What was worrying about the self-proclaimed world exclusive story China’s Spy Secrets on the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes was the absence of doubt.
Nine journalist Nick McKenzie introduced the program with evident certitude when he declared: “It’s probably a safe bet that the all-powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a regular viewer of 60 Minutes. But he would certainly want to see this story and that’s because, from his point of view, it is all about the unthinkable — a Chinese spy, one of his own people, is betraying him, breaking ranks and defecting to the West, Australia to be more specific.”
No doubt there. This was also the case with the series titled China’s Spy Secrets that appeared in Nine Entertainment newspapers starting on November 23.
Written by McKenzie, Grace Tobin and Paul Sakkal, the story told how the “fresh-faced intelligence operative Wang Liqiang” had been undertaking covert operations in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan before arriving in Australia to meet his wife and child.
Wang has sought asylum in Australia. McKenzie told 60 Minutes viewers that “what Wang Liqiang is doing is so dangerous, speaking publicly is probably the only way to save his life”.
Sure, it is an interesting story. But is Wang’s account the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
What Australians are asked to accept is that China’s security institutions entrusted a young man, not yet 30 years old, to undertake high-level operations in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is not being suggested that Wang has not told the truth, only that his story should be scrutinised.
It’s not as if Wang appears to be some kind of technical whiz-kid capable of spying at ease. According to reports, before entering the world of espionage Wang was an art student at Anhui University focused on oil painting.
In the current climate, where there is a genuine concern in Australia and some other nations of China’s power projection, it was understandable that the 60 Minutes program caused considerable attention. So much so that on November 24 ASIO director-general Mike Burgess took the unusual step of issuing a statement.
Titled Foreign Interference, Burgess said “Nine’s 60 Minutes contains allegations that ASIO takes seriously” and added that his organisation “has been actively investigating” Wang’s claims. As it should. If someone approaches ASIO with an allegation about hostile foreign intelligence activity, the organisation has a duty to investigate the matter.
However, within a week, McKenzie’s initial certainty was being queried by individuals in the Australian intelligence community.
As Paul Maley put it in The Weekend Australian on November 30, Australia’s security agencies are of the view that Wang is not a highly trained Chinese intelligence operative but rather, at most, a bit player.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph on November 30, Sharri Markson made similar comment with respect to Wang. She reported that, according to Australian security agencies, Wang’s account of his activities lacked details and said little above what is already known in the public domain.
To be fair to Wang, as far as we know ASIO’s investigations are yet to be concluded. Consequently, it’s not the time to be definitive.
However, a degree of scepticism in the early period of an inquiry is always valuable.
The problem with contemporary journalism is that so much is action driven and so little is motivated by objectivity.
The proper approach to Wang was to query his account — politely but decisively. Then viewers could have made up their minds whether his story was plausible. It is likely that, if such an eventuality had occurred, opinion would have been divided.
But this is not what took place on 60 Minutes. Instead, McKenzie preached what he and his fellow Nine journalists and producers believe is the truth. However, although it’s a common practice among modern journalists, it is most unwise to believe what someone tells you because it fits the narrative that you want to run.
Some people are liars, others embellish the truth, and still others are fantasists. And many are truthful to the best of their ability. It’s the proper role of journalists to thoroughly investigate claims, not to simply accept what people say.
In The Conversation on November 26, Nine columnist Tony Walker wrote: “Nine Newspapers journalists have conducted due diligence of the Wang case over some months and concluded publication is justified.” But he acknowledged that “gaps remain in the defector’s narrative”.
Walker began his column by stating: “Not since the Petrov Affair in 1954, when a KGB officer sought asylum in Australia with details of Soviet spying activities, has a case been as potentially significant for Australian security as that of Wang Liqiang who purports to be a Chinese spy.”
This was a significant overstatement that Walker himself recognised by stressing his use of the word potentially.
When Vladimir Petrov defected in 1954 he was the third secretary in the Soviet Union’s embassy in Australia. Later his wife Evdokia also defected. They were two of the most important diplomats to defect to the West during the Cold War and handed over invaluable information about Soviet agents in the West and Westerners who were passing classified material to Moscow.
Whatever Wang turns out to be, he is no Petrov. The Australian Financial Review journalist Andrew Clark commented on November 30: “The China espionage crisis may be Australia’s biggest spy scandal” and “could even be bigger than the Petrov Affair”. Although Clark, like Walker, conceded that Wang’s claims were “problematic”.
In which case there is no point in mentioning the Petrov Affair and the Wang 60 Minutes allegations in the same article. It’s much the same with the claim that China attempted to implant an agent in the Australian parliament. The evidence for this is extremely scant. However, we know that during the Cold War there were communist agents within the Labor Party and sections of the trade union movement some of whom were Soviet agents.
There is good reason to thwart any Chinese espionage in Australia along with any interference. But apparent overconfident exaggerations of the kind engaged in by 60 Minutes are likely to prove counter-productive.