Voice of Australia shouts to stay on air

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The Independent Online
Prime ministers and independence leaders have protested loudly. The row has even reached the United Nations. From all over the South Pacific, the cry has gone out: save Radio Australia.

The overseas service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is facing closure after 58 years of beaming news, music and current affairs programmes on crackly shortwave frequencies to some of the most remote communities on earth. The problem is money, a cost-cutting government pruning its commitment to public broadcasting, and the march of new technology.

Radio Australia went on the air in 1939, seven years after its mother organisation, the then Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), started broadcasting. Both institutions were modelled on the BBC and the BBC World Service. Radio Australia broadcasts in seven languages, besides English, across a region stretching from China and Indonesia to Tonga and French Polynesia. Its revenue comes from the ABC's total budget of A$500m (pounds 250m), a yearly grant voted by parliament.

Enter the conservative Liberal-National coalition, led by John Howard, which set about hacking public spending after winning last year's general election. The ABC was among its first targets. The government set up an inquiry into the ABC led by Bob Mansfield, a business manager.

When he reported last month, Mr Mansfield unexpectedly endorsed the ABC's performance in its five domestic radio networks and its national television network. The sting was his recommendation that Radio Australia be closed.

Richard Alston, the federal minister for communications, has endorsed Mr Mansfield's recommendation, describing Radio Australia as an "expendable service".

Critics in Australia say the impending closure makes a mockery of Canberra's bid to extend Australia's trade and diplomatic influence in the region. Critics from overseas say that Radio Australia is a beacon of uncensored information in countries such as Indonesia, where news is subject to government controls.

The furore has produced a stalemate. The besieged ABC board is divided over Radio Australia; it declined to endorse its closure at its latest meeting. Radio Australia's supporters say the regional goodwill that would flow from keeping it on the air would be worth more to Canberra than the saving on its budget, at A$13.5m (pounds 6m) a drop in the ABC's ocean.