Media in the Asian Century: upheaval all around but no Australian perspective

For the Australian media, it seems, it’s always safe in England or America. Anyone noticed that despite a daily death toll from Covid-19 of near 500 in the UK and near 1,000 in the US, there is no talk of withdrawing correspondents.

By contrast, Australian correspondents were pulled out of south-east Asia, Papua New Guinea and India months ago with no signs of them being sent back, despite many countries having extremely low infection rates, India and Indonesia being the two main worries. Of course, the China correspondents were withdrawn for other reasons, but there is an argument for sending them back if they are willing to risk it.

We are constantly being told by media commentators and political figures that south-east Asia is where we need to build our security to counterbalance China and hedge our trade, that the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture has to acknowledge the “centrality” of ASEAN and so on.

Huge things are happening in the region. Myanmar holds its elections on Sunday, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party accused of abandoning the ethnic minorities. In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim edges closer to power. In Thailand, young people are defying en masse the lèse majesté laws and the army to demand constitutional reform. The Philippines are hit by super-cyclones and Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous presidency steps up its attacks on press freedom.

The stranded correspondents do their best to cover it from here, from the internet, phoning around, and gophering by local assistants. They get it right but, as the late Robert Fiske said, “you cannot get near the truth without being there.”

The risk is that managements will see this as a solution to their constant gripes about the cost of foreign coverage, and make it permanent. Already, with their appointed China correspondent waiting more than a year for a visa, Nine Entertainment has just paid off the staff in the Sydney Morning HeraldAge bureau in Beijing, opened in 1973. A minuscule saving, compared with the time lost by any future correspondent in getting started, assuming the Nine management actually intend reopening the bureau.

For the time being, Nine is considering locating its China and Southeast Asia correspondents in Singapore, rather than those troublesome places Beijing and Jakarta. A throwback to previous times, and probably not much of a cost saving either.

Fatalism rules

Another week, more trade sanctions coming from China. Today, according to what import agents in China are telling their Australian clients, Chinese customs won’t be clearing shipments of wine, barley, sugar, lobster, coal, timber and copper from Australia. The USAsia Centre in Perth estimates about $19 billion worth of annual exports are at risk.

How it works out remains to be seen, and not all is political payback. Coal imports are subject to annual quotas from different sources, and Australia has already filled this year’s allocation. But it’s clear our exporters are in for a rough ride.

The economic and trade side is being well covered by such business reporters as the Guardian’s Daniel Hurst and The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal. Political reporters are meanwhile giving an easy let-off for both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, neither of whom can restrain their Wolverine fringes from stirring up more friction.

China is not helping itself look anything but a prickly autocracy. It is still baulking at allowing experts from the World Health Organisation come into Wuhan to look at the source of the Covid outbreak. This week it quickly showed Jack Ma his place after he criticised Chinese banks for having a “pawn shop mentality” – calling him in for a dressing down and postponing the US$37 billion float of his e-payments venture Ant.

Still, our media analysts might question whether constant rhetoric about standing up for Australian values and sovereignty really help, what the ASIO/AFP raids on an alleged Chinese interference ring in Sydney actually found out, why the Chinese consul-general in Sydney, Gu Xiaojie, suddenly went home in June.

If Scott Morrison does soon make a trip to Tokyo to meet new prime minister Yoshihide Suga, as is apparently being organised, maybe he and accompanying media can learn from how the Japanese play things with China – maintaining a civil diplomatic discourse while quietly upholding its trade and security interests.

Beyond the fringe

The loyalty test demanded by Senator Eric Abetz of Chinese-Australian witnesses at a committee hearing has already been well covered in Pearls & Irritations, and received widespread condemnation as McCarthyism around Australia as well as overseas.

Not shared apparently by the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald. In a tepid, offend-nobody editorial on October 25 about the China relationship, it said only that Abetz had “raised the hackles of China after refusing to apologise for remarks at a government inquiry this month when he asked three witnesses with Chinese-Australian heritage to “unequivocally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party”. That was it: only the Chinese had been offended, it seems.

Softly, softly

With our intelligence chiefs increasingly coming out with public comment – who can forget former ASIO director Duncan Lewis’s warning a year back that China was trying to “take over” our political system – the director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon, is the latest to front the camera.

It’s happening in the carefully controlled setting of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where Symon has recorded a four-part interview, with questions by the retired ABC correspondent Graeme Dobell, who now works at ASPI. In the two episodes released so far, we’ve had the history of ASIS since its founding in 1952, its relinquishment to the defence forces of commando-type special operations, the re-arming of its officers in the field after 9/11 and so on.

Whatever ASIS got up to overseas — “whether it was disrupting a terrorist plot or some type of activity where there is an action that occurs” — it had to be authorised by the foreign minister with the knowledge of the prime minister.

Such operations were risky, but ASIS was not “cavalier”, said Symon, previously an army general. “Every activity we do is written in considerable detail, and planned in considerable detail. The vast majority of those activities in the planning stage contain the risk-management plan.”

ASPI website viewers will have to wait for Sunday’s instalment, or perhaps the final one a week later, for Dobell to address the elephant in the recording studio: So what was the risk assessment about the 2004 operation to bug the Timor-Leste government officers? And can we assume then that Alexander Downer and John Howard gave the OK?

No doubt Symon will say it’s all sub judice and indeed in camera, if Attorney-General Christian Porter has his way with the cases against Bernard Collaery and Witness K, but it will be interesting to see the question put and the body language at least in the reply.

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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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