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Last week, though you wouldn’t have read about it in the Australian press, a number of Australia’s leading media outlets quietly signed memorandums of understanding in Sydney with a range of Chinese media outlets.

China Daily signs deal with Fairfax Media, enters Australian market,” reported China Daily late last week. “These latest efforts will promote and deepen exchanges between media outlets in both countries and shore up the importance of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Australia in light of new realities.”

The memorandums of understanding involved, on the Chinese side, Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, China Radio International, People’s Daily Website and Qingdao Publishing Group. On the Australian side, it was Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia, the University of Technology Sydney, Global CAMG and Weldon International.

A signing ceremony in Sydney was attended by Fairfax Media publishing director Allen Williams, Sky News boss Angelos Frangopoulos, former foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr and Liu Qibao, the head of the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, as well as representatives from DFAT and other media outlets.

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In the past, Fairfax has carried advertorial from Xinhua News Agency. While the content was marked as an “advertising feature”, it would have looked like normal newspaper articles to a less-than-careful reader. Xinhua is the official press agency of the Chinese government.

It seems like the memorandum signed last week is along similar grounds. Asked what last week’s arrangement involves, a Fairfax spokesman said the Sydney Morning Herald, Age and Financial Review will begin running a monthly eight-page segment (presumably from China Daily given its reporting — China Daily is described by the BBC as a “state-run” media outlet) called China Watch. “This is a commercial printing arrangement — with the lift-out clearly pre-printed and inserted at our discretion. The lift-out is clearly labelled”.

The arrangement is one way — Fairfax content will not appear in any Chinese media outlets. And Fairfax will have “no involvement” in the content of what’s in China Watch.

“This commercial printing agreement in no way affects Fairfax’s ‘Independent. Always’ position or the journalism we produce,” the spokesman said, referencing Fairfax’s slogan. It sounds almost identical to Fairfax’s partnership with Russia Behind the Headlines, which Crikey has previously covered. That lift-out is funded by the Russian government and features a positive view of Russian politics and culture. It appears in Fairfax’s outlets, as well as in places like The New York Times, The South China Morning Post and The Washington Post.

Sky News’ arrangement with People’s Daily Online is rather different.

“It’s not structured as a commercial deal,” Frangopoulos told Crikey this morning. Sky News and People’s Daily Online have agreed to share their content, at the discretion of local editors. Whether or not to carry a specific piece of content from People’s Daily will be up to Sky News, Frangapoulos says, while, similarly, People’s Daily will pick what content, if any, it wants to run from Sky.

Frangopoulos says the arrangement is “not different to the way we access content from Reuters, or AP”.

“Editorial independence is sacrosanct,” he said.

Frangopoulos expects the partnership will mainly benefit Sky Business, with the outlets able to exchange content about “real estate, and Australians doing business in China”.

Sky News has had a similar arrangement in place for a number of years with China Central TV. One of the benefits of such arrangements, Frangopoulos says, is in relationship building. “There’s value in journalists talking to journalists,” he says. “This helps them understand how we operate, and we understand how they operate.”

“It’s about broadening people’s access to various perspectives. People can make up their own minds. But we’re not handing over control of our website to over to People’s Daily Online.

Bob Carr was there representing UTS, at which he’s the director of the Australia China Relations Institute. He told Crikey the value of the memorandum, which the centre has signed with Xinhua, lies in allowing the centre to secure “appropriate Chinese commentators for our rich program of public events”.

“We’re interested in economics and business commentators from China, in particular,” he said. The centre is also hoping to organise study tours for Australian journalists, “with a particular focus on briefing them on Chinese economic and business developments”. In a segment on Chinese television, Carr said the deal was “very important because we’re going to use it to take Australian journalists to China in large numbers to have them see [for] themselves the transformation of China”.

China has been transformed in recent decades. But press freedom remains virtually non-existent, and citizens’ access to foreign press is carefully controlled. But it’s a large and highly coveted market for Western news outlets, including the ABC. In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the ABC was proud to announce it was now allowed to operate a website behind the Chinese firewall.

Questions of editorial independence quickly arose. Many, including Swinburne University Professor John Fitzgerald (a leading Australian China analyst), detailed how the website didn’t contain the type of frank and fearless journalism one expects from the ABC. But the ABC insisted questions of editorial independence and censorship were misplaced — it wasn’t broadcasting news or political content, but “cultural content” aimed at selling Australia as a destination for tourism and business to the Chinese.

That justification suffered a heavy blow this year when the ABC’s Media Watch discovered several instances of articles having had political statements or graphics edited out before being placed on the portal. The ABC acknowledged an error had occurred and that those articles should not have been edited — presumably that means they should not have been placed on the China portal at all, as the portal doesn’t carry news.

On the latest deals, Fitzgerald told Crikey the lack of coverage about the deals from Australia’s news media was “fitting”.

“Expect more of the same. This is how propaganda departments work, not by persuading people by what they say, but by intimidating or embarrassing others into not reporting things that matter. From now on we’ll need to read the Chinese media to find out what’s going on in Australia.”

Correction: Sky News’ arrangement is with People’s Daily Online, not China Daily. The piece above has been corrected. 

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