The Press Council considered a complaint from Jared Owens on behalf of Hon Kevin Rudd about an article published by The Australian headed “New Chinese era of living dangerously” online on 29 November 2019; and “Radical new Chinese era signals years of living dangerously” in print on 30 November 2019.
The article commented on Australia-China relations and the scale of Chinese foreign intelligence activities. It stated that “The development of the Quadrilateral Dialogue — involving the US, Japan, India and Australia — is one of many important developments. That the Quad recently held its first meeting at foreign minister level is encouraging. The decision by Rudd and his then foreign minister, Stephen Smith, to unilaterally kill the Quad in 2008, to please Beijing, was one of the most foolish and counter-productive foreign policy moves of any modern Australian government. It did immense harm to the Canberra-New Delhi relationship. It was a decision that had to be reversed and the Quad now enjoys bipartisan support in Australia.”
The complainant said it is inaccurate to state that the Rudd Government ‘unilaterally killed’ the Quad. The complainant said the documentary record clearly shows that Australia’s decision to withdraw from the Quad was first taken by the Howard Government. He said then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson made this position public on several occasions in India and China in July 2007. This position was subsequently reaffirmed by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in September 2007. The complainant said there is no appreciable difference between the statements made by the Howard Government officials in relation to the Quad and those made shortly afterwards by the Rudd Government officials including Foreign Minister Stephen Smith after the Rudd Government assumed office.
The complainant also said the documentary record shows the Quad was abandoned by all of the proposed participants (Australia, Japan, India and the United States) prior to Foreign Minister Smith’s statement concerning the Quad in February 2008. The complainant referred the Press Council to public statements and extracts from diplomatic cables which he said demonstrated this.
The complainant said the assertion the Rudd Government unilaterally killed the Quad is not a matter of historical interpretation, but a statement of fact that is provably untrue.
In response, the publication maintained that its reporting was accurate, and rejected the complainant’s call for a correction. It said there is wide acceptance among foreign policy experts and diplomats that Rudd’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made a public statement in February 2008 that unilaterally withdrew Australia from the Quad. In relation to this, it referred to a number of contemporary articles on the matter by publications both domestic and abroad, which it said demonstrated The Australian’s interpretation of the Rudd Government’s policy was widely shared. It also referred to a diplomatic cable which it said demonstrated this.
The publication said that if the Howard Government or any other proposed participant had in fact already withdrawn from the Quad, it would not have been necessary for Foreign Minister Smith to address Australia’s participation in it in February 2008. It said the complainant’s assertion of an alternative view of his government’s position on the Quad merely proves that such matters can be open to interpretation by foreign affair experts and historians. It would therefore be wrong to issue a correction on a matter of historical debate. It said the article is a true reflection of the Foreign Editor’s assessment of the issue as an expert in the field and is in line with other mainstream thinking.
The publication also said its Foreign Editor had been in direct communication with Foreign Minister Smith at the time of his announcement and had firsthand knowledge of the Rudd Government’s decision to withdraw in 2008. It also said statements made by politicians and diplomats in foreign affairs matters are often intentionally ambiguous. It said the Rudd Government’s position on the Quad could clearly be distinguished from previous comments made by Howard Government officials. The publication also noted it previously offered the complainant an opinion piece to ventilate his version of events, which the complainant declined.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); and to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council is satisfied, based on all the submissions before it, that Foreign Minister Smith’s announcement in Tokyo on 1 February 2008 that “we are not proposing to add to the trilateral by including India…and that view is shared by the Japanese government” affirmed the Rudd Government was effectively continuing the Howard government’s position on the Quad as reflected in 2007 statements by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson. The position was consistent with the previous Howard government’s position and therefore not “unilateral”. The Council is also satisfied that the submissions and the Tokyo announcement together with Foreign Minister Smith’s announcement at a joint press conference with the Chinese foreign minister on 5 February 2008 that “The United States has indicated a similar disposition in recent weeks and I think that’s been welcomed by all” is sufficient to show that the Australian Government’s position was shared at least by Japan and the United States and not unilateral in this respect. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in this respect.
The Council notes the publication offered the complainant a right of reply which was not pursued by the complainant. Accordingly, General Principles 2 and 4 were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.