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Bill Birtles, Michael Smith, War-Priming with a Bedside Manner and #JustMegaphonin’: Two types of duck-and-cover propaganda

During the 1950s, at the time of heightened tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, a new public campaign hit the streets of America called ‘Duck and Cover’. American school kids were instructed on how to duck under their desks in the event of a nuclear blast. It was an initiative that came to be mocked by many historians and the nuclear-disarmament public at large as mere red scare propaganda designed to make children frightened of the Soviet Union and communism.

Given the mocking connotation, I say ‘Duck and Cover’ is a befitting descriptor for the China-threat narrative crafted by Western journalists today. To define it, ‘Duck and Cover’ is propaganda designed to make a propagandee fear that their country, or an ally-state, is under existential threat from foreign invasion or foreign sabotage.

Which leads me to a podcast episode I heard recently, called “Is The Media Beating The Drums of War?” The host of the podcast was inquiring into why the Australian media has been talking about the drums of war and the apparent need for war-readiness. To help with her inquiry, the host interviewed former China correspondents Bill Birtles and Michael Smith.

Long ago, I became accustomed to propaganda being a feature, not a bug, in Western commentary on China. Thus, the days of me getting angry because a journalist was propagandising me were long gone. But when I found myself getting worked-up as I listened to Birtles and Smith speak, I knew there was cause for concern. That’s because it felt like I was listening to ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda, a lite form of war propaganda.

At this point I would like to digress into a discussion of war propaganda from an international law perspective, as this will help you understand why we should be incensed about anything resembling propaganda for war.

Article 20(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law”. This is underpinned by the United Nations’ core objective under the UN Charter to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) proclaims such prohibition is “fully compatible with the right of freedom of expression as contained in article 19, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities”. In other words, free expression precludes war propaganda, but does not preclude advocacy of self-defence under the UN Charter (as made clear by the OHCHR).

In the travaux préparatoires of the ICCPR, two interpretations of war propaganda can be identified:

  1. incitement to war; and
  2. creating an atmosphere that makes incitement to war effective.

In the travaux préparatoires, the media was identified as the primary instigator of war propaganda, particularly the Western media, of which was said to be serving the interests of the armaments industry. Of even greater interest in the travaux préparatoires is that it was liberal democratic countries that were most staunchly opposed to accepting an obligation to prohibit war propaganda.

As such, upon signing the ICCPR, it came as no surprise that Australia reserved article 20, making it prima facie non-binding on Australia.

Yet, this is not the end of the story, as it is arguable that Australia’s reservation of article 20 is, in fact, severable. This is because the OHCHR’s General Comment No 24 states that the ICCPR “consists not just of the specified rights, but of important supportive guarantees. These guarantees provide the necessary framework for securing the rights in the Covenant and are thus essential .... Reservations designed to remove these guarantees are thus not acceptable.”

We know from the conflict zone literature that, where you have wars, you have gross violations of human rights. Thus, article 20(1) can be construed as a non-derogable state guarantee (i.e., peace from unlawful wars) that goes to securing the individual human rights in the ICCPR, thereby making article 20(1) unreservable.

On this interpretation, war propaganda is unlawful in Australia under international law. As to whether war propaganda’s lite version of ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda is also unlawful remains to be determined by jurists.

Returning to Birtles and Smith, I would like to introduce to you two types of ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda: ‘War-Priming with a Bedside Manner’ and #JustMegaphonin’.

‘War-Priming with a Bedside Manner’ falls shy of warmongering, thus making it more palatable to the ordinary person. The palatability is achieved through a journalist softening a warmonger’s message by sprinkling in some equivocal interjections, such as “sort-of”, “not quite sure”, “maybe”, “in a way”, “a little bit”, etcetera. It also is achieved by using back-to-back hedging-sentences, where a journalist gives you warmongering with one hand, takes it away from you with the other hand, then gives it back to you again.

‘War-Priming with a Bedside Manner’ is sometimes combined with the #JustMegaphonin’ excuse (a play on the #justsayin’ social media excuse), in which a journalist can downplay their part by saying they are just the messenger of the warmonger.

Let’s examine how these techniques were used by Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review first.

Here’s his first relevant quote:

“We had this dilemma in the newsroom a few weeks ago. We had sort-of defence department sources telling us that they were sort-of getting onto a war-footing, they were sort-of getting prepared for sort-of possible future action in the Taiwan Straits. You can’t ignore stuff like that. We wrote that up and wrote a pretty strong story. But I was speaking to one academic who specialises in Taiwan and he asked ‘Why are you guys talking up the possibility of war? It’s quite dangerous.’ But I think you can’t ignore what’s going on so I think we had to report it. You do see a few shrill headlines out there talking about war with Taiwan, so you have to be a bit careful with how you word your headlines. I think Mike Pezzullo’s comments were actually very interesting. We and many other organisations have reported them and you can’t ignore it. I just think we have to be careful about talking up this idea that a war is imminent, when it’s not.” (Emphasis added.)

