On a Saturday morning two weeks ago while browsing WeChat, I saw an announcement of the signing of a memorandum between the Australia-China Relations Institute and Xinhua, China’s official news agency. Intrigued, I searched Xinhua’s website, and, sure enough, found a news story confirming this post.
The story also mentioned that altogether six deals between Australian and Chinese media had been signed that day. Afraid that I had missed something very important, I searched the ABC, Fairfax and news.com.au websites, hoping to get more details, but in vain.
Frustrated, I dug deeper into the Chinese websites. Between news stories in the People’s Daily (the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship publication), China Daily (China’s official English-language daily), and Xinhua news briefings, I was able to get a sense of the nature and breadth of these agreements.
A few days after these deals were signed, Australian readers eventually got wind of these deals, but mainly via non-mainstream online forums such as crikey.com.au and the Lowy Interpreter. Philip Wen, Fairfax’s China correspondent, pieced together a story on 31 May, but it only made it to the online business section — not, apparently, to any of Fairfax’s print publications.
Meanwhile, readers across the Tasman Sea were none the wiser, either. Following the publication of an article about these deals in the Interpreter that John Fitzgerald and I had co-written, the producer of Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch program rang me to say that the Dominion Post (a Wellington-based Fairfax paper) had just published “China Watch”, an eight page lift-out from the China Daily, and he asked me if I knew of any similar arrangements in Australia.
These deals are certainly newsworthy enough to warrant at least a mention in Australia’s mainstream media, and I was surprised at their absence. This silence is inconsistent with the Australian media’s usual practices. In the past, the standard angle when reporting on China’s media has been to attack China for its freedom of speech issues, censorship and propaganda. In fact, the mainstream Australian media seem to be ever poised to report on anything that smacks of media manipulation or censorship in China.
The silence is also in sharp contrast with the triumphal tone of media coverage of past deals with China. Whenever an Australian media organisation has struck such a deal in the past, the impulse has been to present this as a coup, to brag about “cracking the Chinese market”, or “penetrating the iron curtain”. This was certainly how the partnership between the ABC and the Shanghai Media Group was covered in the Australian media.
Except this time, neither of these angles seems appropriate. This time, it’s the Chinese who are bragging.
Fairfax is keen to stress that this was merely a commercial printing arrangement, implying that there was nothing sinister. If so, surely at least its own stakeholders and readers would want to know about it? Imagine some kind of business or investment deal between China and Australia, something that may bring money or jobs here.
Surely, the dealmakers would want to tell the whole country about it as soon as possible? Perhaps Fairfax can see the irony of its papers criticising China for its propaganda, while simultaneously selling space for it? Could this be one reason, anticipating such tricky questions from journalists and the public alike, that they might have preferred to keep quiet?
As a well-known Chinese saying goes, “If you accept food from someone, you are weak in the mouth; if you accept money from someone, you are weak in the hand”. Translated into colloquial English, this may simply mean “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. The reality is that when the Chinese Chief of Propaganda knocks on our door, cash in hand, the temptation must be hard to resist.
But if Fairfax had good reason to be quiet about its deal, other Australian media also appear to have been quite slow to twig. It is possible that they simply did not cotton on to the many implications of these deals, which raise questions about such matters as the editorial independence and journalistic autonomy of Australian media, the changing Australian media landscape, and the need for more vigorous cross-media scrutiny — and, of course, about the need for more transparent information for stakeholders and the general public about backroom deals.
The truth is that we’re entering a new era, with a new political and economic reality, and the Australian media seem to be caught short on how to respond.
There are at least two ways of interpreting the Australian media’s silence about these deals. One is that they just have a blind spot in their coverage of China. A less charitable reading, however, is that we are witnessing a moment in which the hypocrisy of the Australian media has reached new heights.
Take your pick.