Sloppy journalism and a weak apology

7NEWS apologises to Chinese-Australian businessman but will the damage end there?

29 June 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

The Seven Network has issued an apology to Chinese-Australian businessman Richard Yuan, and removed a story on its 7NEWS website, which falsely accused him of impropriety in relation to a cargo flight which arrived in Sydney from the Chinese city of Wuhan on April.

Richard Yuan is an Australian citizen who studied at the University of Canberra and has lived in Australia for 24 years.

The story posted on 1 May 2020, under the headline Cash, Coronavirus and baby formula: The truth about Wuhan’s mercy flight to Australia, was written by veteran reporter Kelly Burke who spent 17 years at the Sydney Morning Herald and one year at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph before starting with Seven in January of 2019.

Undisclosed settlement

Yuan strenuously denied the allegations in the 7NEWS story and put the matter in the hands of lawyers. Last week his representatives and lawyers for Seven West Media, the website’s publishers, reached an out of court settlement.

While details of punitive damages have not been disclosed, it is believed Seven West Media agreed to pay Yuan’s legal costs and, as part of the settlement, removed the offending story from its website and issued an apology to Mr. Yuan, it read: 

On 1 May 2020, Seven published an article called “Cash, Coronavirus and baby formula: The truth about Wuhan’s mercy flight to Australia”, which suggested that Mr Yuan, chairman of the Australia China Entrepreneurs Club, attempted to sell a shipment of medical supplies to Australian government agencies in the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Yuan has advised Seven that neither he nor his Association, namely Australia China Goodwill Association (ACGA), sought to profit (nor have they profited) from the shipment of supplies, but rather intended that they be donated to local communities. Seven accepts that this is the case and apologises to Mr Yuan and his family.

This apology will remain on the 7NEWS website for 14 days. However, had Yuan not taken legal action the story containing false allegations would have remained online permanently.

No basis for the story

According to Yuan, he was contacted by Kelly Burke on Friday May the 1st, who phoned him several hours before 7NEWS posted its story. Burke had arrived at his Sydney office, which was closed due to the coronavirus lockdown.

A notice on the front door about the office shutdown contained Yuan’s personal mobile phone number.

That, in and of itself, should have been a clear sign to Burke that she might be heading down the wrong path – dodgy businessman who are trying to avoid journalists typically don’t post their personal phone numbers on public notices.    

Burke had emailed Yuan two days earlier, not his business or personal email address but to a general email contact on a website not connected to his main businesses as an immigration agent and online Chinese language news publisher.

The fact is Burke did not make any reasonable attempt to contact Yuan and, when she did, offered him no opportunity to give consideration to her allegations or time to provide a detailed response.

It was classic tabloid ‘gotcha’ journalism where Burke had no concerns for what Yuan might have to say. She simply needed to state that she’d contacted him in order to legitimize her report. 

Editorial oversight missing in action

As a piece of reporting – now discredited and removed from the publisher’s website – it begs the question as to how it was published in the first place?

It should have been obvious to Burke’s editors she made no serious attempt to contact the target of her story, nor had she offered any proof of impropriety on Yuan’s behalf.

Instead she produced a report with a series of bare facts, some unrelated and others only tenuously connected. She garnered some unattributed quotes from government officials, which clearly were not comments made in relation to Yuan. Burke then put Yuan’s name alongside all of this with a strong suggestion of impropriety on his behalf.   

It’s doubtful 7NEWS editors ran this story past the network’s lawyers.

There is a very real – and deeply distributing – possibility that the editor responsible for its publication saw a Chinese-Australian businessman arranging a shipment of personal protective equipment, in the midst of a pandemic, and jumped to the conclusion that he was up to no good.

The editors could have done well to pay attention to the first two points of the Australian media industry’s Code of Ethics:

Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

Truth rarely catches up to the lies

7NEWS wasn’t alone in disparaging Yuan with false claims and imputations. Other publications piled in, they include and the Daily Mail, which added its own dubious commentary to the story.

Health news website Sound Health republished the Daily Mail story without checking any of the facts. Not only did that publication slander Mr. Yuan, it did so by breaching Daily Mail’s copyright – a potential field day for the lawyers.

The original story was shared dozens of times across social media and on an Indian-based news website called TIFPOST. Its story had more than 25 thousand reads and 120 shares on Facebook.

TIFPOST publishes numerous anti-China stories and the author of this story, Abinhav Singh, focusses heavily on Chinese-related news from Australia. His opinionated article about Yuan leaves little room for interpretation – it is offensive, highly defamatory and slanderous.

This Indian website boasts 4 million readers and could be in real trouble if the lawyers get involved.

7NEWS’s story spawned multiple reports based on false assumptions and no fact checking

Attack might be the best form of defence

Richard Yuan is not alone as a Chinese-Australian businessman slandered by the mainstream media. Because it is in the nature of Chinese people not to engage in public arguments, and not to fight back when attacked, the media will continue to target them.

There is an assumption in the media that Chinese-Australians can easily be linked to impropriety, wrongdoing and allegations of improperly attempting to exert influence. That attitude is far too prevalent in major newsrooms, it’s not only biased it is racist.

Taking on a major media outlet for defamation can be a bruising, emotionally and financially draining experience. The one clear truth that’s emerged from the Yuan case is when sloppy journalists make false assumptions that are put to a legal test they can, and do, fail.