Right-wing shock jock stoush reveals the awful truth about COVID, politics and media ratings


Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneA COVID-induced rancour that has broken out between Sydney’s commercial radio shock jocks and the Sky News night-time ravers over Sydney’s lockdown would be funny if it were not so serious.

It is mildly entertaining to see 2GB’s Ray Hadley excoriating his former colleague Alan Jones, now at Sky, for his “ridiculous stance” against the lockdown, with Jones calling New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian “gutless” for extending it.

Hadley went on to brand Sky’s Andrew Bolt a “lapdog” for agreeing with Jones, and Bolt retaliated by calling Hadley a “weak and ignorant man who panders to an ugly pack”.

It takes one to know one, of course, but behind all this spittle-flecked slanging there is a serious issue: the disproportionate political power of a small group of radio and television broadcasters in Sydney.

It is one factor that helps explain the procrastination and prevarication that have marked the premier’s response.

Long before COVID-19 afflicted the world, the shock jocks of Sydney commercial radio stations, particularly 2GB and 2UE, had created a successful business model built on outrage.

It is based on a political ideology that appeals to an older audience living in what Jones is pleased to call “Struggle Street”. It is not conservatism, as they like to claim, but rank reactionaryism.

In marginal electorates, largely in western Sydney, there are enough people who find this ideology attractive to make politicians nervous.

That is what has given these jocks political power incommensurate with their position in Australia’s democratic institutional arrangements.

They have become a kind of shadow government in New South Wales.

For example, in 2001, when Bob Carr, a Labor Premier, was about to appoint Michael Costa police minister, he sent Costa to Jones’s home to discuss law-and-order policy.




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In 2017, a former Director of Public Prosecutions in New South Wales, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, singled out Jones and Hadley, as well as the recently resurrected John Laws, as wielding disproportionate power over politicians and other policy-makers.

They hate, to differing degrees, independent statutory officers such as Directors of Public Prosecutions who speak out objectively on issues in criminal justice.

In more recent times, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has relied on Hadley to provide him with a friendly platform on which to propagandise.

The relationship between the two has been described as a “bromance”, although it had a temporary rupture in 2015 when Hadley tried to have Morrison swear on the Bible concerning any role he might have had in the demise of Tony Abbott as prime minister.

Scott Morrison often relies on sympathetic interviews on Hadley’s show to get his message across.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Berejiklian, as a Liberal premier, has also prospered in her commercial radio relationships, most notably from the benignity of Jones’s successor in the 2GB breakfast slot, Ben Fordham.

He was supportive of her even during the embarrassing disclosures about her relationship with the Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who is the subject of an ICAC investigation.

So she had a stake in not rattling the shock jocks’ cages. That meant trying to hold the line against lockdowns.

However, that calculation changed abruptly last week after the latest Sydney radio ratings showed that for the first time in 18 years, 2GB lost the breakfast time-slot.




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The winners were the KIIS FM pair of Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, whose shtick involves penis pageants and a determination not to be “woke”.

Horrified fellow-travellers in the right-wing commentariat pounced on Fordham. Jones was especially vitriolic. His successors, he said, didn’t have the “balls” to stand up to “cancel culture warriors”. Government, media and big pharma seemed to be all in bed together, and the media were too ready to accommodate the left.

Management at 2GB were also aghast. The Australian reported they told Fordham to take a harder line with Berejiklian, and Fordham duly delivered. Three days after the ratings results had come out, he unleashed this on-air tirade against the Premier’s lockdown decision:

The virus hasn’t killed anyone this year, but the lockdowns, the extensions, the excuses, the mistakes, the missed opportunities, they are killing this city fast. And stop telling us it’s about the health advice!

By now Berejikilian was in a bind.

There was her own hubris, proclaiming her state doesn’t do lockdowns.

There was Scott Morrison’s hostility to lockdowns, exemplified by his repeated attacks on the Victorian Labor Government. Was she to be a source of further embarrassment to him over how the pandemic is playing out?

There was Morrison’s cosy relationship with the likes of Hadley, in which their reciprocal position on lockdowns was self-reinforcing.

And there was the demonstrated willingness by 2GB station management to go after Berejiklian in pursuit of better ratings for Fordham’s breakfast show.

In the circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that she has procrastinated and prevaricated.

