CAMG journalist

On the eve of Tony Abbott’s first trip to China as Prime Minister (he is due to touch down on Hainan Island on April 9), the Chinese government has been caught, once again, using an Australian-based media company as a front for its propaganda machine.

Global CAMG Pty Ltd is ostensibly based in Melbourne and produces Chinese-language radio stations and programs. Yet its website lists a Beijing phone number and a central business district address in the Chinese capital as its headquarters.

CAMG first came to public attention during the quadrennial Communist Party Congress in Beijing in November 2012 when a “reporter” from the company, a young Australian named Andrea Yu, popped up asking questions in sought-after slots allotted for foreign media. She turned out not to be an independent journalist at all, with CAMG affiliated with state-run China Radio International.

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The story of the mysterious Australian who was rigging the coverage of the congress was widely regarded within the foreign press corps as one of the handful of standout stories of the congress. It snared its author, the ABC’s estimable China correspondent Stephen McDonell, a Walkley nomination.

So it is a testament, perhaps, to the breathtaking arrogance of Chinese propaganda chiefs that CAMG is at it again. The group surfaced at last year’s National Peoples Congress, China’s annual “parliament”, which rubber-stamps the policies of the ruling Communist Party. There it remained low-key but moved into prime time at this week’s NPC. Instead of using an Asian-Australian like Yu the company opted for a Caucasian version, with another young lady in Beijing asking Dorothy Dixers of Chinese Communist Party officials.

Enter Louise Kenny (pictured), decked out in hot pink.

The occasion was an hour-long press conference for Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, one of China’s most senior and respected officials — both inside and outside the country.

Three-quarters of an hour into the conference, after eight soft questions from the Chinese media (including one from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV), it was finally the chance for foreign media. With the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Australia’s own Australian Financial Review present, the assembled throng was more than slightly bemused when the moderator alighted upon Kenny to ask the question.

She was, she announced, from “Australia’s Global CAMG” and proceeded to ask a tricky, tricky question on agricultural insurance. As Zhou began to answer the ever-vigilant McDonell was ready: “Zhende waiguo meiti, bu yong jia de waiguo,” he piped up, in his excellent Mandarin: “Real foreign media, we don’t want fake foreign media.”

This was met with laughter and applause form the room, including the Chinese press.

Sprung badly, the nervous moderator then directed the microphone to McDonell, who deferred to his erstwhile Australian colleague Angus Grigg from the AFR. Grigg then asked the right sort of question, about planned credit tightening for China’s steel sector that would affect Australian iron ore sales, a day after the price of the commodity had seen its biggest one-day percentage slump in history — 8.5%.

The answer he got, frankly, was better public relations for the Chinese government than anything on the dreary and irrelevant topic of agricultural insurance. Zhou said that for the dual reasons of cutting back capacity in an industry that can make as much as 30% more steel than China needs as well as forcing shonkily made, highly polluting mills to shutter in an effort to curb the smog choking northern China, credit to the sector was being reined in.

“CAMG feeds Chinese government propaganda stories into Chinese-language radio stations in Australia.”

Of course you can’t keep a pushy Aussie journo down, even one in the employ of the Chinese Communist Party.

Kenny approached McDonell and Grigg after the press conference, accusing them of being “childish”, insisting that Global CAMG’s listeners were vitally interested in agricultural insurance. Really?

The NPC is hard yakka: 10 days of attending brief press conferences from many of China’s most powerful officials, all in Chinese. But the space allocated for questions for media is tight, and there are usually just a handful permitted from foreign journalists. So it’s outrageous and fraudulent of the Communist Party to put one of their own organisations up as a foreign media organisation.

It may be a sign that Beijing’s $6 billion campaign to spread its “soft power” around the world — via well-staffed offices of its Xinhua news agency; television arm CNC; the People’s Daily, China Daily, Global Times newspapers; as well as the CCTV television stations — are not winning enough hearts and minds by themselves.

Still, China’s soft power campaign marches relentlessly on. You may not know it, but China Inc has significantly ramped up its media operations in Australia, employing dozens of people — a mix of Chinese expatriates and local staffers — and these organisations continue to grow, even as Australia is allowed only six correspondents: two ABC (plus two cameramen), three Fairfax and one News Corp to cover a country of 1.3 billion people. Trying to get extra slots is all but impossible.

It’s worth noting here that there is nothing at all wrong with working for Chinese state-run media organisations. There are many good people and excellent journalists who work for them, both Chinese and foreign nationals. But unlike Kenny and her organisation, most media outlets are honest about who they are and what they do; and journalists are honest about who they represent. Global CAMG is peddling propaganda as news — it’s wrapping itself in an Australian identity that is fraudulent.

McDonell, loaded with experience, a shelf full of Walkeys and into his eighth year in China, told Crikey Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull should look into the matter. He is right. Unlike most of Abbott’s frontbench, Turnbull has taken the time to regularly visit and learn about China, so he, of all people, would understand.

As McDonell, Grigg and Kenny argued the toss after the press conference, Chinese journalists recorded the stoush and posted it to the Chinese social media site Weibo.

“The Chinese government uses CAMG for domestic propaganda to mislead Chinese people about what audiences overseas want to know about China,” McDonell said. “CAMG feeds Chinese government propaganda stories into Chinese-language radio stations in Australia. CAMG also on-sells stories to outlets in other countries pretending they are reports from an independent Australian media outlet when really it is Chinese government-controlled reporting.”

Abbott has shown himself unafraid of Beijing’s opinions. So when he visits China next month, he should add to his list of topics in his talks with Premier Li Keqiang in Hainan and Party chief Xi Jinping in Beijing a few days later an insistence that they stop using this country as a front for their propaganda.