The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP

Speech to the National Newspaper Publishers' Conference

Gold Coast, 28 August 2006

Foreign Policy Values and the Media


Thank you for the chance to speak to you this morning. I would like to use this opportunity to cover two inter-related topics today.

First I would like to talk about the principles that drive Australian foreign policy under this Government.

You might feel sometimes that our foreign policy is driven by the 24 hour news cycle. However, there is a deeper set of principles that drives Australia's approach to the world.

Second, I would like to talk a little about the media's role in foreign policy, because the media plays a very important role in shaping Australian's perceptions of the world and how other countries see Australia.

Foreign Policy Principles

At the core of foreign policy are Australian values, which guide our approach to the world.

Our national identity informs our foreign policy, not the other way around.

And that identity places a premium on freedom - freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of religion, liberal democratic values and liberal economic values.

Anyone who doubts my personal commitment to a free media only needs to look at my website where they will find 300 transcripts of doorstops and interviews from last year and 225 so far from this year.

As Foreign Minister, I think it's enormously important to be out there in the media talking to the Australian community about what is going on in the world, how it will affect Australia, and explaining the Government's position on world events.

We are also committed to running an open Government. Don't forget, it was a Coalition Government that introduced freedom of information legislation in 1982.

In fact, Australia was the first Westminster-style government to legislate for freedom of information.

Liberal democracy

Our commitment to the principles of freedom extends to our foreign policy; it informs this government's approach in a number of areas.

We strongly believe that liberal democracy is the soundest basis for peace and prosperity.

And it is in Australia's interests for democracy to spread.

Indeed, the Australian people would not support any government that conducted foreign policy divorced from the values which underpin our own society.

These values are increasingly being adopted.

Sixty-seven dictatorships have fallen around the world since 1972. A billion individuals - in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America - have been freed from undemocratic and sometimes oppressive regimes in one generation.

By promoting democracy and freedom we are not simply promoting an idea.

We are working towards a system that delivers practical results.

While undemocratic regimes can sometimes promote stability in the short or even in the medium term, growth and development are more likely over the longer term in a free society.

Democracies are also less likely to go to war with each other. So it is firmly in our national interests to see the spread of liberal democratic traditions, particularly in our region.

The sceptics argue that there are parts of the world where democracy cannot take root.

They say it is a western concept, incompatible with Islamic culture or in conflict with Asian values.

This is simply wrong.

People said democracy would not work in Germany, in Japan and South Korea and in Eastern Europe.

But the desire for freedom is not an accident of one's birthplace. It's universal.

Interestingly, we don't hear much these days about "Asian values".

In the 1990s much was made of the argument that, for Asia, economic development was more important than political and social freedoms.

Claims were made that a preoccupation with social and political rights would undermine social cohesion and a more communitarian tradition.

Rather, Asia is an increasingly democratic place with regular and peaceful transfers of government, with a few notable exceptions.

Of course, this is not an argument that all counties should conform to a single model.

Australia's experience differs from the United States, or even Britain.

Countries in Asia, the Pacific and elsewhere will find their own paths to a democratic system.

Cultural differences are real and to be appreciated.

But they can never be used as an excuse to deny the importance of fundamental rights and freedoms.


Indonesia is a good example of a successful transition to democracy and also what Australia does to support democratic development.

Indonesia is a significant power in the region, a robust and evolving democracy, a pluralist society and valued neighbour for Australia.

It is home to the world's largest Muslim population and is the world's third largest democracy.

President Yudhoyono and his Administration are to be commended for their efforts to advance democratic reform.

The success to date in the Aceh peace process is a major achievement - and Australia will continue to encourage and assist Indonesia in its reform process.

We support Indonesia's democracy in a number of ways through the aid program.

Through AusAID, we support legal reform by providing training to legislators, judges and prosecutors.

For example, last year we hosted a group of 22 judges and registrars from Indonesia's Religious Court to visit the Family Court of Australia and learn about Australia's court management and administration.

We support the electoral process in Indonesia, for example, by funding organisations monitoring the local elections which started last year.

These are the first popular elections to select governors, district heads and mayors, so building public confidence in these elections has been an important contribution.


Across the Pacific we help the democratic process in a number of ways.

Through the Centre for Democratic Institutions we have provided induction training for new members of parliament in Solomon Islands and Fiji.

We're also funding the Centre to do research and training to strengthen political parties in the region.

