NZ journalists as ‘useful idiots’?

A significant fact about the 2.4 million names on the Zhenhua database of foreign individuals is that few of them are people with deep links to China or interest in the Communist state.

The men behind the revelation about the database, Professor Christopher Balding and Robert Potter (co-founder of Canberra security firm Internet 2.0), say this points to the likelihood that the Overseas Key Information Data Base (OKIDB) is only one of a number of linked databases.

If there is a separate set of records for China’s close associates, is there another for journalists? 

A few journalists appear on the OKIDB list but, given that the researchers believe one of its principal purposes is information warfare, the relatively small number of media entries is surprising. For example, it appears to target media executives much more than the journalists their organisations employ.

Yet it contains  what they describe as “a big data analytics layer that allows analysts to track key influencers and how news and opinion moves through social media platforms.” And, significantly, the database also contains 2.3 billion news articles alongside the 2.1 billion social media posts it has linked to the individuals it is monitoring.

Beijing has been actively attempting to influence the debate and narrative about China.

Its most obvious moves have been against foreign correspondents based there. Earlier this month two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles of the ABC and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review were forced to flee the country fearing detention. Other Western journalists – including correspondents from The Australian, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and Bloomberg – have not had visas renewed.

That, however, is a blunt instrument that does not necessarily turn the narrative in Beijing’s favour, because bad news still has a habit of finding its way out of repressive regimes.

It goes without saying that, in order to influence the narrative, you need to influence the journalists.

There is nothing new in that. Any press gallery journalist (and many more besides) can recall ‘getting-to-know-you encounters with embassy staff from missions of nations ranging from ‘best friend’ to ‘frosty’. Thinking back decades, I can recall friendly meetings with US Embassy staff  followed by casual bar encounters with a lugubrious Soviet press attaché.

However, the existence of the Zhenhua database and its almost certain interfacing with other databases – including those of journalists – suggests a level of sophistication and subtlety. 

I was going to describe that as unprecedented, but it is not. China’s sophistication in such things dates back at least 2300 years. Sun Tzu devoted a chapter of The Art of War to espionage. In it he talked of five different types of spying that worked in harmony to form ‘the Divine Skein’ or ‘the divine manipulation of threads (depending on the translation). He also noted the need for delicacy and subtlety.

The Zhenhua database is also consistent with China’s ‘thousand grains of sand’ approach to intelligence. Small, seemingly disparate, pieces of information are gathered more or less at random until a picture emerges.

The database and its related storehouses can be trawled to find people and events that will fit a particular narrative which can then be pitched to the most appropriate journalist.

The extent of the database suggests a global strategy. The inclusion of 793 New Zealanders in the sub-set obtained by Balding is compelling evidence that this country is part of that strategy.

Writing in the New Zealand Herald last week, China expert Professor Anne-Marie Brady noted that the compilation of the New Zealand section of the OKIDB data would have required detailed knowledge of New Zealand’s political landscape. That will include knowledge of our media and the people who work in them.

The picture she painted of the Chinese Communist party’s intelligence arms and the ways they work was sinister – blackmail and extortion are among their techniques. However, she also pointed to more subtle effects, the aim of which, she believes, is “elite capture and societal fracture”.

“New Zealand, like many states, is now facing up to the impact of CCP covert activities on the integrity of our political system, and in the process, making a correction in relations with China,” she said in her Herald commentary.

So journalists here and elsewhere need to be on the alert: Not only are they likely to be targeted by official Chinese sources and by those with known links, but they must also be on the lookout for seemingly disconnected players whose interests and outlooks form part of a jigsaw that may only emerge over time.

Such vigilance may be impossible to maintain. Perhaps the best journalists can hope for is to see part of the picture as it emerges, and to start to join the dots that have already been drawn with the aid of the suite of databases including the OKIDB.

The danger is that journalists could become unwitting agents of influence, or what the KGB used to call “useful idiots”.