If, as many epidemiologists are saying, the so-called “light” approach is condemning Sydney to a long lockdown and exposing the rest of the country to avoidable risk, the role of the jocks in creating the political climate in which Berejiklian is operating since the Delta strain took hold should not be underestimated.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media reports about vaccine hesitancy could contribute to the problem


Heather Green, Griffith University and Joan Carlini, Griffith UniversityAlongside logistical and supply issues, vaccine hesitancy has been a notable hurdle in Australia’s troubled vaccine rollout.

The news the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) now recommends Pfizer over AstraZeneca for everyone under 60, owing to a rare blood clotting disorder, is proving another blow to vaccine confidence.

With active local COVID cases in Victoria and New South Wales, it’s timely to be considering all possible factors which may be contributing to vaccine hesitancy.

One is the media. While news reports of vaccine hesitancy may well be describing genuine community concerns, they could be inadvertently fuelling COVID vaccine fears.

Why are some Australians reluctant to get a COVID vaccine?

While Australians perceive their environment is safe and relatively free from COVID-19, some will remain unmotivated to have the jab. They may hesitate to be immunised as they believe the vaccine could pose a greater risk than the virus itself.

This is not the case. ATAGI’s evolving recommendations ensure the benefit of getting vaccinated against COVID outweighs the risk for every age group.

Fear, meanwhile, is a behavioural motivator. The latest outbreak in Melbourne saw record numbers of Victorians turn up for vaccination.




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A Griffith University survey conducted in the middle of 2020 found 68% of people would take a COVID-19 vaccine if one was available. Those who said they wouldn’t had concerns regarding side effects, quality of testing, and speed of vaccine development.

So we can see even when community transmission in Australia was higher, and before we knew about rare adverse events like the blood clots, safety was a key concern.

A person puts their hand up against their upper arm, so as to block an injection.
Vaccine hesitancy can stem from concerns about the safety of the vaccine.
Shutterstock

Reporting on vaccine hesitancy could worsen the problem

For the past several months, it seems as though every other day there’s been a new report or survey in the news, revealing x proportion of people are hesitant about getting a COVID vaccine.

Our attitudes and behaviours are shaped by what others in society do — social norms. A recent study found university students in the United States who perceived their peers felt COVID-19 vaccination was important were more likely to report they intended to get a vaccine themselves.

Similarly, it’s important to acknowledge there’s a real danger hesitancy and delay in vaccination, when reported widely in the media, could catch on to more people.




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A review of 34 studies found the way parents interpreted media reports about vaccination depended on their pre-existing beliefs. For example, a report of a “rare” side effect might reassure parents who already believed vaccine benefits outweigh risks, whereas the same report could discourage parents who were already concerned about side effects.

Indeed, humans are prone to confirmation bias — paying more attention to information that fits with prior beliefs. Seeking and considering evidence which goes against our beliefs is hard for our brains.

But the media can help with this in the way they frame their reports. For example, emphasising that the majority of Australians want to and intend to vaccinate is a better option than focusing on the number who don’t.

For people already hesitating, another report could further shift the balance away from vaccination. So reporters should think carefully about the way they present vaccine hesitancy stories (and the need to present them in the first instance).

Reporting on vaccine safety also must be handled carefully

In Italy, media reporting about a small number of deaths following a batch of influenza vaccines in the winter of 2014/2015 was linked to a 10% reduction in influenza vaccination among people 65 and older compared to the previous season.

These deaths were quickly confirmed as unrelated to vaccination, but it seems the early reports had a significant effect on behaviour.

In a global study, three of 13 national and state level immunisation managers interviewed said “negative information conveyed in the mass media” contributed to vaccine hesitancy in their countries.

On the flip side, media reports about influenza and vaccination can also increase vaccination uptake. In this study, careful data analysis showed higher numbers of news reports with “influenza” or “flu” in the headline corresponded with higher flu vaccination uptake in the same year.

A man on a tablet computer.
Media coverage about vaccines can both help and hinder vaccine confidence.
Shutterstock

What should the media aim for in reporting on COVID vaccination?

Any reporting on Australians’ inclination to vaccinate should reinforce what is in fact the social norm — the intention of the majority to receive a COVID vaccine.

Further, media reporting on COVID vaccines should be careful to contextualise the benefits alongside the risks, and regularly remind consumers of reliable sources such as federal and state health departments and ATAGI.




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And while the media must be cognisant of its role, the government needs to act quickly to reverse the hesitancy trend. People are looking for reasons to have the jab; they are desperate for a national roadmap out of COVID-19.

