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Lupin Lu v Nick McKenzie

2017 was not a great year for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in terms of journalistic integrity. First the ABC was exposed for a report that falsely claimed evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group to assault their wives. Then the ABC was exposed for altering documents and decontextualising footage in a report relating to workplace and safety practices of an aviation company. The ABC continued to come under scrutiny in 2018. But the biggest scandal that the public knows nothing about - thanks to a gagging clause - relates to the ABC’s biggest story of 2017 that made international headlines: Power and Influence: The Hard Edge of China’s Soft Power by the Four Corners investigative journalism program (which has since been taken offline since the majority of the story has subsequently been discredited).

The main journalist who produced the story, Mr Nick McKenzie, won The Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award for the story, as well as being a finalist for The Lowy Institute Media Award. The gist of the story was that Australian democracy is under threat from clandestine Chinese Communist Party influence. The ABC’s central thesis was backed up mainly by hearsay, innuendo, speculation, sinister-sounding music and random camera shots of strangers wearing reflective sunglasses.

The promotional packaging of the story was spun to fear Australians: Watch out! The Yellow Devils are coming for you! Yet, the actual story turned out to be more damning of Australian politicians, an Australian public servant, a United Nations leader and Australia’s open season political party funding laws.

Former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, who was interviewed in the story, had some scathing words for the production team: The Four Corners program did not attempt much balance. I was interviewed for 50 minutes by Four Corners, of which less than two minutes went to air, compared with many times that for those who had tales of dark webs being spun in Australia by the Chinese Communist Party. … The journalists had begun with their conclusions and worked back to find those comments that would best fit their preconceived story. The views of an informed observer, providing context and a degree of balance, were left on the ABC's cutting-room floor.

But the situation is arguably far worse than how Raby describes it when we take a look at the interview with the student president of the University of Canberra’s Chinese Students’ and Scholars' Association, Ms Lupin Lu. Here’s the excerpt from the aired story:

Mr McKenzie: The Chinese government and its proxies monitor Chinese student associations at most Australian universities. This oversight has a dark side. Students organising anti-communist party protests may be reported to the Chinese Embassy.

Ms Lu: I guess as the president of Chinese Students Scholars Association and as a Chinese, I would do this for the safety of other members, other students.

Mr McKenzie: You would tell the embassy that some students were organising a human rights protest, for instance?

Ms Lu: Yes. I would definitely, just to keep all the students safe and to do it for China as well.

At the time of the Four Corners story, I had been living in China for nearly four years and had worked for the People’s Liberation Army for most of that time as an English instructor. So I understood enough about how China's institutions currently operate to know that Ms Lu was admitting to something that likely doesn’t happen. Moreover, the response from Ms Lu didn't seem to neatly match Mr McKenzie’s dubbed-over leading statement. The original key question was edited out.

I tracked down Ms Lu. She confirmed my suspicions. Firstly, she claimed she was never asked by Mr McKenzie if she would report "anti-communist party protests" to the Chinese embassy. Secondly, she was adamant that she was not a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party. Thirdly, being a speaker of English as a second language, she said she misunderstood the word “protest” to mean “riot”, hence her concern for the safety of her fellow student members. Ms Lu also confirmed that, after the Four Corners story went to air, she received harassing and intimidating messages from members of the Australian public.

I encouraged Ms Lu to ask the ABC to release the full unedited interview to her so that she could clear her name. The ABC refused this. Consequently, I quickly moved in helping Ms Lu find a no-win, no-fee legal team. When one of the country’s top defamation law barristers accepts a no-win, no-fee arrangement, you know you have a strong case. It turned out that the following was what was actually said:

# Excerpt one

Mr McKenzie: If you felt like some students were going to organise a rally about human rights in China, would you feel pressure to let the embassy know?

Ms Lu: No. I wouldn't feel any pressure.

Mr McKenzie: Would you like to let the embassy know?

Ms Lu: Yes. As a president of the Chinese Students Scholars Association, I wouldn't feel any pressure. I would feel like I'm doing this for the safety of all the students and for my love for China.

# Excerpt two

Mr McKenzie: Yeah. I'll ask the question again. If some Chinese students were organising, say, a protest about human rights in China, would you feel it important to tell the Chinese Embassy what was happening?

Ms Lu: I guess I wouldn't feel any pressure about it. It's rarely happening in Canberra. It's a small place. I guess as the president of Chinese Students Scholars Association and as a Chinese, I would do this for the safety of other members, other students.

Mr McKenzie: You would tell the embassy that some students were organising a human rights protest, for instance?

Ms Lu: Yes. I would definitely, just to keep all the students safe and to do it for China as well.

Towards the end of 2017, Ms Lu lodged a defamation action against the ABC, as well as Fairfax Media for claiming that she motivated Chinese students to assemble to welcome China’s Premier Li to Canberra by stressing the importance of blocking out anti-communist protestors (for which no video interview evidence was provided and Ms Lu's name has since been removed from that article).

The lawsuit was subsequently settled against both defendants with a non-disclosure agreement. In other words, the ABC used Australian tax-payers’ money to buy Ms Lu’s silence. Based on case precedents, she could have received up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars in compensation. If the case did proceed to court, we may have discovered more damning evidence of deceptive editing beyond just these two excerpts that the ABC was eventually willing to disclose.

We also know that a Chinese-Australian billionaire also targeted in the Four Corners story, Dr Chau Chak Wing, lodged a defamation action against Four Corners and Nick McKenzie and won.

This whole sorry saga raises many questions. Why were Ms Lu’s three denials of being pressured by the Chinese embassy or Chinese government edited out? Why did the ABC want to paint Ms Lu as a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party? Why did the ABC insist on a gagging clause in the settlement? What else should the public know about the circumstances of Ms Lu’s interview? Do the panel judges who awarded Mr McKenzie his journalistic accolades still stand by their decisions?