This is because countries need coherent political parties with stable roots in society for their democratic systems to function effectively.

Without strong political parties you get endemic instability and a lack of coherent and consistent policy.

So, building stronger political parties, just like strengthening parliaments and giving training to new MPs, is something we can do to help democratic development in our region.

Promoting Australia

When we talk of values, this Government is unashamed of promoting Australia and its values…

… not necessarily as a model to adopt, but at least as an example of a successful country from whom others can learn.

We do this very actively in the Asia Pacific region and globally through the media.

This includes the print media, radio and television.

I'd like to spend a few minutes here on how we engage the media in our foreign policy - public diplomacy if you like - before I move on to the role of the media more broadly.

Domestically, the doorstop press conference, the media release and providing briefings to journalists are the backbone of our communications with the public.

But I don't need to tell you that there is no longer a distinction between the domestic message and the international message.

Foreign correspondents based in Australia base much of their reporting on what's in the domestic press.

And domestic reports are picked up by papers and electronic media around the world.

Sometimes this causes problems for the image of Australia overseas.

The Redfern riots and the Cronulla riots are an example, where people overseas got the impression that law and order had broken down across Sydney, which was not the case.

There's not much the Government can do in these situations when a big story overwhelms the media coverage of Australia.

But over the medium term, in the background, we work away at our public diplomacy programs to build an accurate and positive image of contemporary Australia.

We do this by bringing out prominent journalists from overseas.

For example, this month we've hosted Mark Steyn, a prominent columnist from the United States and Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the Hindustan Times, based in New Delhi.

Earlier in the year we hosted two groups of trade and economic editors from China, a media contingent from Iraq…

… and four senior defence journalists from ASEAN countries who came to observe a counter-proliferation exercise.

We also promote Australian culture by sending films, art and entertainers overseas.

And every overseas post has a public diplomacy strategy setting out how the Head of Mission and staff will promote Australia through the media and directly to civil society.

Here I'd like to mention briefly the electronic media - Radio Australia and the Australia Network television service.

Radio Australia

In my view Radio Australia has done a fantastic job over many years promoting Australia in the region.

In many countries, people's knowledge of Australia stems from listening to crackly broadcasts over shortwave radio.

Radio Australia has long been a valued source of independent and reliable news, particularly in countries where the mainstream media was heavily controlled.

Radio Australia has been reinventing itself in recent years, taking advantage of new technologies and finding new audiences.

It is now using FM radio more and more as the method to reach audiences, either on a dedicated channel or through Australian programs re-broadcast on other stations.

For example, Radio Australia now has FM broadcasts across much of the Pacific including Port Moresby and Suva.

In Fiji the audience has increased from 0.8% to 28%. And in PNG one in three adults listens to Radio Australia on a weekly basis.

In Cambodia and Vietnam, transmission over shortwave has ceased altogether.

In Cambodia, Radio Australia now broadcasts 24 hours a day to Phnom Penh and Siam Reap on FM radio.

In Vietnam, getting a licence is next to impossible, so Radio Australia broadcasts over the internet.

Vietnamese listeners access programs by podcast through a purpose-build website that also includes "blogging" and targets the 18-40 audience who are keen to learn English and interested in the outside world.

In Singapore, Radio Australia has even gone one step further.

Last week it became the first Australian radio station to broadcast digitally on an ongoing basis via Singapore's new digital radio network.

Radio Australia also plays an important further supporting role in our foreign policy agenda.

Funded by AusAID, they are helping to strengthen national broadcasters in Cambodia, PNG and Solomon Islands.

These are places where nation-building is an important priority for us, and Radio Australia's work with a national broadcaster can help to develop the national cohesion that these countries need to succeed.

We do this with the print media as well.

AusAID is funding a new staff exchange between the Vientiane Times in Laos and the Canberra Times, through the Business Volunteers Program.

Over the years, AusAID has provided training programs for print journalists in the Pacific.

Australia Network Television

I launched the new Asia Pacific television service - now known as Australia Network - earlier this month.

It has a footprint that reaches from Cook Islands in the east to Mongolia in the north and west to India, covering 41 countries.

It provides the region with an Australian alternative to the British and US-centric networks.

And it will be more focussed on the region than its predecessor.

Australia network will have dedicated correspondents in Delhi, Beijing, Jakarta and the Pacific, as well as drawing on the ABC's correspondents.

The Government is provided funding for the service until 2011.

