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The Controversy Around AUKUS Shows that Investigative Journalism Needs a Strong Revival

26 May 2023
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Session 8 (G7 + Ukraine) (Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima). Source: Host photographer, G& /

There is a much needed to debate to be had on energy security and, as a result, high ticket items such as the AUKUS submarines. Australia’s media conglomerates need to do more to ensure journalism remains a gateway to such debates. 

For once, G-7 leaders came up with a strong and unified statement after their 3-day summit in Hiroshima, Japan, last weekend. There was also a hastily rearranged meeting between United States (US) President Joe Biden and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Biden gracefully apologised for cutting the Sydney QUAD meeting from his itinerary to return home to address the worsening debt ceiling issue in Congress.

The reaction in the Australian mainstream and social media to the cancellation of the Sydney meeting was infantile, demonstrating how out of touch with the real world so many of Australia’s decision makers and opinion formers have become. It made good sense for Biden to shift it to the fringes of the G7 where the main participants were already gathered.

James Curran, professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, observed in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) that Biden’s testimony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial demonstrated that views on US-Australian foreign policy “oscillate between loyalty and the prospect of betrayal.” Curran rightly pointed out that Biden is certainly not the first US president to tend to the home front when it suits; history is littered with other examples.

By prioritising domestic matters, the American president may also have hedged off a “can of worms” that has developed over the AUKUS defence pact between Australia, the US, and Britain. The deal, announced in March, will provide Canberra with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines at a cost of up to US$368bn between now and the mid 2050s. His early return came after an AFR tweet and full-page open letter under the heading, “Call for Parliamentary Inquiry into Australian submarine deal.” Among major concerns raised were the cost, the four-decade timeframe for delivery, the lack of skills to operate nuclear powered hardware, and the disposal of nuclear waste – an issue already making waves in France. The letter was signed by prominent Australians, many from the Left or the Green side of politics, others from the defence sector. Signatories included the former Labor WA premier Carmen Lawrence and former Labor ministers Peter Garrett and Doug Cameron. Among military figures were ex-chief of the Air Force, Air Marshall Ray Funnell, and former deputy commander of the UN peacekeeping operation in East Timor, Major General Michael Smith.

For AIIA members, the standout name was our recently deceased past president Allan Gyngell, who had not signed but was listed as supporting the letter. This all raises important questions about whether sufficient due diligence into the AUKUS pact was done. The deal appears to have passed through the Australian, UK, and US legislatures with the minimum of scrutiny. Many searching questions still need to be asked about AUKUS if it is to work in Australia’s interests and at an affordable cost.

Australian’s should keep the issue in perspective, however, remembering that these are nuclear-powered submarines, not vessels with nuclear weapons, and a nuclear-powered fleet need not require the same intensity of debate as would a move to nuclear arms.

Depressingly, the Australian media seems to have given up the art of investigative journalism, once prominent in newspapers such as The Age.  This came sharply into focus for me last week in London when a gathering of those who care about quality journalism assembled to celebrate the lasting legacy of the fearless editor, Sir Harold Evans. Evans’ 14-year tenure as editor of the London Sunday Times was marked by spectacular investigative journalism, including the forensic unmasking of Kim Philby as a Russian spy and the exposure of the early McDonnell Douglas DC10 aircraft as unsafe. Reporters devoted many months to uncovering the Thalidomide scandal, when more than 20,000 babies worldwide were born seriously deformed when their mothers took the drug thalidomide during pregnancy to treat morning sickness and other stresses.

Harry was the most committed to getting to the bottom of every story. His contribution to journalism has now been recognised with the establishment of the annual Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism, which also supports an annual fellowship. The project has been initiated and co-funded by Evans’ widow and noted journalist in her own right Tina Brown, Reuters news agency, and the University of Durham, Harry’s alma mater. The summit was attended by dozens of media leaders and journalists including Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf and several editors-in-chief: Alessandra Galloni of Reuters, Katharine Viner of The Guardian, and David Walmsley of Toronto’s Globe and Mail. In a touch of class, the 3-day event ended with strong personal statements from the former Washington Post journalists who broke the Watergate scandal, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who reminded us of why serious journalism is indispensable.

It would greatly be in Australia’s interests for its leading media – including News Corporation, the Fairfax titles, the ABC, and the Nine Network – to align themselves with the Sir Harry Evans project, each shouldering a commitment to devote resources to restore investigative journalism. A good starting place would be a detailed probe into the questions raised about the AUKUS pact. Clive Irving, a seasoned Fleet Street journalist, summed up Harry’s qualities perfectly, saying his sense of editorial mission “grew from a relentless and demanding habit of interrogation – of his editors, his reporters, and any specialist on any subject who might help him satisfy himself that he understood the essentials of a story, no matter how arcane, before he was ready to print it.”

Moving on, it is still the case that Australians live in a highly uncertain and dangerous world. The brutal autocrat and yet-to-be convicted war criminal Vladimir Putin continues to threaten the very existence of Ukraine. With the complicit support of democracies such as India and South Africa, Putin has shrugged off Western sanctions, while the Kremlin’s coffers have been greatly enriched by the Saudi Arabian-led OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) cartel’s decision to tighten oil supplies, thereby keeping prices unnecessarily high.

The good news was the robust statement that emerged from the G7 Hiroshima summit at the weekend. Leaders, including Anthony Albanese, have pledged continued support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Though it was not said, the fervent hope is that the end of the war will come sooner, not later, particularly given the challenge to Biden’s hopes for a second term, and the prospects for America’s global role under a second term for the odious Donald Trump.

G7 rightly committed to a world without nuclear weapons, annoying Beijing by reminding it that both the US and the European Union would continue to limit the transfer of advanced technologies to China. A key sentence referred to G7’s “coordinated approach to economic resilience and economic security … based on diversifying and deepening partnerships and de-risking, not de-coupling.” This was intended to reassure the Chinese that, despite Washington’s war talk, the US is not looking for a conflict. But President Xi Jinping will be alert to any “diversifying” that jeopardises the recovery of the Chinese economy.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is editor at large with Australian Outlook.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.