Perhaps there is no surer sign of the perfect storm of cyclical, structural and existential factors crunching Australia’s media sector than the bizarre string of deals with the authoritarian, media-hating censors of Communist China.

Fairfax Media and Sky News are the latest Australian media groups to accept the corrupted currency of the Chinese Communist Party, puncturing a fine record by their correspondents in the country.

It follows a craven and embarrassing deal by the taxpayer-funded Australian Broadcasting Commission to host a Chinese language-website that was, as the ABC’s recently departed boss Mark Scott would proudly say, one of the few Western outlets in China.

From 2014, the ABC has been allowed inside the famous Great Firewall of China, to be viewed by ordinary Chinese people. That is because it self-censored any critical references of China and its leadership. The site was paid for by the Australian taxpayers, to be brutally frank, in the service of a ruthless, murderous, authoritarian dictatorship. The Sky deal is for content sharing, but the Fairfax deal is a purely commercial arrangement.

Concurrently — by coincidence, one would hope, rather than design — the ABC pushed out its excellent long-term Beijing bureau chief Stephen McDonell, who has gone to the BBC.

It’s impossible to describe the ABC’s abject move better than Swinburne University Professor John Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s very best, clear-eyed China watchers, who saw the Communist regime up close for some years when he ran the Ford Foundation in Beijing. As Fitzgerald wrote in Inside Story:

“On 4 June 2014 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation signed a landmark agreement with the Shanghai Media Group to establish a China-focused version of the ABC’s Australia Plus website. The date was sensitive. Exactly twenty-five years earlier a thousand or more students and workers were killed by forces of the People’s Liberation Army in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The anniversary passed without mention in China. The Tiananmen Massacre is one of those things the press is never allowed to mention

“The anniversary of the massacre was widely reported in Australia and internationally. In the week leading up to the signing, it received generous coverage in the ABC’s English-language media. And yet the Chinese-language web pages of ABC International programming were conspicuously silent on this subject.”

To compound the ABC fiasco, which has resonated with China-based journalists from media outlets around the globe, Chinese state-run media last week spent thousands of words trumpeting a string of deals between its state-run media “outlets” (in truth, tentacles of the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Propaganda Department) and the Australian media.

“Multiple media cooperation agreements and memorandums of understanding were signed between Chinese and Australian media outlets on May 27 in Sydney,” state-run China Daily reported on May 28.

It was not picked up by any of Australia’s China-based media. In China, propaganda is something of which to to be proud. In Australia and other countries in the West it is something to be feared and, frankly, avoided.

As noted by one observer, there’s a choice line here: “A comprehensive strategic partnership in light of new realities.” Greg Hywood, take another bow.

Still, it’s worth noting that Fairfax is simply aping other major global newspapers in carrying Chinese propaganda for their 30 pieces of silver. Its hard to know what’s worse: that Fairfax is doing it at all, or that it has been so slow to figure out that it’s a revenue stream.

Lest anyone think that the other major media group in Australia, the Murdoch family’s News Corp, has escaped the taint of the Party propaganda machine, it’s worth remembering that Rupert was ahead of his rivals. And News Corp effectively controls Sky, which also signed a China deal.

News Corp advised the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, on media strategy during Murdoch’s quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful bid to gain a foothold in China. Murdoch lost but the People’s Daily got the tools to create its successful, nationalistic tabloid offshoot, The Global Times.

So it’s little wonder that the Australia’s small pool of China-based correspondents has not been game to pick this story up.

At the epicentre of the latest round of deal-making between once proud Australian media groups and the Communist Party’s propaganda machine was none other than former foreign minister Bob Carr.

There’s a whole lot more to this sorry picture, including the frightening level of control that the party and its business avatars have over Australia’s Chinese-language media, but that’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, Crikey asked Fitzgerald for a few comments on the latest deal-making by Fairfax and others. Again, it’s hard to beat what he has to say in full:

“The new era of collaboration between the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Bureau and Australia’s news media, facilitated by Professor Bob Carr, was fittingly marked by four or five days of silence in the Australian news media. 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.”

“The Australian Foreign Ministry laid out a red carpet for the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Bureau to attend the signing of six commercial media deals with Australian firms. When did senior Australian government officials start to imagine it was appropriate to extend a formal hand of welcome to Communist Party (not Government) propaganda officials responsible for thought control in China? I can’t recall anything like this before.

“It’s all about risk. Australia’s commercial media are generally respected – with one notable exception – for separating their editorial and commercial departments. But the pressure is on in every one of them. Fairfax is cutting back on staff and executives in our major television networks can hear the death rattle of free-to-air television even now.

“They are all nervous. China is cashed up. At what point do the barriers separating the commercial and editorial sections of our hard-pressed commercial media start to wilt? We have already seen Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, sacrifice news coverage for commercial gain in China. And that’s a tax-payer funded entity. How long before commercial media are tempted to do the same?”

Australia’s media executives — and Carr — should take a collective bow. Or is that a kowtow?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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