What a week of predictions, ponderous opinions, shrill warnings and learned views we have had from Australia’s media about the Stern Hu affair. Let’s chronicle them, and in the interest of reasonable brevity, let’s confine ourselves mainly to what has appeared in The Australian, which has taken up this issue with great gusto.
Readers have been bombarded with a variety of descriptions, predictions and opinions about the Hu affair and the reactions of the Government to it. The following is a selection of media statements in no particular order, and with no attempt to connect them logically. Scan them quickly to get a feel for the views columnists have been expressing all week. [more]
· A shouted insult direct from Beijing.
· An arrow shot into the heart of Australia's most vital trading relationship.
· A ripping open of the usual diplomatic cover of a polite and mutually beneficial political and economic relationship between the two countries.
· A full-blown, fast-moving crisis.
· The Australian Government has been treated with contempt on this issue.
· A diabolical challenge for both Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith.
· [Rudd] now faces an enormous challenge.
· Very damaging for China's reputation.
· Kevin Rudd now has a China problem, and it is largely one of his own making.
· China is in the wrong.
· This appears to be an unprovoked and unreasonable act that has the potential to open a significant diplomatic and trade rift between China and Australia.
· The harvest of Rudd's mismanagement of the China relationship.
· [Rudd sent] ambiguous signals on the Chinalco deal.
· A classic case of overreach and then apparent over-correction.
· Beijing is entitled to expect that we say what we mean, and will act accordingly: consistently, coherently, and with maximum transparency.
· Now is the time for just such a conversation [with Chinese heads of state].
· The ever elusive free trade agreement between China and Australia not only seems more remote than ever. It appears ludicrous.
· It also shows that China is absolutely not prepared to give any leeway to Rio Tinto and, by extension, to Canberra.
· Hu's former employee described Hu as an ‘outstanding individual’ and an Australian trade hero... what had happened to him was ‘a disgrace’.
· It's worth remembering that Chinese state-owned enterprises do not operate in the same way as our private corporations.
· There has been no private consultation with Canberra, no consular access was allowed for five days. This is incredibly provocative.
· It's certainly going to make it almost impossible for the Rudd government to manage without doing permanent damage to the relationship.
· In diplomatic terms this has already gone beyond Hu himself, and has become a substantive issue between the two countries and by implication between the leaders of the two countries, Kevin Rudd and Hu Jintao.
· Rudd came to his prime ministership replete with diplomatic background and Mandarin tongue, holding out the promise that handling the China relationship would be his major foreign policy strength. It now threatens to become a manifest weakness.
· Rudd is fond of telling us of his phone conversations with heads of state. Now is the time for just such a conversation, if not for the sake of the bilateral relationship, at least for the sake of Stern Hu.
· I think it would be quite wrong and inadvisable for Kevin Rudd to take Malcolm Turnbull's advice and contact the President of China direct at this stage.
· The first objective of course is to try and release the Australian businessman, but equally important is the need to maintain good relations with China. That won't be easy. That's why the Government is playing this issue so far low key.
· Beijing is flexing its muscles and the Prime Minister will be forced into concessions.
· The signs are that Australia is about to be taught another lesson in realpolitik.
· Rudd at some point will probably need to make concessions to China for Hu's cause.
· The arrest was an internal signal of a move ‘to a more conservative, state-focused and security-conscious expression of power’ because Beijing has been taking it easy on the whole state security thing until now.
· Beijing ramps up the humiliation.
· If Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu is not released from a Chinese prison soon, the pressure on Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd to intervene directly with their counterparts will become irresistible.
· Intervention will probably be ineffective, and that would be even more humiliating.
· PM's harsh tone may misfire.
· The Rudd government is in an awful predicament over this, with no simple or quick exit available.
· Kevin Rudd's decision to publicly up the ante in his reaction to the Chinese detentions of Rio Tinto executives is curious as well as extremely risky.
· The Prime Minister's words were his most critical so far, and will reverberate loudly in Beijing. To what purpose is far less clear.
· The rhetoric is more likely to further irritate the Chinese than it is to persuade them to change course over the imprisonment of Stern Hu.
What a hotchpotch. What a self-opinionated contradictory mishmatch.
Yet by Wednesday evening, after Rudd’s TV statement on the Hu case, the ABC reported that already Beijing was listening, and its China correspondent Stephen McDonnell was reporting: “Well, interestingly today, the spokesperson for the Commerce Ministry, Yao Jian, was asked a little bit about this case and especially if this is going to harm Australia-China trade negotiations and trade relations. And he's insisted that the relationship between China and Australia is already too strong to be harmed.”
