Australia Chinese whispers: in search of truth about the ‘China threat’ in the Australian media
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I was recently startled to hear a report that China was in the business of buying up Australian news organisations and requiring them to adopt pro-Beijing editorial policies. University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism emeritus Professor Philip Seib was beingfor ABC Radio National, and he now had my full attention.
Interviewer Julian Morrow introduced Seib as the “world’s leading expert” on media and war, and the focus of the interview was the expanding threat of information warfare, following the publication of Seib’s new book.
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Russia and China are the nations most culpable of disinformation, according to Seib, and the Chinese are “very ambitious” to take hold of the world stage. Pressed for more details about China’s media ownership in Australia, Seib claimed that Beijing has resorted to “purchasing news organisations” and “putting in editorial policy that is more favourable to Beijing” in Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia. As a result, “many” Chinese-language news organisations are soft on the “Beijing regime”.
As a media academic who has spent the last five years researching Chinese-language media in Australia, I was astonished to hear Seib’s claim about the level of Chinese influence. His finding was certainly at odds with my own research data.
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Keen to know the source of Seib’s information, I emailed him. He sent me theon which his claim was based, which asserts that “Beijing is said to have infiltrated 95% of the Chinese-language newspapers” in Australia. The report didn’t provide a source for that figure, and it didn’t mention Beijing “purchasing” these newspapers.
My mild concern with Seib’s claim now turned to alarm. How could I have missed such crucial data? Being a pedantic researcher, I went down an academic rabbit hole in search of the source of the staggering 95% claim. After much digging, I found that the figure had appeared in an onlinepublished in 2016 by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a global Chinese-language media company based in the United States. According to an with company president Zhong Lee it was founded and run by Falun Gong practitioners.
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The NTDTV article in turn cited a Sydney Morning Heraldwhich says “nearly 95% of the Australian Chinese newspapers have been brought in by the Chinese government to some degree”, quoting an anonymous editor who works at a “pro-Chinese government publication in Australia”.
Given the eye-watering and seemingly precise nature of the figure, it is astonishing that the SMH journalists did not ask the anonymous source how they arrived at this figure. What was the size and scope of the source’s sample? Did the research focus on print media alone, or did it take into account digital Chinese-language media which, by 2016, were already threatening the survival of Chinese-language newspapers?
And most importantly, in exactly what way have these news organisations been “brought in” by the Chinese government’?
I became more concerned when I realised that the SMH story had appeared just two months before I publishedon Chinese-language media in Australia that painted a much more complex picture about Australia’s Chinese-language media landscape.
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I recount this anecdote here as an example of how current public knowledge of Chinese influence is produced, involving the participation of English-language mainstream media such as the SMH and ABC, reputable scholars such as Philip Seib, prestigious scholarly institutions such as Annenberg, globally recognised NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders, and Falun Gong-funded Chinese-language outlets such as NTDTV.
While I reached an “anonymous” dead end in my attempt to get to the bottom of the 95% figure, what I did find from this source-excavating exercise was almost literally a series of Chinese whispers — a process involving the eager but often unwitting input of scholars, reporters, media organisations and NGOs with a specific, if perhaps unconscious, political agenda. It is a process whereby sensationalism feeds on ignorance and preys on credulity.
Standing alone, the claim made by the SMH was already on shaky ground, lacking in rigour, accuracy, precision and nuance. But more worryingly, it ended up becoming the source of a vicious cycle of “knowledge” production, whereby each time the figure was quoted, the narrative underwent a round of simplification, generalisation and distortion.
At no point was the basis of the evidence verified, the validity of the claims examined, the credibility of the source questioned, or the truth status of the claim challenged.
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This kind of vicious cycle is something we are seeing too often in the Australian media’s construction of Chinese influence and the China threat. If this is the level of rigour and credibility in the media’s coverage of Chinese-language media, what can we expect of its coverage of other domains of alleged Chinese influence? Spare a thought for Radio National listeners, SMH readers and the great majority of the English-speaking mainstream public. This is their staple diet of China-related media content, and yet, prima facie, most people see no reason to question what they read or hear.
Goaded by this sense of unease about mainstream reporting on Chinese-language media, I decided to publish a series of five public-facingover the last couple of months, as well as give a , “Inside the ‘black box’ of Chinese-language media in Australia”.
I’m aware that my critiques of the Australian media’sof China-related issues and their of Chinese people may simply be, to borrow a metaphor from Paul Keating, “throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain” of well-established half-truths that are firmly lodged in the public’s mind about myriad aspects of China.
For several years establishing claims based on statements uttered by sources who cannot be named has been the main journalistic game in town. And there are winners and losers in this game.
To be sure, journalists get their story, publications get their clicks, professors of journalism publish their books, Reporters Without Borders produce their reports in defence of press freedom, and anti-CCP media produce yet more bias-confirming “proof” of Beijing’s infiltration. About this current situation, China Story Blog and China Neican co-editor Adam Ni observed wryly in a private social media group, “Everyone benefits, except for the public, except for Chinese Australians”.
This story of Chinese whispers invites a fundamental question that has become too urgent for the Australian media to ignore: what is the role of the Australian media, especially news media, in shaping a sense of who we are as a nation, amidst talk of a Cold War with China? How do these media produce public knowledge about a country that is increasingly imagined as our strategic enemy?
Who calls the shots when it comes to truth claims about Chinese influence in Australia? I hope to address some of these questions in a forthcoming.
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