Denis Muller, The University of MelbourneElements within News Corporation are now fighting among themselves over how its platforms should position themselves in response to the worsening COVID crisis in New South Wales.
This has become clear with the decision by the editor of News Corp’s Daily Telegraph, Ben English, to ditch Alan Jones as a columnist.
Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus outbreak got inexorably worse, the Telegraph ran a series of characteristically shrill columns by Jones attacking mask-wearing, lockdowns and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Yet Jones also promotes these opinions on News Corp’s Sky News, where his Sky-at-Night slot is undisturbed. Indeed, Jones makes a virtue of this, telling The Sydney Morning Herald:
Have a look at Sky News YouTube, Sky News Facebook and Alan Jones Facebook and you can see. The same column that I write for the Tele goes up on my Facebook page.
On July 29, the Telegraph also took the opportunity provided by an outburst against Jones by the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, to distance itself from its former columnist, referring to him as a “Sky News host”.
At The Australian on July 30, Jones’s opinions were confined to rugby union.
Trying to read the entrails of what goes on in News Corp is akin to Kremlinology, but this is the second piece of evidence in the past couple of weeks that the Telegraph is executing a delicate pivot.
A decision to switch to an overt anti-Coalition position would be well above the editor’s pay grade. However, a couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph’s editor-at-large, Matthew Benns, wrote a curious critique of Scott Morrison’s handling of vaccination and quarantine, written as if by the Morrison family dog. It contained quite a lot of nipping at Morrison’s heels.
It has continued to report the growing COVID crisis straight, publishing pictures of a strained-looking Berejiklian but refraining from attacking her in commentary.
Putting all this together, the Telegraph seems to be positioning itself as champion of an heroic people, contingently tolerant of Berejiklian, intolerant of attacks on her policies, restless with Morrison, yet anxious not to damage the Liberal Party politically.
The degree of difficulty involved in staying upright while executing this manoeuvre is considerable.
Meanwhile at Sky, Jones goes on as before, and Peta Credlin resorts to some very dodgy logic in an attempt to show that the performance of the Labor government in Victoria is still clearly inferior to the performance of the Coalition government in New South Wales.
Her proposition is that the 172 cases of the Delta strain reported on July 28 was nothing like as bad as the 700 cases a day at the height of the Victorian crisis last year, even though, she said, Delta was three times more infectious than last year’s strain.
This, she said, should cause people in NSW to “take heart”.
So a snapshot one-point reading of a curve that is still rising steeply – the case numbers on July 29 were 239 – is compared with the peak of a separate outbreak of a strain that Credlin says was three times less infectious.
If the people of New South Wales take heart from that, they are really grasping at straws.
Credlin does not attack Berejiklian, masks or lockdowns as Jones does, and she carries a torch for the Coalition while also trying to boost morale in Sydney.
Andrew Bolt threads his way through this maze by attacking politicians who he says have “smeared” the people who took part in the anti-lockdown marches on July 25. At the same time he remains uncharacteristically agnostic on whether lockdowns are right.
Last year Bolt was calling lockdowns an over-reaction. It evidently makes a difference when it is your side of politics doing the locking down.
As Australia enters a pre-election phase, it matters what the Murdoch media do. Its newspapers represent about two-thirds of the nation’s metropolitan daily circulation, with monopolies in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart. In August, Sky News will re-enter free-to-air television via several Southern Cross Austereo regional channels, which it claims will give it an audience of seven million.
What the Telegraph does is particularly important because it is Murdoch’s main populist political attack dog in Australia. It circulates widely in western Sydney, where there are several marginal seats.
Reading the entrails is an inexact science, to put it mildly, but there is a public-interest reason for trying.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I offered you money for something, an offer you didn’t have to accept, would you call it a grab?
What if I actually owned the thing I offered you money for, and the offer was more of a gentle inquiry?
Welcome to the world of television, where the government (which actually owns the broadcast spectrum) can offer networks the opportunity to hand back a part of it, in return for generous compensation, and get accused of a “spectrum grab”.
If the minister, Paul Fletcher, hadn’t previously worked in the industry (he was a director at Optus) he wouldn’t have believed it.
Here’s what happened. The networks have been sitting on more broadcast spectrum (radio frequencies) than they need since 2001.
That’s when TV went digital in order to free up space for emerging uses such as mobile phones.
Pre-digital, each station needed a lot of spectrum — seven megahertz, plus another seven (and at times another seven) for fill-in transmitters in nearby areas.
It meant that in major cities it took far more spectrum to deliver the five TV channels than Telstra plans to use for its entire 5G phone and internet work.
Digital meant each channel would only need two megahertz to do what it did before, a huge saving Prime Minister John Howard was reluctant to pick up.
His own department told him there were
better ways of introducing digital television than by granting seven megahertz of spectrum to each of the five free-to-air broadcasters at no cost when a standard definition service of a higher quality than the current service could be provided with around two megahertz
His Office of Asset Sales labelled the idea of giving them the full seven a
de facto further grant of a valuable public asset to existing commercial interests
Seven, Nine and Ten got the de facto grant, and after an uninspiring half decade of using it to broadcast little-watched high definition versions of their main channels, used it instead to broadcast little-watched extra channels with names like 10 Shake, 9Rush and 7TWO.
Micro-channels are better delivered by the internet
TV broadcasts are actually a good use of spectrum where masses of people need to watch the same thing at once. They use less of broadcast bandwidth than would the same number of streams delivered through the air by services such as Netflix.
But when they are little-watched (10 Shake got 0.4% of the viewing audience in prime time last week, an average of about 10,000 people Australia-wide) the bandwidth is much better used allowing people to watch what they want.
Among the buyers were Telstra, Optus and TPG.
The money now on offer, and the exploding need for spectrum, is why last November Fletcher decided to have another go.
Rather than kick the networks off what they’ve been hogging (as he is doing with community TV) he offered them what on the face of it is an astoundingly generous deal.
Any networks that want to can agree to combine their allocations, using new compression technology to broadcast about as many channels as before from a shared facility, freeing up what might be a total of 84 megahertz for high-value communications. Any that don’t, don’t need to.
All the networks need to do is share
The deal would only go ahead if at least two commercial licence holders in each licence area signed up. At that point the ABC and SBS would combine their allocations and the commercial networks would be freed of the $41 million they currently pay in annual licence fees, forever.
That’s right. From then on, they would be guaranteed enough spectrum to do about what they did before, except for free, plus a range of other benefits
The near-instant reaction, in a letter signed by the heads of each of the regional networks, was to say no, they didn’t want to share. The plan was “simply a grab for spectrum to bolster the federal government’s coffers”.
And sharing’s not that hard
It’s not as if the networks own the spectrum (they don’t) and it’s not as if they are normally reluctant to share — they share just about everything.
That’s right. Nine and Seven use the same computers, same operators, same desks, to play programs.
One day it is entirely possible that a Seven promo or ad will accidentally go to air on Nine, just as a few years back some pages from the Sydney Morning Herald were accidentally printed in the Daily Telegraph, whose printing plants it makes use of.
All the minister is asking is for them to share something else, what Australia’s treasury describes as a “scarce resource of high value to Australian society”.
There’s a good case for going further, taking almost all broadcasting off the air and putting it online, or sending it out by direct-to-home satellite, removing the need for bandwidth-hogging fill-in transmitters.
Seven, Nine and Ten have yet to respond. Indications are they’re not much more positive than their regional cousins, although more polite. They’re standing in the way of progress.
Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University