Strawman alert! No one is asking Smith to ignore the warmongers. What we are asking is that he challenge officials who turn to war-talk as a first resort to a geopolitical tension, because war propaganda is prohibited under international law. Smith should also be reminding our Aussie warmongers that an international rules-based order exists, which means Australia requires approval from the United Nations’ Security Council before “sort-of getting onto a war-footing” with China. Thus, Smith effectively relying on the #JustMegaphonin’ excuse doesn’t cut it for me. He is not employed as the government’s spokesperson or stenographer, he is employed as the people’s watchdog; so he needs to sound more like the latter, and less like the former. And by the way, did you count how many “sort-ofs” Smith used in that one sentence?

On the face of it, Smith’s last line of calling for caution against false claims “that a war is imminent” actually sounds quite comforting, quite bedside-mannerly. He echoed such sentiments earlier in the podcast with this statement too:

“I’m a little bit surprised about some of the rhetoric that we’ve heard coming out of Canberra lately. No other country is really speaking about Taiwan and China in quite the shrill tones as Australia is at the moment - the drums of war and all this kind of stuff - does seem a bit alarmist when a war isn’t imminent. But I do agree with Bill. Obviously, something could happen in the coming years or decades, and it’s good Australians are aware of that. But some of the headlines we see make it sound like they are about to invade, and there’s no sign that China is about to invade Taiwan. It’s hard to see why our politicians are speaking like this. There is talk of a khaki election and distracting everyone from other issues here. So I think, in a way, we have to be a bit careful. It could be dangerous. I think Australia certainly doesn’t want to go to war with China, so I’m not sure why we are talking up this possibility.” (Emphasis added.)

Exceptionally nice bedside manner here, but do you see what Smith has done in this part? He’s telling you war isn’t imminent, but it still could happen in the coming years. Hence, he takes with one hand, and gives with the other. Don’t be fooled into thinking that timing is an issue here. It’s a red herring. Warmongering is warmongering regardless of whether we’re being told we’re going to war tomorrow or we’re going to war in the next decade. I reiterate that it is a journalist’s responsibility to champion international law and push back hard against any official that beats the drums of war before they have exhausted peaceful or less violent alternatives. Weasel words like “seems a bit alarmist” and “have to be a bit careful” don’t cut it for me.

Then there was this from Smith:

“I interviewed the Taiwanese foreign minister a week ago and his argument is that if China is allowed to take over Taiwan - Taiwan is a democracy - and his argument is Australia is a democracy in the region not that far from China. He talks about an expansionist China, and sort-of seems to intimate that if Australia stands by and lets Communist China takeover Taiwan, then Australia could be next further down the line. Of course there is no evidence suggesting that’s going to happen, although anything’s possible. So I think that’s how the US, and maybe certainly Taiwan, would argue it’s in Australia’s interest.” (Emphasis added.)

You see what Smith did here? He handed you the fear of an expansionist China, he then took it away with the reference to a lack of evidence, and then gave it back to you again with the mention of “anything’s possible”. Ask yourself why would a journalist be in the business of talking about possibilities instead of probabilities? Given the devastation of the Vietnam War and the Korean War, which were brought about by the same erroneous domino-effect theory, Smith should be far stronger in his pushback against the Taiwanese minister’s patent manipulation. Smith should unequivocally declare it improbable that China would expand its territorial claim all the way out to Australia. History has taught us not to be coaxed into a war that is someone else’s catharsis. Has Smith not learnt this historical lesson?

Now on to Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

I’m starting to think I see a pattern emerging with him...

In my previous blog post on Birtles, I drew attention to his explicit confession that he does not think sensationalist and poorly informed media reporting is a problem. I see a similar sentiment echoed here in Birtles’ response to the podcast host’s concern that the Australian media is talking about the drums of war and war-readiness:

“I’m of the view that it’s really not that bad”, says Birtles.

And then there’s this response to the podcast host’s concern that the media has been shrill:

“Not really,” Birtles says. “I think that they were reporting the comments from Mike Pezzullo, and I think there were some comments by Dutton also being reported. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the media talking about that.”

In other words, #JustMegaphonin’.

Whilst Birtles downplays Australia’s warmongering, he up-plays the China side:

“I think there is a reality that Australians are not really thinking about, and that is that the Chinese Communist Party is absolutely hell-bent on taking over Taiwan by the middle of this century. It’s not imminently going to happen, because they would have done it already if it was easy enough to do for them, if there wasn’t too big-a-cost to be imposed. But they certainly are sabre-rattling, and flying a lot of military planes around the island, and doing an increased number of drills. This is most likely psychological warfare rather than any imminent plan to invade. But I really don’t think there is anything too wrong with Australia or Australian officials speaking about this; making Australian people aware that this will, at some point, probably in a few decades, be an issue that Australians will have to think about. I understand that there is this concern that, by talking about it, it implies that Australia will intervene on the side of the Americans if they were to intervene, but I just think it is good to get these things into open discussion.”

