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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 12:33 | SYDNEY

Global Times: What I really said

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2 February 2012 17:30

Never trust what you read in the papers: that was one of my first lessons as a trainee journalist on an Australian bush newspaper many years ago. It held true yesterday when I discovered an article in The Global Times, China's Communist Party tabloid. It appeared to be an opinion piece under my byline. In fact, it was no such thing.

Recently I met with two journalists from that paper, a publication well known for its highly-readable mix of nationalism, news and spin. We had a wide-ranging discussion about how Australia perceives the Asian strategic environment. We agreed it would be an on-the-record interview, that the journalists would be entitled to quote from that interview, and that they would confirm the quotes with me before publication.

In the absence of any further contact from the journalists – and certainly no attempt by them to seek confirmation of quotes – I was surprised this week to discover an article under my name on the Global Times website. I was in good company – other such pieces appeared under the names of a senior Australian Defence official and my colleague Hugh White (the article misspells his name as 'Huge White', perhaps a forgivable reflection of his prominence in Australia's strategic debates).

Now, to be fair, much of the text that appears under my name is a reasonably accurate rendering of a portion of what I said in the interview, and broadly reflects my assessments and views – whether about the 'uncertainty' factor in China's rise or the nature of Australia's hedging strategy. I was at pains to point out that a hedging strategy is an understandable reaction to a rising power, and not a manifestation of some imaginary 'China threat' theory.

But then I encountered this:

The Australian public is becoming nervous about China's military and China's influence. An important symbolic moment in the public mind was the 2008 Olympic torch relay in Canberra, which saw a large protest by Chinese students and residents in Australia triggered by Tibetan separatists' attempt to block the event. This had a strong impact on Australia. 

Much of that is essentially as I said it. But the words 'triggered by Tibetan separatists' attempt to block the event' are not mine. Instead, I specifically said that the Chinese protest had been aimed at drowning out much smaller Tibetan and human rights protests. I did not call the Tibetans separatists and I did not suggest that the Tibetan protest was an attempt to 'block' the torch relay or that it somehow understandably 'triggered' the Chinese demonstration.

Disappointingly, the 'article' carrying my name also failed to quote some very important additional points I had made to the journalists about the 2008 Canberra protest. Specifically, I said that there was a perception in Australia that the Chinese protest had been supported or orchestrated by Chinese officials, and that this could be perceived as interference in Australia's internal affairs.

In response to the Lowy Institute's complaints about the mishandling and misrepresentation of the interview, senior editors of the Global Times have, to their credit, moved promptly to correct the web version of the story, noting that it was compiled by their own journalist, and correcting the line about the 2008 protests. (The original text can still be found on the printed version and the e-paper edition, of course.) They and the reporter have also apologised to me directly and graciously. It would be most appreciated if their newspaper would now publish this blog post by way of a clarification.

Still, the fact remains that someone on the newspaper's staff thought it was perfectly acceptable to put words into my mouth to suit the Communist Party line. This is a real pity, since in principle it is a good thing for a Chinese newspaper to reach out to international audiences and to devote space for foreign commentators to communicate in their own words. The Global Times undermined this potentially positive initiative through some failures of basic journalistic standards. The press in China is going to have to do better than this if it wants to be taken seriously in its efforts to engage with and reflect the world.

Photo by Flickr user add1sun.

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