Former prime minister Paul Keating has unleashed on the Nine newspapers over their coverage of the threat posed by China.
In an incendiary letter, Mr Keating accused the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers of unparalleled “bias and news abuse” after they splashed on Tuesday with a special feature titled “Red alert”.
“Australia faces war threat with China within three years. We’re not ready,” read the headline.
Inside, editorials asked: “Are we prepared for war? The public has a right to know”.
Mr Keating blasted the coverage of “Australia’s supposed war risk with China” as “the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over 50 years of active public life” in an open letter on Tuesday.
“It is way worse than the illustrated sampans shown to be coming from China in the build up to the war in Vietnam in the 1960s,” he wrote.
“Apart from the outrageous illustrations of jet aircraft being shown leaving a profiled red-coloured map of China, the extent of the bias and news abuse is, I believe, unparalleled in modern Australian journalism.”
The former Labor leader also took personal aim at the SMH‘s political and international editor, Peter Hartcher, who was one of the authors of the coverage. Mr Keating described Hartcher as the “arch villain” and a “provocateur and warmonger”, and accused Nine’s editors of being “compliant”.
Tuesday’s coverage included a panel of five China experts who said they believed Australia “faces the prospect of armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific within three years” – most seriously “a Chinese attack on Taiwan that sparks a conflict with the US and other democracies, including Australia”.
They pointed to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive stance and rapid military buildup. The experts said Australia unprepared for conflict, and the federal government was “reluctant to openly identify the threat we face: An increasingly aggressive Communist China”.
“The thinness of the narrative is built around five supposed ‘experts’, three of whom are regular anti-China commentators – each firmly and long identified with the strategic interests of the United States,” Mr Keating wrote.
“Their views form the basis of this exclusive ‘Red alert’. Not any one of the so-called ‘experts’ has any comprehensive knowledge of China – especially in matters of war and peace. A point Hartcher and his editors well know.”
Keating is a long-standing critic of the bipartisan consensus on Australia’s national outlook and policies such as AUKUS. In an address to the National Press Club in November 2021, he urged Australia not to be drawn into a military engagement over Taiwan – sparking another clash with Hartcher.
He said Taiwan was a “civil issue” for China, and “not a vital Australian interest”.
“We have no alliance with Taipei. There is no piece of paper sitting in Canberra which has an alliance with Taipei,” he said.
In response, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs told The Guardian that Taiwan and Australia were important partners, sharing universal values and common strategic interests and that China’s aggression had far-reaching implications.
“The crisis in the Taiwan Strait is by no means a domestic matter between Chinese, and the security of the Taiwan Strait involves the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region, but also the global peace, stability and development,” Joanne Ou said.
Mr Keating finished Tuesday’s letter by declaring “the illegitimacy of the [Nine newspapers] is manifest even to a moderately informed reader”.
“The management and board of Nine Group will have much to answer for should it allow further publication of this wantonly biased and inflammatory material,” he said.