If Australians could see how becoming vaccinated would contribute to economic prosperity (for example, reopening tourism and international education), and facilitate other things returning to normal, such as our ability to travel overseas, they would be motivated into action.The Conversation

Heather Green, Senior Lecturer, School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University and Joan Carlini, Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alarmist reporting on COVID-19 will only heighten people’s anxieties and drive vaccine hesitancy


Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneFrom an ethics perspective, it has been a bad couple of weeks for media coverage of COVID-19.

First, there was a highly questionable story in The Australian about China allegedly weaponising coronavirus, with the headline “‘Virus warfare’ in China files” splashed across the front page.

The author of the article, Sharri Markson, claims a document written by Chinese scientists and Chinese public health officials in 2015 discussed the weaponisation of a SARS coronavirus.

According to the article, the document was headed “The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons”.

Markson reported the US State Department had obtained the document in the course of investigating the origin of COVID-19. In her article and others that followed, there was talk of a third world war in which biological weapons would be deployed.

However, Chengxin Pan, an associate professor at Deakin University, offered a different explanation for the document’s origins. He said in a tweet the document Markson cited was in fact a book, the contents of which could be found on the internet or at a Chinese online bookstore.

Dominic Meagher, an economist at the Lowy Institute with an extensive China background, tweeted the book was

pretty clearly an idiotic conspiracy theory about how the US and Japan had introduced SARS to China.

The ABC program Media Watch raised these questions and more about the article’s credibility.

Markson has replied that the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Global Times newspaper viewed the document as legitimate and not a conspiracy theory. She said while none of the critics quoted by Media Watch were bioweapons experts, she had interviewed multiple high-level specialists in biological weapons compliance.

The ethical problems here are twofold. First, there are clearly questions about the provenance of the document. Was the document uncovered by a US State Department investigation or is it a book available for public sale?

It is a basic fact that colours the entire article, and the questions are not resolved by Markson’s response.

Second, the way the story is framed as revealing Chinese weaponising of biological material is highly alarmist. This generates further public anxiety about COVID-19 and adds to the climate of Sinophobia in Australia. The justification for doing so is, on the available evidence, highly questionable.

In a pandemic or any other emergency, the first ethical duty of the media is to report accurately and soberly, and specifically not to induce unjustified anxiety or panic.




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Naming and shaming

In another major ethical lapse, the Australian Financial Review ran a story that named and shamed a Sydney man who had tested positive for the virus. To make it worse, the newspaper put his photo on the front page.

This was wrong and irresponsible for several reasons.

The man had visited several barbecue shops across Sydney while unknowingly positive. When this became known as part of the media’s general contact-tracing publicity, he was dubbed “Barbecue Man” by the Sydney media.

So he was already a figure of fun when the Financial Review identified him. Its excuse for naming him? He was a financial analyst doing due diligence on the Barbecues Galore chain. The AFR’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, claimed this meant it was in the public interest to identify him as carrying COVID.

That is absolute drivel. There is no rational connection between the man’s health and the health of the barbecue business.

Other media, including the Daily Mail and news.com, jumped on the bandwagon and named him, too. Both outlets even ran a photo grabbed from Facebook of the man and his wife. No moral compass whatever.

If the media go on doing this, it will discourage people from coming forward for testing. Who wants to see themselves plastered over the front page and given names like Barbecue Man? That is where the irresponsibility lies.

The Age was guilty of something similar a couple of months ago when it published a map of the weekend movements of a young man who was unwittingly COVID-positive and wrote an article holding him up to ridicule.

This kind of media behaviour is mediaeval: like putting people in the stocks and chucking rotten tomatoes at them. And it is a gross breach of privacy. A person’s health is among the most private classes of information that exists. To breach it for the sake of a cheap laugh is indefensible.




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Avoiding misleading information

These weren’t the only problematic reports. On May 13, the Australian Press Council found a subhead in the Herald Sun saying “Six People Died During Pfizer Trial” was misleading because it implied the vaccine caused the deaths, when in fact the deaths were not related to the vaccine.

Four of the six deceased had been given a placebo during the trial, and the other two deaths were not related to the vaccine.

The Herald Sun defended the subhead on the basis the story said the US Food and Drug Administration had been told about these deaths because they occurred during the period of the trial.

That is materially different from implying – as the headline clearly did – that the vaccine caused the deaths.

The press council said that newspapers needed to take more than usual care to avoid misleading the public in the midst of a pandemic. And by failing to do so, the Herald Sun had breached two of the council’s principles — one concerning accuracy and the other concerning fairness and balance.




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In an atmosphere where there is already a degree of resistance to being vaccinated, the Herald Sun subhead was clearly a beat-up with the potential to harm the public interest.

