ASPI takes exception to media scrutiny

Mar 25, 2023
Media-Watch-Thumbnail Screenshot.

ABC’s Media Watch backs down, following complaint from Australian Strategic Policy Institute, after it aired a segment of Channel Nine political reporter Chris O’Keefe berating both ASPI and Nine Newspaper over the Red Alert series.

Two weeks ago, ABC’s Media Watch carried the banner “Hysterical reporting stokes fears of war with China” aimed at Nine Newspapers’ three-part Red Alert series in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Host, Paul Barry took them to task for gathering a one-sided China hawk panel upon which to base its report. The program included comments from a host of experts who strongly disagree with the proposition that China is poised for war.

It also quoted from mainstream media, including a clip from Nine’s Today Show in which political correspondent Chris O’Keefe had this to say, “The reporting this morning is hysterical, now if you’ve got the Australian Strategic Policy Institute [ASPI] who are saying ‘Oh well, we are the ones who could be going off to war in three years’, well they’re funded by the Australian Defence Force, Lockheed Martin, Thales and Boeing.”

Barry later brought up one of Nine’s China experts, former ASPI boss Peter Jennings, making it clear he was no longer the think tank’s executive director.

This week, Media Watch again picked up the China threat and nuclear submarine debate, following former prime minister Paul Keating’s National Press Club appearance. In summary, Barry argued instead of mainstream journalists just launching into Keating for opposing AUKUS, they should have been doing their actual jobs. That job is not being cheerleaders for our massively hawkish foreign and defence policies, it’s asking questions about the government’s rationale to commit hundreds of billions of dollars to nuclear submarines.

However, at the end of the episode, it was Barry himself coming up with explanations, saying this, “And finally, a clarification about last week’s show. When discussing Nine’s Red Alert series on China we played a short clip of Chris O’Keefe linking Peter Jennings to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. ASPI says Jennings no longer plays an active role with the institute and it was not involved in the framing of The Age and Herald’s report. ASPI also says it receives funding from only four defence manufacturers and it’s two percent of its budget.”

Even though the hot war may not have yet started the fog created by ASPI abounds.

Jennings is synonymous with ASPI, outside of Canberra he was a little-known Liberal ministerial adviser and a Defence Department policy wonk. It wasn’t until he took up the role at ASPI that he became the go to China hawk for mainstream media.

He might have vacated the executive director’s office but the views he expressed in the Nine Newspapers series are entirely consistent with his views at ASPI, and indeed the views of his successor Justin Bassi.

Despite ASPI’s constant claim of independence, Bassi walked right out of the office of Liberal Cabinet Minister Marise Payne into ASPI’s office, just a few blocks from Parliament House. He was a ‘captain’s pick’ with it widely reported then Defence Minister Peter Dutton intervened to veto the ASPI board’s preferred candidate, instead installing China hawk Bassi. The appointment of the ASPI executive director has to be ratified by the Cabinet, indeed a very broad interpretation of the term “independent”.

What constitutes no active role?

Jennings might have vacated his corner office but, the simple fact is, immediately upon the completion of his tenure, he assumed the position of “ASPI Senior Fellow”. His profile is on the ASPI website, his phone number is included, and that number is the ASPI direct line.

As ASPI complained, it might not have framed the Nine Newspapers report, but it absolutely framed the narrative. No single group has done more to portray China as a military threat than ASPI. There is an argument, had ASPI not spent years laying the China threat groundwork, this Nine Newspapers series would not have hit the front pages.

While Bassi had nothing to do with the Red Alert series, one could hardly argue he didn’t support it, after all he Tweeted a link to the SMH story the day of publication.

Far more egregious than this and the nature of Jennings’ ongoing connections with ASPI are those of Nine Newspapers’ gang of five experts. One in particular is Lavina Lee, who Nine described as a “geopolitics guru” and “senior lecturer in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University”.

What both Nine in its publications, and presumably ASPI in its demands to Media Watch, did not disclose is Lee’s position as a member of the ASPI Council. This is not an honorary role, as the ASPI Annual Report reveals, it is a paid position.

The issue with Lee is not so much the freedom to express her opinions outside of her role at ASPI. It’s the fact she was peddling a narrative indistinguishable from ASPI’s, under the guise of being an independent academic, and did so without disclosing her formal paid role with the think tank.

Breaching the defences

Despite ASPI telling Media Watch it only has four defence industry sponsors, page 143 of its latest annual report clearly lists five. Since its establishment, ASPI has enjoyed the financial largesse of a dozen weapons makers, which collectively picked up $51 billion in Defence contracts between 2011 and 2021.

ASPI conveniently classifies sponsors who make billions of dollars supplying mainly high-tech services to the military as “private sector” companies.

One of its, non-defence industry, backers is the multi-billion dollar US engineering and systems integration company Leidos which has a substantial defence division. According to figures published on the Department of Finance website, since July 2021, it has been awarded more than 140 contracts, with the Department of Defence and security agencies, worth over $1 billion. The classification of Leidos as a run of the mill private sector player seems to be a loose definition.

Other, non-defence, supporters include engineering company Jacobs (107 Defence contracts worth $154 million); cybersecurity company Quintessence Labs, which has been awarded one small Defence contract; Palo Alto Networks which supplies multi-billion dollar network security systems for the military; Splunk Technologies, yet another military supplier; Senatas, a maker of military encryption systems; and software company Oracle, one of the biggest ICT service suppliers to the US military.

That adds up to 12 current sponsors who either make weapons or provide services supporting military infrastructure. The lesson is you can’t take anything ASPI says at face value.

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