Inside Story

Is the “biggest story” getting the best coverage?

Can the ABC fill some of the blind spots in its China-related reporting?

Wanning Sun 21 February 2019 1505 words

Not enough China literacy? The ABC’s head office at Ultimo in Sydney. Peter Rae/AAP Image

The presenter of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program Four Corners, Sarah Ferguson, is soon to depart for Beijing to take up the position of chief of the ABC’s Beijing bureau. China is the “biggest story,” says Ferguson, and “irresistible” to journalists, and it’s certainly an exciting career move and a personal adventure for an already widely acclaimed journalist. But given the unprecedented level of interest in China and the growing significance of Australia–China relations, this high-profile appointment also raises hopes of a lift in the standard of the ABC’s overall China coverage.

Over the past couple of years the ABC’s coverage of two sensitive topics, Australia–China relations and the Chinese influence debate, has been uneven and lacklustre and has certainly fallen short of what would expected of a national broadcaster. While this latest appointment to Beijing raises hopes of improvement, much of what needs to be done lies outside Ferguson’s responsibility.

It’s important to emphasise that the low score for the ABC’s news and current affairs coverage doesn’t generalise to some of the myriad magazine-style programs that populate Radio National. In-depth discussions and debates about China and Australia–China relations can be found on RN programs such as Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra and Paul Barclay’s Big Ideas. In August last year, RN’s China in Focus series offered a stunning array of nuanced discussions of various aspects of China. It is ABC programs such as this that carry on the best of the ABC’s journalistic legacy and do most of the broadcaster’s heavy lifting in informing the public about a wide range of issues.

Over the past few years, the “China influence” narrative, which manifests in a multitude of political, social and cultural issues, has grown to dominate the Australian news media’s coverage of China. In this context, the ABC has conspicuously failed to set a broader agenda — a role it played in the Australian media landscape until relatively recently. Instead, it has mainly responded to and followed the agenda set by the commercial media.

Some may object to this claim, citing the Four Corners report “Power and Influence,” which screened in September 2016, as an example of a highly influential investigation — in this case, into political donations by Chinese nationals and Chinese Australians. Indeed, the program provided a timely and much-needed exposé of an area that is ripe for reform, and not just in relation to donations from foreign nationals. But the program’s framing of these issues also featured journalistic practices that continue to afflict the China-influence narrative, including what I call “insinuative journalism” and what ex-ABC reporter Peter Manning calls “access journalism” and what might be called “suggestive reporting,” mostly free of hard evidence.

If you asked a range of defence, security and intelligence policy thinkers in this country to rate that Four Corners episode, it would receive ten out of ten. But if you asked the diplomatic community, the university sector and, not least, the business community, the score would be much lower. Not to mention the fact that the program inflicted collateral damage on the 204,000 or so Chinese students and around 1.2 million people of Chinese ancestry living in Australia, many of whom have been scratching their heads wondering why they should be distrusted based on the dealings of a couple of billionaires.

As a joint production of the ABC and Fairfax, “Power and Influence” also embodies another serious problem that has plagued the ABC’s news and current affairs coverage of the Chinese influence debate and Australia–China relations: it seems to have allowed itself to be influenced by the news values and news-making practices of commercial outlets.

Of course, the ABC doesn’t resort to rampant sensationalism, as some of the local Chinese-language news websites do; nor can it be accused of blatant fear-mongering, unlike some of the major commercial media outlets. But it is increasingly failing to play the leadership role we should expect from the national public broadcaster. Some of the ABC’s current affairs programs, such as RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, do make an effort to ask fair questions and reflect a range of different views and opinions, but its topics mostly seem to be chosen in response to what has already been reported about the Chinese influence or Australia–China relations elsewhere.

The ABC is aware that it needs to do better in crossing the language divide. Its Chinese Service, for instance, now offers a selection of the ABC’s news translated into simplified Chinese. Judging by how this China-related content is circulated among Chinese Australians via the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat, though, it seems that this initiative is something of a double-edged sword. It does make ABC content more accessible to Mandarin-speaking Chinese-Australian audiences, but it also brings home to these communities the fact that the mainstream media’s viewpoint on China is mostly indeed just that — mainstream — and seldom reflects these communities’ perspectives and interests. Indeed, this mainstream viewpoint often borders on being somewhat irrelevant to their lives, and as a consequence is potentially alienating.

It is also significant that the ABC’s online news and current affairs content now includes contributions from a few Mandarin-speaking reporters with Chinese cultural backgrounds. This can only be a good thing: hiring linguistically and ethnically diverse staff has frequently been recommended by reports on the challenges facing Australia’s media. But it would be naive to assume that diversity in perspectives and framing can be achieved simply by hiring reporters with an ethnic background.

Judging by the online news content produced by the ABC over the past year or so, though, junior reporters with a Chinese background seem to be demonstrating their professional chops by selecting and framing stories that don’t upset the views of the senior editors who will be reviewing their work, rather than breaking stories that go beyond or challenge those perspectives.

Achieving diversity in terms of names and appearance is easy, but attaining diversity in viewpoint and narrative framework is a hard slog, especially in a nation that still lives largely within a monocultural mindset, despite being one of the most multicultural countries on the planet. So far, there is little evidence that the ABC’s news and current affairs coverage of Australia–China relations and issues related to China’s influence has broken new ground.

For China-based foreign correspondents, the task of reporting is riddled with difficulties, perhaps the most obvious of which is dealing with suspicious and uncooperative Chinese officials. Too often these journalists’ attempts to get closer to the action are thwarted by local officials set on censoring or at least closely scrutinising their investigative processes. The original story is frequently derailed, and we end up reading more about the correspondent’s heroic battle than about the story itself. While ABC’s foreign correspondents mostly do a reasonably good job in covering China, there is a need to broaden its coverage of censorship and human rights to present a more complex picture of the challenges and opportunities that a rising China brings to Australians.

We need more stories about the impact of economic reforms within China, and how they have led to unprecedented social inequality, economic injustice and environmental degradation, and adversely affected the vast number of ordinary Chinese people who are doing what most Australians are doing: trying to get on with leading a decent life.

One excellent example of such reporting is the coverage by ABC China correspondent Bill Birtles — both in an episode of Foreign Correspondent and in his news reports — of China’s egregious environmental practices, which came in the wake of its decision to ban the import of garbage from Australia.

It has also become increasingly clear that reporting by the ABC’s foreign correspondents represents only a small proportion of the ABC’s entire reporting efforts in relation to China — as is also the case in other media outlets. The exponentially increasing significance of China to Australia means that Australia-based journalists — many of whom have no intimate knowledge of China and no language competence — produce the bulk of the content that is related to both Australia-China relations and issues within the Chinese influence narrative. So far, there has not been much China literacy on display in this reporting, including any knowledge of whom to approach for expert analysis.

In spite of funding cuts, the ABC continues to deliver high-quality content that deserves the money and support of taxpayers. But it’s time for the national broadcaster to lift its game in reporting on China and Australia–China relations. There, it needs to adopt a calmer, more rational and evidence-based approach and move beyond a narrow security and intelligence focus — much of which is informed by Australian perceptions of the US position on China.

China is too important to us to get it wrong. Australians deserve more reporting with depth and from a wider perspective than one we currently have to make do with. •