While it is not a court of law where the ethical and sometimes legal obligation of expert witnesses is to declare potential or actual conflicts of interest so that their evidence can be placed in context, the Nine Newspapers use of a panel of ‘experts’ to publish an extraordinary series of articles arguing Australia must prepare for a war with China raises the issue of whether the media should, in the interests of transparency, follow suit. In the same way that medical journals are now required to publish the funding sources of researchers and doctors who write articles, why shouldn’t the media do the same when they engage ‘experts’ to comment on serious issues such as defence policy?
That the answer to this question is that they should is made stronger by virtue of the fact media outlets use experts in areas such as defence and foreign policy to ensure their stories are taken seriously by readers and the broader community. Remember that during the Covid pandemic every news outlet had their ‘resident’ medical or epidemiology expert on hand to pronounce on the latest developments.
And when the subject matter of the news stories is as serious as whether a nation is facing the prospect of a war on its doorstep surely we are entitled to full disclosure by the media outlet about the background of the experts it is using to push this view?
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have failed to publish, except in the most cursory sense, the current or recent past associations of their gang of five experts who apparently believe Australia could be at war with China in as little as three years. This failure is of great consequence given the alarmist nature of the expert consensus and its consequences for our community.
It is one thing for a fringe group or two to peddle war threats and call for national service, and quite another for major media outlets with wide reach and influence to do so.
According to The Age and SMH the five experts they have engaged are “respected” which is, of course, generally in the eye of the beholder. There is no empirical standard. These experts are, in turn, former defence bureaucrat and head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Peter Jennings, a Macquarie University criminologist (since when did the study of criminal behaviour make you a defence policy expert?) and ‘strategic studies’ scholar, Lavina Lee, former chief scientist of Australia Alan Finkel, National Institute of Strategic Resilience chair Lesley Seebeck who is also labelled an independent consultant by ASPI and a retired Army major general Mick Ryan who uses the twitter handle ‘Warinthefuture’.
What four of these individuals have in common is their connection to ASPI. Jennings ran it, Lee is a member of its council, Seebeck and Ryan write for ASPI. Lee, Seebeck and Ryan are also connected with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington.
There is nothing untoward about these connections and collaborations of course. However the funding arrangements of each organisation suggest they are deeply embedded in a world view that is hostile to China, and where there is interest on the part of defence companies which fund ASPI and CSIS in nations spending big on military equipment to deal with the perceived China threat.
ASPI receives funding from well known defence companies Lockheed Martin and Thales. The Department of Defence contributes one third of its funding. Similarly the CSIS receives defence corporates funds and money from governments such as the US, Taiwan and Japan.
It is not suggested that Jennings, Lee, Seebeck and Ryan are themselves being funded by these companies or governments, it is important though to know they are connected with organisations who depend for their existence on those who either benefit from increased military spending or who are governments hostile to China.
We are also entitled to know if any of the Age and SMH experts have consulting arrangements with the Defence Department or defence contractors. Again, there is certainly nothing untoward about this it is simply that the community should be able to make an informed judgement about the prognostications of this group of experts.
Unrelated, but worth noting is how bizarre it is that all members of the panel agreed with the bellicose views which we know Mr Jennings to hold. There was no dissent. Surely The Age and SMH would have been better served having a panel which reflected the diversity of views on the issue of China and perceived threat? Why have a chorus line of neo-cons?
Or was that the idea of the journalists and editors involved in the exercise?
Breg Barns SC