Bouquets to the investigators

The past week has seen some splendid examples of public interest investigative journalism:

  • TVNZ reporter Kristin Hall’s unrelenting focus on sexism, bullying and harassment at digital effects company Weta Digital led on Friday to the appointment of a Queen’s Counsel to carry out an independent inquiry.
  • New Zealand Herald business journalist Matt Nippert and his South Island associate Kurt Beyer took us forensically through a $400 million Cayman Island fraud that had snared Diocesan, one of the country’s top private schools.
  • And the Sunday Star Times’ Bevan Hurley took up where the Herald had left off in the on-going saga of Sam Lam – described in the headline as: “Heroin trafficker, brothel owner, refugee” – and the international yo-yoing over his deportation.

Bouquet for an editor

Sunday Star Times editor, Tracy Watkins, wrote an eloquent and heart-felt editorial on why she would vote against the euthanasia bill in the forthcoming referendum. We both lost our mothers to cancer. Her experience of that time was recalled with compelling honesty. She did not think her “strong-willed, stubborn and fiercely independent” mother would have wanted her life ended by euthanasia. My mother was also strong-willed, stubborn and fiercely independent and she clung tenaciously to life until the last of her three sons reached her bedside. However, she would not wish her suffering on others. I will be voting ‘yes’, but I will be doing so with the benefit of having Tracy Watkins’ argument to weigh against my own.

2 thoughts on “NZ journalists as ‘useful idiots’?

  1. This is a very lightweight piece, the sound of one hand clapping.
    “Beijing has been actively attempting to influence the debate and narrative about China.” How amazing. But they are not the only ones, as Mike Pompeo (“we lie, we cheat, we steal”) argues for regime change in China virtually every day.
    Your quoting Sun Tzu who wrote about the art of war reveals perhaps more than you intended; the world is indeed being drawn into war, albeit at this stage only an information war. But as recent history shows, such wars are very dangerous as they are often the immediate precedent to the real thing. And this is a war the the US has declared, not China.
    As for the so-called China expert Anne-Marie Brady, her recent statements to a Select Committee have been described as wrong by other academics, to the point where Canterbury University is conducting a review of them. She heads up a NATO-funded institute at the University, is well-known to US intelligence, and in my opinion plays a violin with one string as her bias is evident.
    As for your hoary old stories about being chatted up by diplomats, if you think that this is the way the game is played today where billions are spent on it then you are seriously out of date.
    Your warnings to journalists would have more credibility if you (and they) also looked at the way the US and the UK are attempting to influence the debate about China and Russia, in the latter case with the endlessly recycled stories about the deadliest poison that ever was that still does not kill.
    Your site does not seem to be searchable, so I cannot see if you have mentioned the trial of Julian Assange, which in my opinion poses the greatest current threat to independent journalism..

    1. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. However, I do not accept your argument that we should be more concerned about the United States and the UK attempting to influence the debate and, on that basis, should somehow be unconcerned about the Zhenhua database and the uses to which it could be put. Chinese influence in the Pacific IS a matter of concern and the OKIDB strongly suggests a targeted approach that is anything but benign. To ignore it on the basis that others are in the same game is not, in my opinion, a particularly wise course of action.
      Nor do I accept your dismissing of Anne-Marie Brady’s comments, which the country’s largest newspaper saw fit to print. She has provided the following response to your allegations: “I am not funded by NATO and never have been. I was part of a research project funded by NATO-Science for Peace and Security for three years. The project covered my airfare to Iceland, and 3 nights accommodation, plus airport bus fare; and an airfare to DC, six nights accommodation, plkus shuttle fare for our research project’s two conferences in Reykjavik and the other in DC. I hosted an earlier conference at UC, which my three co-researchers got airfares to attend. I got nothing, though I organised the Chch and the DC conferences. This is normal in academic life. Those two airfares is the only support I got from the project. Our Small states and the new security environment project (which received funding from NATO-SPS, the University of Canterbury, NZ Political Studies Association, Wigram Foundation, and Amiya Foundation) provided graduate funding to 7 students, including one NZ student. The SSANSE pop up think tank receives no funding. Our project has published two books, on small state foreign policy, with multiple authors. No one pays us to do it.”
      Nothing in the commentary suggested that the targeting of journalists is the only means by which influence is sought. Of course commerce, diplomacy, social media and a host of other vehicles are utilised by numerous nations. However, journalists remain a valued source of influence and, as the commentary is about journalism, I make no apology for raising a danger signal after media around the world investigated and then reported on the Zhenhua database.

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