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Influencing the influencers of Australian media

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In the wake of recent debate about whether Australia’s mainstream media reports with impartiality think coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas or the framing of the Lehrmann defamation trial – a key question remains: can one responsibly undertake impartial reporting while receiving benefits? For an industry founded on the principle of publishing with neither fear nor favour, the acceptance of favours has possibly outweighed journalistic responsibility towards an Australian public seeking objective knowledge. 

This issue of ‘friendship diplomacy’ – making one feel special hopefully to produce favourable opinion later – is well known in the world of those who seek to understand China. Four decades ago in Chinese Shadows the famous Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys wrote, ‘in the tours for foreign visitors, always superbly organized, anything that might be unpredictable, unexpected, spontaneous or improvised is ruthlessly eliminated.’ Over many years, New Zealand academic Professor Anne-Marie Brady has been extensively researching the deliberate ways that China ‘makes the foreign serve China’, especially through the work of the United Front Work Department. A new iteration of how to influence foreign visitors in China has been discussed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in its recent report Singing from the CCP’s songsheet

The authors showed that foreigners in China, including Australians, have been recruited to spruik positive government messages. They do this across platforms including TikTok, YouTube and X (Twitter) and have amassed tens of millions of followers in China as well as millions internationally. An important investigative piece by Herald journalist Eryk Bagshaw interviewed an early Australian China-influencer who admitted to receiving a salary as well as other perks in return for posting items of a nationalist nature. The fact that China-based influencers receive money and status for their pro-China posts is clearly pay-for-play. It is a refutation by these commentators of their responsibility to be impartial, and the public is poorly served because of it. That these useful foreigners are collectively called influencers, however, is almost by definition an indication that they will not be impartial. Fear the favoured, one can suggest.

And yet at least in the world of China reporting, not all such influencing of the influencers is as immediately transparent. Consequently, the question of the level of responsibility that journalists bear for exerting a bias in their reporting can become murky. The recent dialogues between the Presidents of China and of the United States, as well as the extensive meetings between Australia’s Prime Minister and the Presidents of both the USA and China are cases in point. The meetings themselves not only signal a resumption of less heated diplomatic relationships but also promise a removal of economically damaging trade tariffs. The impact of these conversations could signal real change in the quality of people’s lives, from the wine growing regions of country Australia to the atolls of the Pacific.


'What journalists focus on is important. The choice of what is reported and how it is framed are ways in which journalists exercise their power, be this in the Middle East, Pacific affairs or closer to home.'


Yet, rather than continued and informed Australian press analysis about these events, such commentary has now disappeared under a wave of outrage about such things as a sonar pulse. Instead of reading about key occurrences as the significance of the resumption of annual leader to leader talks or the impact of the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative the public has been bombarded with such questions as ‘what did Albanese raise with Xi Jinping at APEC and when?’

What journalists focus on is important. The choice of what is reported and how it is framed are ways in which journalists exercise their power, be this in the Middle East, Pacific affairs or closer to home. Presumably barley growers would be wondering ‘to whom the good?’ for instance, when the Australian Financial Review publishes a headline ‘Dutton rips China official about naval incident’. Foregrounding one aspect of the Australia-China relationship, such as military encounters (however so dangerous), rather than analyse all issues within the broad web of interconnectivity that includes everything from educational exchanges through to co-operation on climate change, threatens the stabilization of the relationship. Arguably, this proclaims at least an unfriendly bias, if not being simply irresponsible editorial framing. 

The glee with which Australian journalists watched a US reporter asking President Biden whether he thought Xi was a dictator, for instance, or when ABC political commentator David Speers wanted to make Prime Minister Albanese declare his level of trust in President Xi just as he was about to enter a significant meeting with him, suggests that for these reporters it was more about them being part of the story – being influencers – than them informing impartially. 

In the end, the cost is borne by the people of both Australia and China, not just economically, but also in terms of simple human exchange. After all, why trust another nation if it does not trust you? It would be irresponsible to do so.




Dr Jeremy Clarke, PhD is the Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd and runs a wine bar and bookstore in Boorowa, NSW.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, Media, Influence, China, Australia, United States



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Existing comments

Just go onto social media to observe ongoing anti-ALP or centre (preceded by anti-The Voice referendum) using influencers (inc. some directly linked to MSM), to promote themes with followers, bots etc.. The latter run protection on any contrary comments eg. presently promoting 'high migration', 'cost of living', 'housing' etc. crises (UK & US too) mostly unsupported by data and shouting at those who question.

Further, when observing ongoing long term conflicts e.g. Syria, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and of late Israel - Palestine, most hollowed out and shallow media is no longer resourced to analyse/present such long term complexity vs. day to day political PR and sound bites?

Lack of breadth and depth within media or locally 'medium' precludes informing voters, let alone broader society, hence, keeping ageing electorates 'low info', incapable of parsing through or understanding complexity?

Andrew Smith | 16 December 2023