So, in the space of a couple of weeks elements of the print media have sought to capitalise without justification on public anxieties about China and the safety of COVID vaccines, and have pilloried an innocent man while at the same time committing a gross breach of his personal privacy.

In an age when the public must rely increasingly on the mass media for reliable and responsible information — since social media has shown itself to be unreliable and irresponsible — these newspapers have abrogated their first duty to the public.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How China used the media to spread its COVID narrative — and win friends around the world


An official from the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe greeting a plane carrying Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines from China.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Julia Bergin, The University of MelbourneAt the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoyed prime real estate in the centre of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade: his face plastered across a billboard with the words “Thank you brother Xi”.

The sign, courtesy of the pro-government tabloid Informer, was in response to China sending COVID-19 medical supplies to Serbia. It joined a long list of pro-China offerings of thanks from nations around the world during the pandemic in the form of overt propaganda or more subtle media messages.

A new report being published today by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which I co-authored with Louisa Lim of the University of Melbourne and Johan Lidberg of Monash University, has found Beijing’s global image has benefited from the pandemic, despite its origin in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Over half of the 50 nations surveyed at the end of 2020 reported coverage of China had become more positive in their national media since the onset of the pandemic, while less than a quarter reported it had become increasingly negative.

The change was most favourable in Europe, which scored 6.3 on a scale of one to ten, where one is the most negative and ten is the most positive. China’s image plummeted in North America, coming in at 3.5.

The overall increase in positivity coincided with an uptick in Chinese outreach. Three-quarters of the journalists we surveyed said China had a visible presence in their national media, compared to 64% in a previous survey we conducted for IFJ in 2019.

Spreading propaganda through content-sharing agreements

China has long attempted to seed positive narratives of itself in foreign media, while blocking unfavourable coverage and redirecting the world’s attention onto Western failures.

To do so, Beijing taps into foreign media ecosystems with tailored offers of access and resources. It exports its propaganda to foreign media organisations through content-sharing agreements and memoranda of understanding with state-sponsored media outlets like Xinhua and China Daily.




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For example, Italy’s state-run news agency ANSA now publishes 50 Xinhua stories a day on its news wire, with Xinhua taking editorial responsibility for the content.

Beijing has also offered all-expenses paid tours to global journalists.

The desired outcome is for international media to amplify Chinese messages in their own languages in the pages of their own news outlets.

In this, COVID-19 acted as a catalyst. China activated its media dissemination channels overseas, inundating foreign outlets with domestic and international news offerings in local languages in a bid to seed positive stories about its management of the pandemic.

It also updated its toolkit with new tactics such as disinformation and misinformation, while clamping down on foreign reporting inside China through visa denials and journalist expulsions.

This vacuum in coverage of China by the foreign media created demand for stories from Chinese state channels. And this is being filled with state-sponsored content already available through content-sharing agreements.

New disinformation campaigns

As one of the first countries struck by the pandemic last year, Italy was the target of an aggressive Chinese disinformation campaign.

State-sponsored disinformation blamed Italy, not China, for instance, as the site of the initial outbreak of the new coronavirus.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesmen and ambassadors also shared on social media footage purporting to show Italians on their balconies applauding Chinese COVID aid as the Chinese national anthem was sung in the background. The footage was doctored from scenes that originally showed Italians clapping for their own medical workers.

As one Italian journalist commented during an IFJ roundtable discussion,

This fake news arrives even more rapidly than the virus.

More than 80% of the countries we surveyed expressed concern about disinformation in their national media. Respondents blamed China at about the same rate as Russia and the US. However, almost 60% of countries were unsure who was responsible for disseminating the false and misleading content.




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Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese disinformation efforts have become a new part of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda tactics. State actors nicknamed “wolf warrior diplomats” took to social media platforms banned inside China, such as Twitter, to pump out a succession of conspiracy theories. These were then amplified by an army of Chinese ambassadors, foreign ministry spokesmen, and paid trolls.

This coordinated campaign to shift the COVID narrative across Western tech platforms has also been deployed to discredit democratic institutions, including the 2020 US presidential elections and the BBC’s reporting on China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

How propaganda seeps into mainstream media

In Serbia, the Digital Forensic Center identified 30,000 tweets originating from Serbian accounts containing the keywords “Kina” (China) and “Srbija” (Serbia). These tweets praised Chinese aid and lambasted the European Union for its lack of assistance during the pandemic.

More than 70% of the content was produced by a huge pro-Serbian government network of bot accounts. During an IFJ roundtable discussion, one Serbian journalist said the government of President Aleksandar Vučić “does the work for China”.

