Michael Pascoe: Pearl-clutching outbreak over spooks ‘spooking’

While chief spy Mike Burgess’ speech about spooks spooking last week was somewhat (unintentionally) amusing, the ASIO Media Unit – alias Nine Entertainment – has subsequently gone Code Red pearl clutching.

Nine’s 60 Minutes TV show and its Sydney and Melbourne newspapers started with Mr Burgess’ speech and then hit hyperdrive, exemplified by a passing swipe in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age at the 14-year-old exchange program run by Melbourne’s Asia Pacific Journalism Centre and the All China Journalists Association.

It’s not uncommon for people’s faith in journalistic credibility to be weakened when they encounter media in their own backyard or industry, when the individual’s deep knowledge of said backyard compares with the once-over-lightly grasp of a rapidly-passing journalist. Or when perspective isn’t allowed to get in the way of embroidering a story.

Nine’s Nick McKenzie ventured into my backyard by reporting an odd little grab by a young professional China security commentator, Alex Joske:

“Once an Australian is inside China they’re on MSS home turf, where it has the greatest ability to use its coercive powers and surveillance capabilities.”

As an example, he cited a small Australian media delegation to China last year as part of a long-standing exchange program where the group met with a Chinese journalist and foreign affairs analyst who Joske has identified as the most senior MSS officer in Canberra in the 1990s.”

The context of Mr McKenzie’s article almost seemed to suggest that was a bad thing, whether or not Mr Joske was correct.

I was a member of that delegation in October, the first journalists working for Australian media to be allowed into China since relations were blown up during the Dingo v Wolf Warrior days. I’d personally be disappointed, slighted even, if I thought we were only afforded a single brush with security types. What an inconsequential bunch we’d have to be.

Know your enemy

That’s the thing about being a journalist – you meet, speak and assess people of all kinds in all sorts of situations. You learn from what they say, the way they say it and what they don’t say. It’s a bit like what one venerable veteran says is his reason for subscribing to The Australian – “you have to know what the enemy is thinking”.

It might say more about the vulnerabilities of Mr McKenzie and Mr Joske if they felt journalists could be coerced by meeting the odd CCP spook/analyst during a week in China.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane was also a member of the exchange and has done a very nice deconstruction of the Nine Entertainment piece and the broader tendency of mainstream journalism to run with what it’s fed by the local security industry instead of looking where it’s not pointed. In part, he wrote:

“I’m somewhat puzzled by McKenzie and Joske’s claim that we met only one security official while we were in China. I’d have thought the number of security officers, spies and assorted watchers and agents we encountered during our week-long visit would have run into the scores.

“I assumed our hotel rooms were bugged, whatever devices we had with us were targeted with spyware, that our movements when not accompanied by our hosts were carefully watched, that the genial and quite lovely people hosting us were providing detailed reports on us.

“Hell, I expected the cute hotel robot that brought medications to me when I was struck down with COVID-19 in Shanghai to be bristling with surveillance tech.”

Bernard may have a more suspicious nature than me. I wouldn’t run to “scores”. And I doubt the hotel robot was all that hi-tech – there are better ones.

“What we’re supposed to be an example of in the eyes of McKenzie and this Joske character isn’t clear,” Bernard continued.

“Whether security agency official, Communist Party member, economic think-tanker or working journalist for a party newspaper, our interlocutors were invariably enlightening even when rigidly adhering to the government’s talking points.

“What line it pushed, how it responded to our questions, what it thought worth emphasis and what it preferred to move on from quickly — all were illuminating.

“Did it change our minds on China? I suspect not; certainly in my case I still think it’s a monstrous regime, albeit leavened now with some first-hand experience of China’s amazing infrastructure, its colossal electric vehicle program, how Xi Jinping thought is carefully instilled in party members and bureaucrats, and how disgusting the toilets are in the Beijing train terminal.”

That’s part of the difference between being a journalist and a Sinophobe or someone doing well out of being fed stories by spooks, whether “ours” or “theirs”.

Spies gotta spy

Few lines are more naïve than the suggestion that a local security agent disclosed information that he or she wasn’t meant to disclose. “Sources who were not permitted to speak publicly” may as just be called “ASIO” or “CIA” or whoever they are because spooks don’t unofficially feed journalists.

The bigger point Mr Keane’s article makes is that while concentrating on China, our media too often misses or choses to ignore the much greater and very real influence other foreign agents have over our politicians, officials and, yes, journalists.

They don’t need Mr Burgess’ “false and anglicised names” because they mainly look like us.

Even at the more exotic end of the scale, Sinophobia tends to get in the way of other possibilities. For example, mixed in Nine’s concentration on China, was the line from Mr Burgess’ speech:

“More recently, we’ve seen a foreign intelligence service use a puppet to find out about a person and ask, again, ‘Can we find a fellow Australian who will make that dissident disappear?’”

If you’re not channelled down one path, that sounds more like India targeting a local Sikh activist.

As previously written here, spies gotta spy. We do it, they do it, friends do it to each other as well as to foes.

It helps to keep it in perspective, to not be “spooked” by it, so to speak.

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