When it first emerged during the Bill Clinton presidency, they called it sending a news story to the laundry.
During a visit to Washington in early 1994, a senior Clinton administration official outlined to me how stories damaging to the 42nd US President were washed through the London tabloids.
The prime example when we were talking was the conspiracy theory about the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster.
Reports alleged Foster was murdered by associates of Bill and Hillary Clinton to stop him from testifying in what was then a nascent inquiry into the First Family’s finances and their old Arkansas law practice.
Conservative opponents of the Clintons would plant these crazy theories with Washington-based correspondents for London tabloids such as the Daily Mail and after publication, the stories would be recycled in the US media.
“According to reports in the UK press” would be the intro to stories which had been laundered across the Atlantic.
The current crazy bat theory about the Chinese cooking up the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology looks like a textbook case of laundered journalism, this time using the Australian media to back anti-China theories pushed by Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Last weekend Pompeo startled intelligence officials with a claim there was “enormous evidence” the virus was created in the Biosafety Level 4 Wuhan laboratory and China had to come clean.
Some Australian News Corp tabloids, led by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, have been promulgating this theory over the past month.
Last weekend The Daily Telegraph splashed with details from a 15-page “secret dossier” allegedly compiled by intelligence agencies and presented to the Five Eyes community – made up of security services and their political masters from Australia, the US, Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada.
Australian intelligence sources who reviewed the material said it was little more than freely available media and other reports which had been classified at some stage, probably by the Home Affairs Department in Canberra.
The story was quickly laundered in Washington, finding a convenient outlet in Fox News and its primetime host Tucker Carlson who suggested the Australian report backed up Pompeo’s claims.
One report, sourced to Australian officials, suggested the leak to The Daily Telegraph came from the US Embassy in Canberra, but few China experts believe this, saying it’s not the kind of thing career diplomats would contemplate, even if such ”evidence” existed.
“It’s much more likely to have come from a political source in Canberra, probably someone wanting to curry favour with the Trump administration,” said one China expert.
If the US Embassy was responsible for leaking what appears to be an Australian sourced dossier it would represent an extraordinary intrusion into our domestic politics.
A Morrison Government insider said it was “interesting” Home Affairs was referenced in many of The Daily Telegraph’s reports and noted that department’s minister, Peter Dutton, was the most hawkish member of the Cabinet on China.
Dutton has pushed the Prime Minister’s demand for an inquiry into the World Health Organisation’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak enthusiastically, and last week he gave support to Washington theories about the origins of Covid-19.
“The US is saying they’ve got documentation which demonstrates that the virus had a particular path or origin. I think they’ll detail all of that information,” Dutton said on Channel Nine’s Today show.
There could be some value to the call from former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr for a “comprehensive inquiry” into how this dossier was leaked to the media.
This scepticism about the origins of the virus is not shared by the Prime Minister who says he’s seen no evidence to challenge the accepted thesis that COVID-19 was passed from an animal to humans and into the wider community.
Instead of going down the Trump and Pompeo path of suggesting a conspiracy on the part of the Chinese, Australia has focussed on how the WHO has performed.
One of Australia’s top China experts, the Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor, suggests Morrison pursued the WHO inquiry line to head off getting caught up in the Wuhan Lab conspiracy theory.
“Morrison has been a pragmatist on China with a disciplined view of what is in the national interest,” says McGregor.
Morrison has to keep an eye on a small but noisy and hawkish anti-China group in the Parliament – made up of mostly Liberal MPs but including a couple of Labor members – who call themselves the wolverines, ready to stand up to the power of Beijing.
While Morrison has given a nod to nationalist populism – he gave a speech last year warning against “negative globalism” – and his urging for a probe into the WHO, he has pulled back from any aggressive rhetoric.
China has shown in the past it can turn off the tap for imports out of Australia although this has been on a limited basis (usually affecting particular consumer items such as wine). There are some commodities – such as coal and iron ore – that Beijing can’t do without.
It’s likely Morrison has heeded the advice of one of his political mentors, former PM John Howard, who said now was not the time to turn the Australia/China relationship “on its head”.