The front page of The Australian on Friday August 28, 2020 (Image: The Australian)

Both News Corp and the Morrison government have, arm in arm, circled back to where we were in the COVID-19 blame game just four months ago: China. Only now it’s been meshed with all the other priorities of the company and the government: attacking Dan Andrews, undermining universities and aligning with Trump’s rising trade war.

Giddy up! Mount up for Australia’s fifth ride around the China COVID carousel, powered by the government and News Corp: from foreign students and the “China virus” back in February, Chinese companies exporting medical supplies in March, the mysterious Wuhan lab in April-May and the consequent global inquiry, and finally the trade wars in June and again last week.

As always with News Corp’s reporting on government policy, it’s hard to tell: who’s the chicken and who’s the egg? Does the government decide on a policy and then rely on News Corp’s media to puff it? Or does one of those front-page exclusives prompt a quick policy throw together by a prime ministerial think tank?

And, with both News and the government, there’s a further question: just how far back up the chain do you go before finding, um, suggestions from New York or Washington? Remember, the brouhaha over Victoria’s remarkably anodyne memorandum of understanding over China’s belt-and-road infrastructure initiative was sparked back in May with matching criticisms by Morrison and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Australia’s Sky News.

It prompted Morrison’s last bite at a “tough new national security test” on foreign investment in early June, with last week’s nationalist rhetoric getting an early trot around the track, along with two of Morrison’s favourite rhetorical devices: emphasis through varied repetition (“investment in Australia must be on our terms, on our rules and in our interests”) and hyperbole (“the most significant reforms to foreign investment laws since 1975”).

That announcement was drowned out at the time by the Black Lives Matters protests here and in the US (and, according to Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, by the threat to Gone with the Wind). But then, too, professional journalism worked with government to get the message across. While Morrison could publicly assert that he saw no reasons why China would be offended by the announcement, news.com.au confidently relied on background briefings to head their report to the contrary: “Australia’s new rules on foreign takeovers that inflame relations with China”.

News Corp is making sure its audience doesn’t miss China this time around, tying it tightly to its political and culture war enemies, now collectively dubbed in the Tele as “Panda huggers”. Sky after dark has been promoting Bronwyn Bishop’s comments to Morrison’s interviewer of choice Paul Murray: “Australia has been ‘kissing the hand that holds the whip’ in China”.

The Australian followed up its Friday front page (“Eyes Wide shut on spy threat: Premier Andrews declined advice from security agencies on China deal”) with a Saturday front page exclusive from its recent hire, Walkley Award-winning investigations writer Sharri Markson: “Chinese military links inside uni”.

But the rollout threatens being derailed (as was the June announcement) by the far more controversial sale of the Darwin Port to a Chinese company with alleged links to the People’s Liberation Army back when Morrison was treasurer with oversight of foreign investment. Oversight, sure, but with a carefully carved out denial of responsibility. In June, Morrison asserted: “The Darwin port was not sold with the approval authority of the Commonwealth government. It was not.”

The port is a greater concern for the US, under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, not least because the US Marine force in the territory rotates through the China-owned port.

As China’s deputy head of mission to Australia, Wang Xining, told the National Press Club last week) the government’s approach “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people”. Wang was talking particularly about the government’s call for an independent inquiry linked to the Tele’s “COVID files exclusive”, based in an apparent 15-page dossier tying the virus to a Wuhan lab.

More thoughtfully, he attempted to draw a distinction between influence (which all countries attempt) and interference (a global no-no). Too subtle for a politically focussed government. As long as the government and News Corp can get their mutual base along for the ride, expect the China COVID carousel to take a few more turns.

Peter Fray

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