The responsibilities of the media

From our own public diplomacy strategies, I now want to talk about how the media's own reporting of issues can affect Australia's interests and the responsibilities of the media.

The first dimension to this issue is how Australians get their news about overseas events.

On the whole, we get a good standard of writing on many of the key topics that shape our international relations, including developments in the US, UK and Europe and with our Asian neighbours.

However, I have to say I have been disappointed with some of the recent reporting out of the Middle East, which I believe has brought discredit upon the Western media.

Let's not dwell on the shock-horror headlines surrounding the Australian Government's efforts to evacuate more than 5000 Australian nationals out of a war zone.

I think it is widely accepted today that the early assertions that the Government and its diplomats were too slow to react were ill-founded, not to say grossly unfair, to many of my officials who worked under extremely arduous and gruelling conditions to get all Australians who wanted to leave out of Lebanon.

What concerns me greatly is the evidence of dishonesty in the reporting out of Lebanon.

For example, a Reuters photographer was forced to resign after doctoring images to exaggerate the impact of Israeli air attacks.

There were the widely-reported claims that Israel had bombed deliberately a Red Cross ambulance.

In subsequent weeks, the world has discovered those allegations do not stand up to even the most rudimentary scrutiny.

After closer study of the images of the damage to the ambulance, it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.

Yet some of the world's most prestigious media outlets, including some of those represented here today, ran that story as fact - unchallenged, unquestioned.

Similarly, there has been the tendency to report every casualty on the Lebanese side of the conflict as if a civilian casualty, when it was indisputable that a great many of those injured or killed in Israeli offensives were armed Hezbollah combatants.

My point is this: in a grown-up society such as our own, the media cannot expect to get away with parading falsehoods as truths, or ignoring salient facts because they happen to be inconvenient to the line of argument - or narrative - that particular journalists, or media organisations, might choose to adopt on any given controversy or issue.

This is not just a politician complaining.

The public is onto this. Your readers and viewers are not fools.

They talk about these things in pubs and clubs. And I would venture to say that these lapses in accuracy, the distortion of images and the failure to report the straight facts, has made it that much harder a job for the Western media to restore its credibility in the public mind.

Sixty five per cent of the department's 10,000 annual media enquiries with the media relate to consular issues.

And while I can understand the demands on journalists and editors to get the story, I also make no apology for the fact that my first responsibility is a consular responsibility for the Australians affected.

We run a consular service, not a media service.

And we have privacy concerns that must be respected.

What we can do sometimes is help the process by working with the family to get a statement or a well-chosen photo that can be used in the press, while at the same time ensuring that they are afforded the decency and respect we all deserve in times of crisis.

Foreign policy is a complex area and it's important to Australia that the media get the story right, which is mostly the case.

To help accuracy, senior Departmental staff last year gave more than 130 background briefings to individual journalists and 20 general media briefings.

We can't always give a briefing when we're asked.

For example, in the lead-up to sensitive negotiations we can't publicly reveal our hand. But where we can give a briefing, we will.

We also make a big effort to ensure that the material on our website is comprehensive and up to date.

And for the sake of clarity, let me reinforce what I've said already, a free media, whatever its shortcomings, is as important to society as the executive, legislature or judiciary.

But that freedom comes with responsibilities.

Standards of decency and respect for others and self-restraint are clearly important elements for the media to consider.

Freedom cannot be unqualified and cannot operate without regard to the effect on others.

We see this in restrictions on reporting of matters before the courts, for example.

In my view, the Danish cartoons of last year crossed those boundaries.

Now, I absolutely defend the right of publishers to print this material.

But publishers also need to be mindful of the implications of their actions.

In this case, I think it was unfortunate that the Danish newspaper published these offensive cartoons in the first place.

I was glad to see that only one or two Australian papers re-published the cartoons.

Of course I utterly condemn the violent reactions to the cartoons.


To conclude my remarks, I'd like to come back to my main point, that the values that underpin a free press also underpin our wider foreign policy.

As a free press, you will claim the right to report it as you see it, unsentimentally, even when that might cause problems for the execution of our foreign policy, or for our image abroad.

But we who have responsibilities in government also have the right to call it as we see it - and to point out that, even in the most free of societies, the first duty of a responsible media is to get the facts straight, and to get the story right, even when that story might not necessarily conform to your own opinions or prejudices.

With that, I wish you all the best for this conference.