Yesterday Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the Peoples' University in Beijing said he was not worried by Kevin Rudd's warning about ties. He said the case is not payback for Rio's rejection of a deal with state-owned Chinalco.
Moreover, top US trade official, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, raised the arrest of the Australian Stern Hu and his colleagues with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Locke said the issue is of great concern to US investors and multinational companies around the world.
Today Fairfax outlets are headlining a story that Chinese authorities have told Australia to ‘butt out’. Of course those words have not been used; what was reported by The Age in a piece by John Garnaut and Michelle Grattan China tells Australia to butt out was “China has dismissed Australian concerns about detained Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu as ‘noise’ and warned Canberra not to interfere in its affairs. The stinging rebuke comes a day after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reminded ‘our Chinese friends’ that the world was watching their handling of the Hu case. ‘I've noticed that in Australia recently some people have been making noise about this case,’ said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang at a press conference. ‘This is an interference in China's judicial sovereignty.’
Big deal – in this not exactly what the Chinese would be expected to say? This is part and parcel of the exchanges that occur on such occasions. And that’s exactly what Kim Beasley said today on the ABC’s The World Today. Rudd is not asking for Hu’s release, or asserting that he is innocent, or seeking to interfere in China’s judicial processes; he is simply asking for transparency in China’s dealing with the matter and an expeditious conclusion to it, and letting China know the world is watching with concern and interest.
So at least as of today, it does not look as if the sky is falling in, or that the horrendous consequences and predictions of The Australian’s intrepid journalists are about to take place. Of course things might change; this is a complex case.
But why do we as consumers of Australia’s media have to endure such ill-informed offerings? Why do we have to suffer the audacious writing of Glenn Milne, and the overconfident and contradictory journalism of Jennifer Hewett? This is what Richard Farmer had to say in Crikey about the Hewett article on Thursday morning: "What a difference a day or two makes. On Monday in The Australian they were urging Kevin Rudd, in quite a hysterical fashion, to start talking tough to the Chinese Government on behalf of the wrongly imprisoned Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu. This morning the paper's national affairs correspondent Jennifer Hewett is cautioning that the moderate words Mr Rudd did utter on the subject yesterday ‘will make it even harder for any possible resolution to be quietly negotiated through diplomatic channels’."
Of course we can refrain from reading these journalists. But knowing that others are consuming their ideas, it’s important that those of us interested in federal politics read what they are feeding to the masses. Wouldn’t it be better if the journalism was of high quality, with the capacity to establish the known facts accurately, to transmit them truthfully, to formulate opinion logically, to separate fact from opinion and to avoid bias, so that what they write is informative, enlightening and entertaining? We bloggers can do our small bit by critically appraising media offerings, and feeding this back via our favourite blog sites.
This week’s offerings about the Hu case have been so awful that some awards are necessary. Three are on offer for which visitors are invited to nominate journalists:
The Pure Poison Award (with acknowledgement to a Crikey blog site of that name) is awarded to the journalist who displayed the most political poison, intellectual dishonesty and bias.
The Award for Self-Opinionated Journalism is awarded to the journalist who expressed the most brazen opinion not supported by evidence.
The Gravitas Award is for the journalist who most ponderously or pompously expressed opinions. This award is for senior journalists who have established a reputation for learned judgements.
So what have we learned this week through the Hu affair, a week where journalists have offered the PM and his ministers an abundance of gratuitous advice and opinion?
First, don’t place too much trust in journalists for accurate reporting and well-reasoned opinion and comment.
Next, try to glean information from many sources, including the online non-print media and reliable blog sites.
Finally, show cautious trust in those who have the responsibility for governing this country. They must have some talent, some experience, some inside information, some judgement, some vision, some wisdom, and some intent to improve the lot of this country’s citizens.
Kevin Rudd and his ministers seem to have played this crisis in a level headed, measured and rational way, and are now emerging as well in control of the issue despite all the media hype and Coalition frenzy. All the urgings of opposition members, all the admonitions of the commentariat, all the dire predictions, all the acerbic and in some instances poisonous comments, have so far been shown to be superficial, pretentious, provocative, singularly unhelpful, and in many instances plain wrong.
So let’s leave it to Kevin.
Your comments and nominations for the journalists’ awards will be welcome.