A trumped up EXCLUSIVE?

The line between media and politics has been blurred in this coronavirus crisis but has Murdoch media been caught out overstepping the mark?

11 May 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein 

What’s wrong with the above two “EXCLUSIVE” headlines in the Daily Telegraph?

Spectacular contradictions, that’s what.

The one on the left “BAT MAN” proclaims the Five Eyes intelligence agencies were investigating two Chinese scientists, over their role in the potential fabrication and release of COVID-19 from a laboratory in Wuhan.

On the right “TRUMP CLAIM SPLITS SPIES” debunks the seemingly unanimous Five Eyes theory that COVID-19 was released from a laboratory in Wuhan. It asserts Australia’s intelligence agencies were “growing increasingly uneasy” by such claims. 

Published just eight days apart, these exclusive stories – advancing both sides of the argument on the widely debunked “Wuhan Laboratory” conspiracy theory – appeared in the same newspaper and were written by the same reporter.

It’s what reporter Sharri Markson did in the intervening eight days which has caused a major furore and exposed a rift in the hitherto unquestioned Australian media narrative that China should be subjected to a COVID-19 investigation, the type of which has been proposed by the Morrison Government and supported by the Trump Administration.

The Daily Telegraph’s follow up report almost as long as the dossier it was claimed to be based on

Out “Foxing” the story

The Telegraph followed up its Bat Man story in the Saturday edition with more explosive claims based on a mysterious dossier supposedly produced by the Five Eyes group, which consists of intelligence gathering agencies from the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Two days later Sharri Markson popped for another exclusive this time appearing live via satellite on US cable network Fox News where she was interviewed by Tucker Carlson. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has described Carlson as “Trump’s personal favourite.”

The Fox host was gushing in his praise of Markson calling her exclusive an “amazing piece of journalism.” This came despite the fact the story was little more than a reproduction the contents of an entirely uncorroborated document which had apparently been handed to her.

It seems Carlson, and the editors of the Fox website which also carried the story, were so taken by Markson they forgot to disclose her newspaper and their network are both owned by the Rupert Murdoch-controlled News Corporation.

Markson later steps back from Fox News claims dossier came from five nations, saying it only came from “two governments”

Of her story, Markson told Carlson, “It has been followed up around the world, everyone is taking this very seriously.”   

That claim hold ups only if “everyone” means Murdoch media, a smattering of tabloids and online conspiracy theorists.   

The story was either panned, or seriously questioned, by numerous media outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald, Reuters, The New Daily, Toronto Sun, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Interpreter, The Saturday Paper , and the ABC’s Media Watch program.

Little more than access journalism

There was a time when a front-page newspaper story, with allegations of major impropriety on the part of individuals, organisations or governments, had to be thoroughly investigated and the source of any leaked documents seriously examined prior to publication.

Not it seems in the case of Sharri Markson and The Daily Telegraph.

On the morning of the “Bat Man” front page story, Tuesday 28th of April, APAC News contacted Markson by text message, subsequently speaking with her a few minutes later by telephone.

It was put to Markson her suggestion that two Chinese scientists, with tenuous links to Australia, were being investigated by the Five Eyes intelligence group was odd.

One of the scientists had spent three months in Australia 14 years ago and the other, it was pointed out to Markson, was an internationally acknowledged expert on viruses.

It was brought to her attention that the research of Peng Zhou, the so called “Bat Man”, has been internationally peer reviewed, cited at least 226 times in scientific journals outside of China and his research had been published by the US government’s own National Institutes of Health

Far from being a shadowy figure as the Telegraph has suggested, Dr. Zhou is a prominent international expert on viruses who’d often collaborated with international scientists.

Markson was asked whether she was aware of his resume and, given the prominence of his research, whether she seriously thought he fits the profile of a secretive scientist who’d potentially unleashed a global pandemic? She responded it was not her opinion it was the conclusion arrived at “in the dossier” upon which the story was based.

Given the only two investigation related quotes in the story came from Liberal MP Andrew Hastie and US Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse, APAC News put it directly to Markson that: either one of those people or (given it was an intelligence dossier) someone within Australian intelligence community must have handed her the dossier.

She neither confirmed nor denied that proposition saying only this was a proper investigative piece which she had been “working on since last week”.   

A story “resold back into the US”

Former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd has been the most vocal in his criticism of this Telegraph story, its motive and its source. He says it was concocted by Murdoch media in Australia for an express purpose, to be “resold back into the US”, where Murdoch’s American arm used it to support the claims of President Trump and, his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

Trump and Pompeo have emphatically stated they have evidence to show COVID-19 came from a laboratory in Wuhan but have more emphatically denied media requests to produce that evidence.