Throughout the pandemic, Chinese medical aid was touted through mainstream Serbian media as “gifts”, despite the Serbian government’s refusal to reveal whether it had paid for the aid. Such coverage has a clear, positive impact on China’s image.

Billboard in Serbia promoting Chinese friendship.
An office building in Belgrade with a billboard showing Serbian and Chinese flags reading, ‘Iron friends, together in good and evil!’
Darko Vojinovic/AP

One study by the Institute for European Affairs found as many as 40% of Serbian citizens believed China to be the country’s largest donor of medical aid. Only 17% correctly named the EU.

Our report for the IFJ also found nations receiving China’s COVID-19 vaccine were more likely to cover China’s handling of the pandemic in a positive light.

Two-thirds of recipient nations reported coverage had become more positive over the past year. The dominant narrative in their national media, they said, was “China’s fast action against COVID-19 has helped other countries, as has its medical diplomacy”.




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Despite this, most respondents cited Chinese attempts to control their national media as clumsy and ineffective.

In Italy, journalists talked about how the country has “the necessary antibodies” to identify fake news, while in Tunisia, they said China has “no impact on journalistic content”. And in Serbia, Chinese propaganda was deemed irrelevant.

But China’s efforts are making a real difference in many countries around the world, slowly but steadily redrawing the narrative landscape one story at a time.The Conversation

Julia Bergin, Researcher, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why China’s attempts to stifle foreign media criticism are likely to fail


Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhen China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, summoned journalists to the Chinese embassy last week, this was not an occasion for polite exchanges on a troubled relationship between Beijing and Canberra.

Cheng was intent on communicating a forceful message to Australian reporters that China was intent on fighting back against what it regards as a great wall of unfavourable publicity about its treatment of its Uyghur minority.

In some media reporting of the press conference, the exercise was referred to as a “charm offensive”. However, a more accurate characterisation would be to describe it as an attempt by China to draw a line under increasingly negative foreign reporting of its activities.

This reporting is having real world consequences for China’s image abroad. It is inviting pushback from an international community that is mobilising against Chinese overreach. Beijing will not be insensitive to the risks of brand damage to China’s reputation, or risks of sanctions.

The Biden administration’s canvassing of a potential boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China will have got Beijing’s attention. If countries, led by the United States, stay away this would represent a significant loss of face.

Global campaign against unfavourable reporting

Senior Chinese officials and Uyghurs appeared via video during Cheng’s embassy briefing to refute media accounts of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region as “Western lies”, “fabrications” and the work of “anti-China forces”.

In its propaganda offensive, China has not been averse to using the “fake news” label, popularised by former US President Donald Trump to assail its critics.

Cheng’s press conference was part of a larger, global campaign against unfavorable reporting in which Beijing has resorted to a combination of bluster and in some cases reprisals against journalists who have cut too close to the bone.

Australian citizen Cheng Lei appears to be a case in point. Cheng, an anchor for state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained in China last year without explanation, but now stands accused of ill-defined national security breaches.




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In private social media posts, she had criticised China’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear whether this is the basis of allegations against her, but no other reasonable explanation has been forthcoming to this point.

China appears to have been particularly displeased by the reporting of the BBC. In February, Beijing banned all BBC broadcasting in China in retaliation for British authorities having revoked the license of the Chinese overseas broadcaster, CGTN. This represented a significant escalation in the conflict between the Chinese authorities and Western media.

What Chinese propaganda is seeking to achieve

Cheng’s propaganda exercise should therefore be seen as part of a global campaign to stifle what China regards as unfair and damaging criticism of its policies at home and abroad under paramount leader Xi Jinping.

If this Canberra media event was designed to dampen negative reporting in the Australian media, however, the campaign is unlikely to work for the simple reason there is little, or no, sign of Beijing reversing its antagonistic behaviour towards Western media.




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Scarcely a day passes without criticism of foreign media in Chinese state-controlled outlets. These attacks underscore the gap that exists between Western perceptions of the role of journalists in democratic societies and China’s view that media should serve the interests of the state.

Typical of the sort of criticism levelled at Western media is the following contribution to the nationalistic Global Times by a professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

What some media have done is exaggerate Chinese authorities’ fault in a bid to overthrow the Chinese system. Take the BBC. This British media outlet did not call on the British public to overthrow the British government even if it has miserably failed to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19. This is double standards.

This level of naivete is hard to credit, but it is revealing nevertheless of the gap that exists between Chinese views of the Western media and vice versa.

