PAUL PERVERSI. An Open Letter to the ABC regarding its coverage of China in the recent past.

As a long-term consumer ABC services, I acknowledge its great achievements over the decades, despite the occasional skeleton in the closet, such as the Lateline story that sparked the Northern Territory intervention. I am very concerned, though, that in 2020 the ABC is becoming something of a laughing stock with respect to its coverage of China.

The 2000’s are often referred to as the ‘Chinese Century’, as the world becomes more entwined and interconnected with a burgeoning China. Whilst China is increasingly becoming a central world influence in so many respects, the ABC seems intent on trashing the country and its people at every opportunity. Is Aunty getting so old that she is subtly calling for her own voluntary euthanasia? Or perhaps she is losing her marbles. Or maybe she has just lost her mojo and wants to show everyone how smart and sassy she still is, oblivious to the embarrassment of everyone around her.

It seems the ABC’s anti-China bias has been escalating over the past year or so. Or, at least, that is the timeframe within which I have noticed it. Maybe it has a much longer history than I realise and I have just become more attuned to it. Over this timeframe, I have noticed literally hundreds of anti-Chinese news and current affairs stories, but I am hard-pressed to think of even one story that has been positive. It is possible that positive stories exist, although these may tend to be in specialist domains, such as business, science or arts. However, like many people, I just have time to follow the news and some current affairs programs. I could give dozens of particular examples off the top of my head, but I will stick to just one for now.

The Q+A program on ‘China and Australia – a Healthy Relationship?’ was aired on 24 February 2020. It was clear that the panel was not completely loaded. There were three past or present journalists from the ABC, including the presenter, along with one Chinese ambassador, one epidemiologist and one business-person with a Chinese background. But the tone of the show, as led by the presenter and the two ABC ‘plants’, smelt strongly of an ambush. Without going into a blow-by-blow description of the entire program, I will outline three points about the bias.

First, I would have expected the presenter to be unbiased and respectful of diplomatic guests, but this was clearly not the case. At one stage, when the Chinese ambassador was attempting to explain the Chinese system of voting for representatives in their government, in response to questions and statements clearly based in ignorance, the presenter was interrupting and mocking him. This occurred to the extent that the Chinese ambassador had to openly pull the presenter up. To the average Chinese person, the presenter’s behaviour must have looked like a petulant child throwing a tantrum. In Chinese culture, where respect is a key social value, I suggest that this type of open bias by the national broadcaster, combined with the disrespectful behaviour displayed, would have provided a similar impression that we would have if witnessing, say, fist-fighting politicians in a dysfunctional house of parliament in a third-world country.

A second example concerned the showing of footage of Chinese authorities forcibly removing people from their homes because of coronavirus fears. This was clearly a set-up to embarrass the Chinese ambassador. This then led the business-person, clearly feeling some need to appear to censure the behaviour in the footage, to suggest that this was an example of ‘bad China.’ But where was the context and the common sense? Credit to the epidemiologist, clearly a most sensible and balanced person. When asked, she simply pointed out that the same thing would happen in Australia. But the context was missing, presumably because it didn’t suit the narrative of the ABC. How many hours had the authorities spent trying to convince the people to leave for quarantine? From my understanding of the style of Chinese authorities, it was probably many. And furthermore, what alternatives were expected of the authorities, instead of carefully carrying them away? Use a tranquiliser gun? Or just let them stay there? As the ambassador pointed out, the Chinese measures have been astoundingly effective at huge cost to the Chinese. As at 13 March, Italy’s pro-rata deaths from coronavirus are already about 7 times those of China’s, with many more to come.

Finally, Stan Grant’s points about censorship lacked objectivity. Stan seems to be a major enigma. He is clearly one of the most convincing, authoritative and sensible voices on Aboriginal matters, but when it comes to his second interest, China, he often gushes nonsense. He referred to times when he was reporting from China, and how his reports were censored by the Chinese authorities. The point was unclear. Was he attempting to report to the Chinese population? I doubt it. I’m assuming that he meant he was restricted from collecting information. But how would the Australian government respond if an inflammatory journalist, in the employ of the Chinese government, set about aggressively digging up dirt and smearing the Australian government’s reputation internationally through excessively negative and biased reporting? Obviously, Stan was allowed into China, whereas many less threatening people, like David Icke, are refused Australian visas. The point he made at the very end of the program probably summarises his outlook, and possibly the main ABC line as well: ‘The idea always was that as China becomes more wealthy, they’ll become like us…’ I wonder how he would react to someone who said the same words to him, replacing the word ‘China’ with ‘Aboriginal Australia.’

There are many other points that could be made, both regarding this program and too many others, but these must be left for a further discussion. In conclusion, I would like to pose a few questions that Aunty should ask herself, if she wants to earn respect.

How many of the ABC correspondents and journalists covering China are fluent in oral and written Chinese? What credence does the ABC give to foreign media outlets who report on Australia yet cannot understand spoken or written English? What are the qualifications for reporting on Chinese matters, especially in terms of understanding Chinese culture and history? Where are the voices of regular Chinese people on the ABC? Is it appropriate that polarised ABC reporters are fronted as experts, when there are plenty of real experts around? Where is the line between presenting news and self-promoting ABC views and products, such as other ABC programs?

Perhaps the final word should be the Chinese ambassador’s comment at the end of the program when told by the presenter that he would be welcome back: ‘I’ll be very happy to do that. I think the sensible voice is too stifled here. I hope I will have another opportunity to have in-depth discussion about whatever issue you are concerned with.’ Perhaps the ambassador is more confident than I am that reason will prevail.

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Dr Paul Perversi is a teacher who has lived, worked and travelled extensively in China for eight of the past twelve years. He holds a PhD in Health Informatics from Deakin University, where he studied collaborative group reasoning in healthcare.

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