A senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official briefed the United States government alleging factual errors in an influential article published in The Australian.

The briefing, detailed in a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, was in response to an article penned in early 2005 by The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan.

The article (“PM defies Bush over China arms”) contrasts Australian and US reaction to a proposed resumption of European arms sales to China. Australia is described as rebuffing “the joint private and public lobbying by the US and Japan” against the resumption of arms exports, creating “the most serious strategic disagreement between Washington and Canberra in recent years”.

An article by another journalist within the same edition builds upon this thesis to state that Australia has been “bribed and bullied by Beijing”.

According to the cable, US government officials contacted DFAT to “check the veracity” of these articles. A senior DFAT official responded by stressing that the Australian government did oppose the resumption of arms sales and was “concerned that European technology could tip the strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region” — however, Australia must “couch its arguments in terms of making sure the Europeans were doing it right if they proceeded”.

The official, now deputy head of DFAT’s Global China Dialogue Secretariat, is described communicating that the China desk had briefed Sheridan for his article, and suggesting  “Sheridan had deliberately chosen to get the story wrong, presumably because it made a splashy front page headline”.

Sheridan’s article has been influential, referred to in a book by prominent Hong Kong journalist Willy Wo-Lap Lam (and also in several academic papers) as evidence of Australia’s acquiescence to China in order to maintain good relations.

Crikey contacted Sheridan for comment and received the following response:

“I deny getting the story wrong and I strenuously deny deliberate misrepresentation. I recounted this issue at length in my book The Partnership. I had many sources Australian, American and other for the story. DFAT did not greet me in the terms outlined in the cable. Very often DFAT does not control or necessarily know or understand all aspect of a foreign policy as conducted by principals.”

If Sheridan did indeed get the story right, the cable reveals the Australian government maintaining its official position by undermining the press. We are left to wonder. Whatever the case, this cable shines light upon the way Australian diplomats respond to and represent our media when they contradict the official line.

Peter Fray

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