China’s bluster against Western media may play to nationalist sentiment at home, but it is hardly likely to be effective in neutralising foreign media criticism.

Australian media will not stop providing a platform for legitimate and widely publicised concerns about China’s mistreatment of its minorities; its disrespect for the “one country, two systems” agreements it signed with the UK to facilitate the handover of Hong Kong; its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan; and its expansion of base facilities in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Beijing’s trade war against Australia smacks of the sort of overreach that may have become a staple of Chinese propaganda in state-run media, but in reality this is not a campaign that serves China’s own interests.

That is assuming Beijing is concerned about promoting itself as a reasonably constructive citizen in its own Indo-Pacific neighborhood.

China’s dismal treatment of journalists

China’s press freedom record leaves a lot to be desired.

In the latest Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, China rated 177 out of 180. It is by far the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 121 detained, some in life-threatening conditions.

In March, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported an intensification of harassment of foreign reporters and increased use of “visa weaponisation”. This had led to the expulsion of 18 foreign correspondents in the first half of 2020. Others, like ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith left because of concerns about being detained..

China regards the FCCC as an “illegal” organisation. As Cedric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders’s East Asian bureau head, said,

In recent years, Chinese regime apparatus has come to consider foreign correspondents as unwanted witnesses and goes to great length to prevent them from collecting information that doesn’t mirror its propaganda.

In a 2019 survey of the 10 “most censored” countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists, China rated fifth behind only Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia. It said,

China has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated censorship apparatus. […] Since 2017, no website or social media account is allowed to provide a news service on the internet without the Cyberspace Administration of China’s permission. Internet users are blocked from foreign search engines, news websites, and social media platforms by the Great Firewall. […] Foreign social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned.

This is the lived reality for foreign journalists in China in the Xi era, and for Chinese consumers of uncensored news, for that matter.




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At no other stage since China began opening to the outside world in the Deng Xiaoping era of the late 1970s have conditions for foreign correspondents in China been more threatening — or more counterproductive from Beijing’s point of view.

China’s war against the foreign media is at a tangent to its proclaimed ambition to continue opening its economy to foreign investment. The anti-Western media campaign jars with hopes that it would become a responsible international stakeholder, as well.

If Ambassador Cheng’s press conference marks a new stage in China’s battles with foreign media, this promises to be a long march.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why defamation suits in Australia are so ubiquitous — and difficult to defend for media organisations


Richard Wainwright/AAP

Brendan Clift, The University of MelbourneAttorney-General Christian Porter is suing the ABC for defamation and claiming aggravated damages.

Porter is claiming that an article published last month included false allegations against him in relation to a historical rape. A statement from his lawyer says although Porter was not named, the article made allegations against a senior cabinet minister “and the attorney-general was easily identifiable to many Australians”.

So, how does defamation law work, what is its impact on the media, and why has Australia been labelled the defamation capital of the world?

What is considered defamatory?

Defamation can be defined as a false statement about a person to their discredit. The legal action has three elements for the complainant to prove: publication, identification, and defamatory meaning. Significantly, the falseness of the published material is presumed.

A statement has defamatory meaning if it would lead an ordinary, reasonable reader to think less of the complainant, or if it would cause the complainant to be shunned or subjected to more than trivial ridicule.

Publication is broadly defined, including any communication to someone other than the complainant, whether written or spoken.

And identification requires reference to the complainant, which could be indirect if the ordinary, reasonable reader is able to read between the lines — as Porter is claiming in his case.




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A news organisation might carefully avoid naming a person, as the ABC did, but it could still be liable if a reader would have known who that person was. Porter was named in social media chatter around the ABC’s story – whether that sort of speculation constitutes identification is questionable, but not inconceivable.

Where a complainant’s identity is confirmed after publication — as Porter’s was when he fronted the media two weeks ago — identification becomes straightforward for later downloads of the story. Each download is treated as a separate potential defamation under the law. At the time of writing, the ABC’s report was still on its site.

The elements of defamation are encapsulated in the expression cherished by news editors:

journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.

This reflects the reality that the media is exposed to defamation risk daily — and the risk is serious.

A complainant can sue any person involved with the story’s production, such as journalist Louise Milligan in the ABC’s case. Add the fact the complainant doesn’t need to prove any harm was actually done — and aggravated damages awards are uncapped — and it’s easy to see why defamation inspires fear among media organisations.

What defences can media organisations use?

The defences to defamation are notoriously difficult to establish.

