zealand Pacific (RNZ Pac) is one of the smallest international broadcasters with an annual budget of just NZD1.9m,[78] but is notable for its stability. It focuses on the Pacific island nations including PNG, and its rebranding reflects its mission more accurately. TVNZ is a commercial entity, but provides news and programming to stations around the Pacific.

Alongside RNZI and TVNZ is Pacifika TV (Pacific Cooperation Broadcasting Limited) which was established in 2015. Funded through the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Pacific Cooperation Foundation, it provides NZ-originated content to other Pacific broadcasters and supports their production of local content with field equipment and training.

Japan, South Korea, India

Japan, South Korea and India provide significant state funding for international public broadcasting through their respective domestic public broadcast organisations. Japan’s NHK stands out in this group as one whose financial basis has improved against expectations earlier this decade.

Funding for NHK World and South Korea’s KBS comes from household TV licence fees. India’s Doodorshan international TV channel (DD-India) and All India Radio (AIR) along with a second Korean IPB, Arirang, are funded from general tax revenues through the respective controlling ministries.

NHK World Japan provides content for TV (in English), radio (17 languages) and online in addition to a TV and a radio channel targeted at Japanese overseas. Funding has grown in recent years; the proportion of licence fee income ring-fenced for NHK World has risen from 3 per cent to 4.4 per cent of the total, approximately ¥31 billion (almost AUD400 million).[79] In mid-2018, Japan rebranded the service from “NHK World TV” to “NHK World Japan”, to “establish wider global recognition for the service’s Japanese roots in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games”.[80]

Korea’s KBS World TV and KBS World Radio target expatriate Koreans on themes of reunification, although many TV programs are subtitled in English (97 per cent), Chinese (21 per cent) and Malay (10 per cent). Arirang sees itself as a “media diplomacy channel” with a focus on providing news and information about Korea. KBS has faced accusations that conservative-government appointed governors have dictated programming.[81]

India’s IPBs receive funding from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, although under legislation, funding for the IPBs is the responsibility of External Affairs. Their reluctance to pay leads to intermittent threats to close DD-India and AIR.[82] AIR has 27 languages on air and online of which 12 are Indian and 15 foreign, although English output predominates.

In terms of audience measurement, these broadcasters highlight reach rather than actual user figures, which can be assumed to be generally a much smaller number.

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera commenced as an Arabic broadcaster in 1996, funded almost entirely by the then Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Its English-language television service, which is seen as more independent of Qatar than its Arabic sister channel, was introduced in 2006.[83] At the time of the Lowy Institute’s 2010 report, Al Jazeera was planning a significant global expansion, with additional bureaux in the pipeline. In the past decade, however, Qatar has shifted priorities and tightened budgets, and has curbed the broadcaster’s ambitious plans.

Al Jazeera America was launched in 2013 but closed two years later, its failure attributed to changing media industry economics restrictive distribution agreements and internal turmoil. As Fortune magazine pointed out, “… at a time when ISIL and anti-Islamic sentiment is such an issue, the name of the channel probably didn’t help.”[84]

A year later, the shuttering of Al Jazeera was among demands put to Qatar by a group of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia in response to Qatar’s apparent support for extremist groups. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain had severed relations with Qatar for its promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamists around the region “including those who have advanced extremist or sectarian views on the channel”. The network, in turn, accuses them of attempting “to silence the freedom of expression in the region.”[85]

Despite the challenges, Al Jazeera maintains a global media network with more than 70 bureaux and a staff of more than 3000.[86]

The Netherlands

Radio Netherlands Wereldomroep/Worldwide no longer broadcasts. In June 2011 the Netherlands government cut RNW’s budget from €46m to €14m. A year later both the Dutch (May 2012) and English (June 2012) services ceased.[87]

Before its demise RNW was funded by the Dutch Education and Culture Ministry which gave RNW about 6 per cent of total government funding for media. The Dutch Foreign Ministry now funds an NGO, RNW Media, with a mandate to promote free speech through new media. It has websites in English, Arabic, Mandarin, French and Spanish. About 30 staff remain at the base in Hilversum, compared with 300 in 2012. RNW Media describes its mission as: 

“a centre of expertise that builds digital communities for social change. We use online media to engage young people on sensitive and often-taboo subjects … By facilitating their access to information and amplifying their voices, young people can contribute actively to making their societies more inclusive.”[88]

Government funding is on a severe taper, and from 2020 RNW Media is expected to compete for all of its funding.


Canada has placed negligible emphasis on international broadcasting in the past two decades, a decline which predated the Lowy Institute’s 2010 survey.

After 67 years of SW broadcasting, Radio Canada International was reduced to an internet-only platform by mid-2012. The Harper Government’s cuts that year to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation slashed 80 per cent of RCI’s budget from CAD12.3m to CAD2.3m.[89] Seven years later and despite a significant CAD150m reinvestment plan in CBC under the Trudeau Government, RCI remains essentially domestic CBC programming offered in five languages — English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic — via French-Canadian content is broadcast through TV5Monde. The ongoing insignificance of RCI to CBC’s strategic directions is reflected in its 2019 Corporate Plan in which the only reference to RCI is about access to the service via the internet.[90]

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