Media in the Asian Century

Our main stream media just does not understand Asia. It’s ignorance and hostility is on display day after day.It relies on news ‘drops’ from our security and defence agencies.

Spy Farce II

The efforts of Nine Entertainment investigative reporter Nick McKenzie to demarcate his journalistic demarcation from the ongoing ASIO-Australian Federal Police investigation of NSW state Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane get ever more tortuous.

McKenzie, it will be remembered was the Melbourne-based reporter attached to The Age, who just happened to be on the pavement outside Moselmane’s home in suburban Rockdale in Sydney at 6.30 am on June 26, along with a TV crew from Nine’s 60 Minutes, when AFP agents raided the place searching for material linking Moselmane to Chinese secret agents.

As Moselmane has pointed out, the AFP has yet to produce a skerrick of evidence that he is some kind of Chinese agent of influence. The focus of inquiry now appears to be his one-day-a-week assistant John Zhang, also raided the same day.

Zhang has gone to the High Court, seeking to overturn the warrants issued for his raid. In opposing this, the AFP alleges Zhang used a “private social media chat group” and other forums to press Moselmane to speak out in favour of Chinese state interests. Zhang had also failed to disclose to Moselmane that he was acting “on behalf of, or in collaboration with” agencies of China “including the Ministry of State Security and the United Front Work Department [of the Chinese Communist Party]”.

While the judges make up their minds, McKenzie told us this week the Federal Government is sure it’s on to something. “Official sources speaking anonymously because they are not authorised to comment have told The Age and Herald that police might take months to examine the material seized,” he reported, adding that according to one source: “The feds would not have done these raids lightly.”

McKenzie goes on: “Despite Mr Moselmane’s allegations that the Morrison government had improper involvement in the raids, the official sources said that ASIO and the AFP had tightly held the information about the raids to ensure that no credible allegation of politicisation could be made.” Funny then that McKenzie got the tip-off.

We also learn that “The police raids were approved after the AFP presented a confidential affidavit to a magistrate outlining the allegations of foreign interference involving Mr Moselmane’s office. The police raids were triggered by an ASIO inquiry that was also operating under warrants approved by judicial officers.”

So here we seem to be again with the “strong judicial oversight” Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzulo keep assuring us are part of our swathe of essential national security laws. Perhaps the registrar at the Queanbeyan local court has been hauled out of bed again to sign warrants.

Meanwhile, McKenzie seems puzzled Moselmane won’t talk to him: “Mr Moselmane has not responded to repeated requests to conduct an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald instead publishing his comments on a blog run by left-wing commentator and retired public servant John Menadue, whose website regularly critiques those considered too hawkish on China.”

Let’s hope this hunt doesn’t blow up in McKenzie’s face like his scoop last November about Chinese “spy” Wang Liqiang defecting to Australia with a trove of secrets about China’s foreign interference operations. Wang was soon revealed to be chancer hoping to migrate to Australia, using bits of open-source information. The Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson said Scott Morrison had received an intelligence briefing on the case titled “China Spy Farce.”

Footnote: The CBD column of the SMH-Age followed up McKenzie’s snipe at us this morning: “In a clarification worthy of RMIT Fact Check, Menadue responded that Pearls and Irritations was an ‘independently funded public policy journal featuring dozens of writers. Not a blog.’ McKenzie hastily responded that he hadn’t meant the term pejoratively, but descriptively, and that it was an accurate description, considering Menadue’s own Twitter bio listed the site’s web address as johnmenadue.com/blog.” But are we left-wingers? The column did not take up the question.

Planted information

News Corp remains the favoured customer of the defence and security empires for newsworthy “drops”, however.

The Australian’s Ben Packham got an “exclusive” this week on defence force chief Angus Campbell appointing former naval officer, Anglican bishop and UNSW professor Tom Frame to look at “cultural and leadership failings” in the special forces concerning war crimes in Afghanistan likely to be soon revealed by the defence inspector-general’s report, confirming good media investigations (including by McKenzie).