While the complainant need not prove the material is false, the defendant can escape liability by showing that it’s true. In the Porter case, this means the ABC would need to prove matters from more than 30 years ago raised in a letter by a woman who is now deceased.

Moreover, the defendant must prove the truth of the “defamatory stings” — the discrediting imputations that an ordinary, reasonable reader would take from the published material, regardless of whether those were the intended meanings.




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Social media and defamation law pose threats to free speech, and it’s time for reform


Even proving the truth of ordinary, factual reporting can be challenging in cases where journalists’ sources, such as whistleblowers, have legitimate reasons to preserve their anonymity.

These difficulties might be ameliorated if Australia had a “reportage” defence, like that of the United Kingdom. This defence excuses the media for reporting defamatory statements by third parties on matters of public interest, provided the media has merely reported the statement without adopting it.

Australia does have a “reasonable publication” defence, but its requirements have proven near-impossible for media organisations to satisfy in court.

For example, the defence is probably a non-starter in cases where a news organisation reports unproven criminal allegations and the person of interest, being unnamed, is given no right of reply in the story.

Reforming defamation

Changes to Australia’s defamation law are in the works. Some will help potential defendants, such as a new threshold of serious harm and tighter time limits for bringing actions.

Other reforms will require a wait-and-see approach, like the new public interest defence, which aims to rebalance defamation law in favour of public interest reporting but retains elements of the old reasonable publication defence.

This leaves room for courts to maintain a tough stance on what is regarded as “reasonable” media conduct when it comes to defamation. That stance recently saw NSW courts hold three Australian media companies liable for comments that were posted on their Facebook pages about a former youth detention detainee.




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Australia’s ‘outdated’ defamation laws are changing – but there’s no ‘revolution’ yet


More meaningful reform might have established stronger public interest and reportage defences, or required complainants to prove that the material published about them was false – or even that the publisher knew it to be false but published it anyway.

Defamation cases involving public figures in the United States require proof that the publisher knew the material to be false, which is why US politicians almost never sue for defamation.

In Australia, by contrast, politicians do sue – and successfully. They often opt for the Federal Court where, compared with the state courts, they are likely to have their matter heard by a judge alone, rather than having to convince a jury of the merits of their case.

Citizens and institutions seeking to hold those in power to account are too often being silenced by our current defamation laws. In a strong democracy like Australia, we can — and must — do better.The Conversation

Brendan Clift, Graduate researcher, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Sky News shifting Australian politics to the right? Not yet, but there is cause for alarm



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Denis Muller, The University of Melbourne

In his submission to the current Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia, former prime minister Kevin Rudd warns that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia is following the template laid down by Murdoch’s Fox News in the United States to radicalise Australian politics. In a decade’s time, Rudd argues, we will see its full impact.

Given the destructive effect of Fox News on the functioning of American democracy, Rudd’s is an alarming prediction.

Whether it comes to pass, however, is another matter. Certainly there are several danger signs that it might, but there are also a few factors pointing the other way.




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There are three big danger signs.

One is the unconstrained peddling of extreme right-wing propaganda, lies, disinformation, crude distortion of fact and baseless assertions that occurs each night on Sky News.

Here is a brief sample: Rowan Dean’s and Alan Jones’s repeated ravings about the “stolen” US election; Peta Credlin’s false claim that Rudd’s petition for a Murdoch royal commission was an exercise in data-harvesting, for which she had to apologise as part of a confidential defamation settlement; Jones’s disinformation about mask-wearing; James Morrow calling the Trump impeachment trial a “sinister plot by Democrats against the American people”.

Former PM Kevin Rudd is calling for a royal commission into the Murdoch media empire.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

The second big danger sign is the way Sky News has been able to extend its reach from a niche pay-TV base to free-to-air television via 30 WIN regional stations across Australia, and then through social media to the world.

After seeing its audience grow in the first half of 2020, Sky’s pay-TV audience ended the year shrinking. But being on free-to-air TV in regional Australia represents an opportunity for growth.

Data on current regional viewing levels are patchy and incomplete. However, prime-time viewing is reported to have grown 36% in 2020, and is claimed to reach 2.9 million unique viewers.

Sky’s non-TV platform is social media. YouTube, owned by Google, is a very important social media outlet for Sky, and that is where the viewer data reported here come from.

Facebook is also an important outlet. When Facebook blacked out Australian news on February 18, there were roughly 260,000 views of Sky’s announcement of its last appearance there.

If Facebook persists in its blackout, it will clearly damage Sky’s online reach.