In a lengthy opinion piece published in The Guardian last Friday, Rudd states, “And it’s here that Murdoch’s paper becomes explicit in its assertion that the Five Eyes research dossier helps validate the as-yet-unproven claim by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo that the virus was “invented” at the Wuhan laboratory.”

“This is all about US presidential politics… And let’s be clear: Murdoch is campaigning full-bore for Trump.”

Kevin Rudd, Former Australian prime minister

Of the dossier, Rudd further asks, “Who leaked it, given that leaking such material is a criminal offence – as the US has made plain in its handling of Chelsea Manning’s and Julian Assange’s cases that included the large-scale unauthorised release of classified Five Eyes material.”

A leaky US Embassy?

Kevin Rudd poses another far more serious question, asking, “Was the US Embassy in Canberra involved?”

This theory has been examined by Nine Newspapers, with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age conducting their own investigation, reporting:

“There are now widespread suspicions within senior ranks of the Australian government and the intelligence community that the document was leaked to The Daily Telegraph by a staff member in the US embassy in Canberra.”

The Age & SMH, 7 May 2020

Whilst that assertion cannot be publicly tested, journalists Anthony Galloway and Eryk Bagshaw state their report was based on “multiple diplomatic and political sources.”

The Nine Newspapers story goes on to state that senior government members and intelligence agencies had “trouble finding the document” and what they did find was a report which allegedly was pulled together from publicly available (and unverified) sources including stories posted on the internet.

Where is this mysterious document?

Nine Newspapers also contacted Markson for comment, as with this publication’s inquiries, she would not reveal her source – as she has every right not to do. 

However distinguished Australian journalist and author, Quentin Dempster took Markson and her story to task on Twitter, suggesting she’d allowed herself to be used in the advancement of a political agenda.    

He told Markson, “No one is expecting you to reveal your sources… all journalists must ensure they are not used. Public interest first.”

She replied, “What rubbish… It was prepared by concerned western govts.”

To which Dempster followed up, “Then please post the dossier in the public interest. You can redact anything that identifies your source. Appreciate you reject any suggestion that you have been used. Full disclosure of the dossier will clear the air .. immediately.”

No stopping Sharri

On her Sky News program last night Markson told guest Clive Hamilton, of the origins of COVID-19, “There’s no firm intelligence on this either way on this, at least none that we know about, none that’s public.”

This is the same Sharri Markson who just six days earlier told Fox News she had a firm intelligence report, saying “These are just the facts that the dossier lays out and this is not ideology, this is not propaganda, these are just the facts.”

Hamilton an author and academic, who’s made a career out of attacking China, was adamant COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory. He supported his thesis by saying there was a great deal of scientific consensus and published material that clearly pointed to the conclusion that COVID-19 came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Of course, it didn’t serve Markson’s purposes to actually press him to elaborate on his claims. Needless to say Hamilton did not name a single scientist nor identify the source or location of any of these alleged reports.

Wuhan wash-up

Markson’s reports in The Daily Telegraph did state the possibility of COVID-19 being leaked from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan were remote. The problem is these disclaimers were buried deep in the small print of the stories and kept well away from the front-page headlines on April 28 and a major follow-up on Saturday May 2.

Despite her protestations on social media that her report was balanced, she was unequivocal in blaming China during her Fox News interview, citing the dossier as proof that that the Wuhan lab theory was plausible. Not once did she mention to Carlson her own government rejects that proposition.

Prior to her Fox interview, numerous Australian scientists – among them Dr. Josh Hayward from the Burnet Institute, Prof. Eddie Holmes from Sydney University and Australia’s peak scientific body the CSIRO – had dismissed theories that the origin of COVID-19 was a laboratory. Markson instead told Fox News the only people in Australia who rejected the Wuhan lab theory were “left wing” media.

What has emerged is the first major rift in Australian media reporting of COVID-19 when it comes to the Australian government’s position on China, specifically the call for an investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia’s Murdoch media has, it seems, pushed the boundaries on the vexed issue of the proposed China investigation. A former prime minister of Australia now accuses The Daily Telegraph of stepping over the mark, from acting as a reporter of statements of the Australian government to being an advocate of the Trump administration six months out from a US presidential election.

By putting these stories on the front page of Australia’s biggest selling daily newspaper, Markson and The Daily Telegraph believe they are in the public interest. However, when pushed even a little, they’ve acted more like the spy agencies they claimed to have produced the Wuhan dossier.

In all of this one piece of news has been lost, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced last Thursday, it would agree to investigations into the source of COVID-19 being conducted by the WHO.

However, spokesperson Hua Chunying stopped short of saying China will commit to a formal investigations, saying investigations should come at an “appropriate time”. China rejects, what she says is “an international inquiry based on the presumption of guilt.”

Given Donald Trump’s emphatic assertions on the Wuhan laboratory, it seems, the Chinese government has a point.