The newspaper’s Geoff Chambers got yet another exclusive, no doubt welcome on the Sunday lean news day, that AFP officers would be deployed to Africa, Europe and the US as authorities pursue previously out-of-reach cyber criminals including scammers, international sexual predators and intellectual property thieves.

“Under the plan, officers will have the power to knock on doors, seize assets and arrest criminals — a move described by AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw as an ‘offshore punch’,” he reported.

Officers would be based in countries close to cybercrime hubs, from Nigeria and eastern Europe to Brazil, and would work with international authorities to disrupt, ­arrest and charge people and groups targeting Australians through phishing and malware campaigns, siphoning superannuation accounts and ­romance fraud.

Then Chambers and colleague Simon Benson just happened to come across a Department of Home Affairs discussion paper about proposed changes to the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act.

This legislation would allow a “national emergency” to be declared during an extreme cyber attack against critical infrastructure, giving security agencies, for the first time, the power to counter-attack through commercial networks.

Nothing to worry about here, all in safe hands

For a good discussion on this drop relationship between federal ministers and press gallery – where exclusives are given to the journos unlikely to criticise, and morning newspapers tell us what the PM or some minister “will say” in a speech later that day – listen to the Australian Institute of International Affairs podcast of July 16, in which ABC foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic talks with Allan Gyngell and Darren Lim.

Asia elsewhere

Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent continue to get sporadic coverage in our media. The correspondents withdrawn because of Covid fears provide occasional insights, with The Australian’s Amanda Hodge supplying a good update on Malaysia’s leadership wrangles.

In large part, though, we are relying on retired journalist and academic veterans like Brian Toohey and Clive Kessler in this website and newspaper oped pages, also sporadically.

Toohey has tackled the strange strategic bromance of Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi in The Sydney Morning Herald and here, while retired ABC-PM producer Edmond Roy has done a good piece for the Lowy Institute https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/modis-pandemic-gambit about how Modi has used the pandemic to further clamp down on free expression. The implications of Modi going to Ayodhya, site of a demolished mosque, to dedicate a new temple to the Hindu god Ram only adds more questions about our “shared values.”

Meanwhile our 19-year military involvement in Afghanistan is sputtering to an end, 41 dead soldiers, many more crippled and traumatised, and billions of dollars later, and our media focusses on the imminent release of the Taliban mole in the Afghan army who killed three Australian soldiers eight years ago. That this is part of a mass release of Taliban prisoners agreed by Donald Trump in a deal to pull out US troops ahead of the November election, and over the misgivings of the Kabul government we have been supporting, at such cost, gets just an “Inshallah” response from Canberra’s defence hawks.

The university front

It has been another pile-on in the media against craven university vice-chancellors caving in to Chinese pressure, admittedly after some unwise moves.

First the University of Queensland, for suspending student Drew Pavlou after his protests on campus about China’s Hong Kong crackdown developed into a free-speech cause celebre. A week back UNSW made the mistake of deleting a tweet on the same subject from the university’s Twitter account by visiting professor and local Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson. This followed complaints by some Chinese students, picked up in China’s Global Times official tabloid, to which university officials issued an apology. Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs stepped in midweek to say both the deletion and the apology were mistaken, and staff and students were free to make any personal comments within Australian law.

Now The Australian is on the case of Professor Peter Hoj of the University of Queensland, who is being head-hunted by the University of Adelaide to fill its vice-chancellorship. Noting his record of recruiting large numbers of Chinese students and helping install a Confucius Institute at UQ, it said federal MPs were “seeking guarantees the university continues to operate without any foreign influence and with a ‘bedrock’ commitment to freedom of speech.” It quoted one Liberal senator, David Fawcett.

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Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi and Beijing, and was Regional Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has won two Walkley Awards for reporting from Asia and was made an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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