The patterns of Sky News viewership on YouTube are revealing.

The big picture is that Sky’s Australian stories get tiny audiences, but stories about the United States get vastly bigger ones, suggesting Sky has developed a following in the US.

For instance, an Alan Jones piece, “Trump’s impeachment charge is ‘more Pelosi rubbish’ ” got 130,000 views.

And the right-wing US journalist Megyn Kelly’s piece, “Trump exposed hidden media bias”, got 467,926 views.




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Contrast these with Paul Murray’s local story, “Daniel Andrews still playing us v them with quarantine”: about 30,000 views, and Peta Credlin’s “Net zero by 2050 is the ‘economic suicide note for workers’”: about 2000 views.

This tells us Sky is not only playing to a US as well as Australian audience, but is tailoring its programming in ways that have worked for Fox News. At the same time, it is siphoning into Australia the kind of content that has been so divisive in the US.

The growth profile of Fox News shows Murdoch plays a long game.

Fox News started in 1996. Pew Research Center data show it straight-lined near the bottom of the cable ratings in the US for five years, took a jump at about the time of the September 11 attacks, another at the time of the Iraq war in 2003 and thereafter cleared away from its main cable news rivals, CNN and MSNBC.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of Sky News and Fox News, plays a long game.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Until the end of the Trump presidency, Fox News was never headed – then after Trump lost, it took a dive. In January 2021, it suffered its worst ratings in 20 years, coming third behind CNN and MSNBC.

This symbiotic connection between an incumbent government and the Murdoch organisation brings us to the third big danger: the relationship between News Corporation in Australia and the Morrison government.

Morrison is not Trump. Yes, he swaggered around in a baseball cap during the 2019 election campaign and, yes, he talks in slogans and sound bites. However, the danger comes not from Morrison’s political persona but from the relationship he and his government have built with News Corporation.

On one reading, it has become a commercial relationship between the government as client and News Corporation as provider of publicity services for a fee.

The fee has taken the form of two payments to Foxtel, one of A$30 million in 2017 and one of A$10 million in 2020, ostensibly for TV coverage of under-represented women’s sport.

No tender process, no publicly available information about the terms, no way of knowing how this public money is being spent. Then recent technical glitches in the televising of W League matches prompted the Greens to ask the auditor-general to investigate.

Against these dangers are some mitigating factors.

One is that Australia’s compulsory voting system makes it very difficult for anyone to win an election with a primary vote that is not at least near the 40th percentile. A Trump-like “base” of 32% or so will not cut it here.

A second is that the religious right in Australia does not have the political clout it does in the US. Issues that excite the religious right, such as abortion, have been long settled here by the courts. The strong vote for marriage equality was another example of the broadly secular nature of our politics.

A third is that the Australian temperament is not, on the whole, excitable. While this means Australians are often excoriated as apathetic, it also means they are not easily outraged.

A fourth is that Australia’s conservatism is of a largely materialistic kind. Franking credits matter. It is also a conservatism that does not like extremism. Morrison seems at last to have realised that outside their Facebook echo chambers, the likes of Craig Kelly and George Christensen may be liabilities.

This pragmatic outlook among voters may prove to be a psychological bulwark against the firebrand reactionary politics promoted by Fox and Sky.

Having said that, there are plenty of emotion-charged issues that give Sky the opportunity to drive wedges into the Australian body politic: asylum-seekers, Muslims, Aboriginal recognition, African gangs, Asians, white supremacy, the pandemic and above all climate change. Sky is into them all.

If anything concrete is to be done to head off the threat seen by Rudd, it is going to involve public policy concerning media accountability, of which a fit-and-proper-person test for television licensees would be an essential part.

However, every attempt so far to exert meaningful accountability on the Australian media has come to nothing in the face of threats from the big media companies, including News Corporation.

Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, as prime ministers, were in a position to do something about this. Instead, Rudd developed a friendship with the then editor-in-chief of The Australian, and Turnbull made changes to the media ownership laws that empowered Murdoch even more.

It is futile to hope that the Morrison government, engaged as it is in a highly questionable relationship with News Corporation, will do anything about it. As for Labor leader Anthony Albanese, when asked about a Murdoch royal commission, he reached for the barge pole.

If this form of politics-as-usual persists, then Rudd’s prediction cannot be discounted.

Then the nation would be relying on those qualities of the Australian character already mentioned. The question will be whether it will be enough.


Correction: this article originally stated “In February 2021, it suffered its worst ratings in 20 years…”. The month has been corrected to January.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.