Beware of Media Hysteria
The Australian media seems to be in the grip of mass hysteria: everything from the so-called Westpac scandal to Chinese spies has been exaggerated to the extreme to make news. The problem is that journalists appear to believe their own fantasies. There is a total lack of perspective that invades the minds of ordinary people and, worse still, politicians.
What is usually missing from the Westpac story is that AUSTRAC knew nothing about the alleged offences until Westpac self-reported a year ago. It then sat on the information until it hit the bank with a claim for massive exemplary damages and told the media Westpac was facilitating paedophilia and terrorism. There is no evidence for this beyond the fact that 12 individuals used the bank to send money to the Philippines in multiple transactions. As Jack Waterford pointed out in Saturday’s Canberra Times there are many other ways for paedophiles to transmit money so they are unlikely to have used Westpac knowing that it was subject to surveillance by AUSTRAC and the AFP.
What Westpac failed to do was to fully report the details of 23 million transactions that used its low cost remittance system. It did not even implement its full monitoring system as required by the law. However it is worth pointing out that USTRAC is under-resourced and if the bank had handed over the data on 23 million transactions, it would have been tied up for years trying to analyse it. This would have been at the expense of all other investigations.
Another question that the media should be asking is why AUSTRAC did not find out about the Westpac offences in the six years since it alleged it told the bank its system was in breach. In fact it appears that the authorities totally dropped the ball when it came to policing the breaches that they now say could have funded paedophiles and terrorists.
Nevertheless the response of the media to the allegations led to the sacking of the CEO Brian Hartzer, the Chairman Lindsay Maxsted, and another board member. As well as allowing people to appear virtuous it also cost the superannuation accounts as Westpac shares lost value. Even this draconian response was not enough for Pauline Hanson, who claimed that the fact that white collar crime by Westpac was going unpunished as an excuse to oppose the ‘Ensuring Integrity Bill’. This misses the point that APRA has the power to order the dismissal of company executives in the same way as the Registered Organisations Commission would have the power to apply for the dismissal of union officials under the legislation Hanson opposed.
The hysteria over Chinese influence in Australia is in some ways even more sinister. As Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, pointed out on Sunday’s Insiders there appears to be a suspicious connection between some sections of the media and some security agencies. Nine media’s journalists appear to be getting information from authorities which is then beaten up for dramatic effect. An example was the story of Wang Liqiang which featured on ‘Sixty Minutes a week ago. It was claimed that Wang was a Chinese spy who had defected to Australia. Brief analysis of his claims by China experts established that his story was full of holes, something that the security agencies subsequently confirmed.
These ‘leaks’ from security agencies tend to be beaten up to make China appear more sinister than it is. China experts have pointed out that China rarely engages in covert operations inside foreign countries preferring to rely on cyber-espionage. The problem with the anti-Chinese hysteria is that it tends to cast suspicion over Chinese-Australians who are loyal citizens.