Doesn’t he sound so kind and caring? He just wants to let you know that at some vague point in the faraway future that you might want to think about your country going to war. Never mind that Birtles doesn’t actually spell out how talking about prepping for some speculative war in the distant future in the northern hemisphere is of any utility to you. And never mind that he doesn’t mention Taiwan’s air defence identification zone reaches well into mainland China. It suffices to just mention the vibe of the thing, as The Castle’s Dennis Denuto would say.

To her credit, the vibe approach did not satisfy the podcast host. She questioned Birtles as to whether public discussion was truly justified if the possibility of war was a long way off as he claimed.

Here, Birtles taketh with one hand, and giveth with the other:

“It might be a few decades off or it might be sooner. I think the idea that Australians may have had is that it’s so far off that it’s not worth contemplating. Having spent the last five years up in China, I think it is worth contemplating. And I really don’t think it is that unreasonable to have Australians thinking about it, even if the language that was used in public may have been a little bit dramatic.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s quite an “I’ve seen the elephant” declaration. I had no idea that merely living in China for the last five years is the only qualification needed to declare whether or not there is risk of war. I’ll take Birtles up on that one! Until COVID broke out, I had lived in China for around six years. For about half of that time I worked as an English instructor for the People’s Liberation Army. During that time, I saw Chinese cadets and officers being inculcated with a peace-keeper and homeland-protector mindset, not an offensive war mindset. Furthermore, my last job in China was with an institute that was building friendly relations with Taiwan. Based on my experience, I would say to Australians it is not worth contemplating war with China, so relax and go on enjoying life.

I also note the deafening silence from Birtles on the need for Australians to contemplate diplomatic and non-violent solutions before contemplating war, such as returning to the bedrock solution of ‘one country, two systems’ that the United States and Australia have been trying to undermine this year.

Then there’s this comment from Birtles about the ANZUS alliance:

“I think it’s kind-of frustrating when you sit up there and you’re at Chinese foreign ministry press conferences and the incapability of the Chinese Government to understand that Australians are in favour of the US alliance and that it is a choice that they make and reinforce every three years through democratic elections. There are parties like the Greens, for example, who run on platforms, at times, wanting to scale down that relationship … but those parties never win majorities in federal elections.”

Based on my experience in China, I would say the Chinese understand the failings of Australian democracy better than what Birtles is letting on here. The Chinese know that democracy is not an issue-based voting system, it’s a party-based voting system, and parties come with a multitude of wide-ranging policies. Ask yourself, how many Australians go to the ballot box with the ANZUS alliance as their primary issue they want to vote on? I don’t know any. Most Australians I know are simply thinking about which party makes paying for a roof over their head, putting food on their table and sending their kids to a good school that little bit easier. If Australia was to switch from a party-based democracy to an issue-based democracy, and Australians were educated on the ANZUS/AUKUS alliance beyond abstract ideas, we may well see a large swathe of people vote for scaling up Australian sovereignty.

The few voters who have gone to the ballot box with the ANZUS alliance as their primary concern every three years were powerless to change the status quo anyway. As former Australian Labor Party leader, Kim Beazley, observes:

“The seamless interconnection between Australian and US armed forces, intelligence services, exploitation of the joint facilities and capability acquisition … stand aside from processes most immediately affected by elected governments.”

And since Birtles' comment about the ANZUS alliance relates to war with China, article I of the ANZUS Treaty must be emphasised here:

“The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

Does Birtles seriously not know any of this?

Finally, when asked by the podcast host whether China would deserve military retaliation from Australia if it made a move on Taiwan, Birtles replied with the following:

“If you look at it from China’s perspective, it really has nothing to do with other countries; it’s an internal issue for China, which is obviously highly debatable. Whereas the other countries would be going in to defend Taiwan, not because strategically it makes that much difference, but because it’s a fellow democracy. This is an idea that China is really incapable of readily accepting: that democracies need to band together to push back against authoritarianism. … I suppose there is an argument that if the US is not capable of defending a democracy of 25 million people from China, then what use is its military bases in Japan, South Korea or Darwin? It almost feels to me like an existential test of the US commitment to Asia, the US military strength, the US ability to actually do anything in Asia, if it doesn’t try to defend a democracy of 25 million people. Strategically, aside from that, I don’t really think there’s too much benefit to defending the island. I think it is more about that sort-of symbolism.”

That’s some nice ASIO talking-points there.

I’m going to let the American arms-dealer in the movie War Dogs finish off here:

“What do you know about war? They'll tell you it's about patriotism, democracy, or some sh*t about the other guy hating our freedom. But you wanna know what it's really about? What do you see? A kid from Arkansas doing his patriotic duty to defend his country? I see a helmet, fire-retardant gloves, body armour and an M16. I see $17,500. That's what it costs to outfit one American soldier. Over two million soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cost the American taxpayer $4.5 billion each year just to pay the air conditioning bills for those wars. And that's what war is really about. War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.”