Philosophically speaking, defining what we mean when we speak about ‘facts’ is something of a rat’s nest. Luckily for us, Sharri Markson of The Saturday Telegraph, a paper whose fastidious reporters handle provocative, newsworthy information with care and aplomb, is sure what she means when she speaks about ‘facts’.
Her article in The Saturday Telegraph (02/05/20), ‘Coronavirus NSW: Dossier lays out case against China bat virus program’¹ contains many shocking facts. In her report, the author revealed that she obtained a damning intelligence dossier on the origins of COVID-19. In her words, the “Western governments’ research paper confirms” that “it is more likely that the virus leaked from a laboratory”, rather than originating in the Wuhan wet markets. “Everything in this document is factual”, she said to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.² With confidence, she told us the Chinese government “deliberately covered up evidence of the virus early on in a pure case of negligence, and this has contributed to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people getting sick and dying the world over.” “These are just the facts”, she reminded us, again and again. To her dismay, there are “of course, those leftwing sections of the media that don’t want to believe that this virus that may have leaked from a laboratory”, which, in her words, have been “manipulating and genetically modifying bat-like coronaviruses to make them even more deadly.” In a courageous moment, Markson implored us to overcome these political biases: “This isn’t ideology, this isn’t propaganda, this is just the facts.”
For her, as for many conservatives who seem incapable of grasping the distinction between phenomena and speech, facts are beyond politics. Thus, her transcendence of political dogmatism to get to these cherished facts has brought her worldwide attention. Though the leaked report had not been made public, her findings were reported in The Australian, on news.com.au and on Fox News.³ In the wake of her coverage, Tucker Carlson himself applauded Markson’s tenacity. “Your piece is a blow against lying,” he said, “so I’m so grateful that you wrote it and that your paper ran it.”
Incidentally, of course, Fox News, the Saturday Telegraph, news.com.au and The Australian are all News Corp entities.
Why might those ‘leftwing’ sections of the news media be hesitant to accept her findings? Obviously, it is because they are unverified, and their implications are damning for the Chinese Communist Party. In recent weeks, an anti-China sentiment has crept into the news. Since COVID-19 broke out, we have been told that a ‘reckoning’ for China is overdue.⁴ The form of this ‘reckoning’ varies wildly, however. The more modest political actors around the world are rightly demanding an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, while the more extreme commentators — people like Steve Bannon — have labelled the COVID-19 crisis an act of ‘premeditated murder’, a ‘biological Chernobyl’, and call for monetary reparations worth ‘trillions’ as a consequence.⁵ Currently, we are beset by calls for accountability and damnation: thus, if the negligence described by Markson were true, the international response will tip further towards aggression.
Caution is therefore essential: dangerous words like these must be handled carefully. In the days following Markson’s article, various sources have identified that her reporting may lack the diligence necessary to cover such a sensitive matter. At the time of writing, the intelligence report described by Markson has not been made public by the Telegraph or any other News Corp outlet. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, she has declined to reveal her sources, while the Australian government and its intelligence agencies could not find this report themselves; the closest match is a research paper that contained ‘no information generated from intelligence gathering.’⁶ If The Guardian are to be believed, intelligence sources and the Australian government have claimed that the document was not culled from the Five Eyes network.⁷ Moreover, a report from CTVNews, ostensibly containing quotes from multiple sources familiar with the available intelligence, tells us that it ‘is highly likely’ that the virus is ‘naturally occurring and that the human infection was from natural human and animal interaction’, and that it is ‘highly unlikely it was an accident’ as Markson claims.⁸ In the wake of her controversial claims, we remain ignorant about the veracity of this dossier. Moreover, there are now doubts as to its authenticity. Nonetheless, her reportage was dutifully echoed across the world by News Corp subsidiaries, none of whom have qualified their reporting in the wake of the criticisms.⁹
Sharri Markson is, in all likelihood, a competent journalist. We assume that she, in possession of a short textual document, can translate its content into a news story without excessive butchery, deception, distortion and error. If we wish to be generous, we will assume she is not a liar, that she really did attain a document on the coronavirus, and that she speaks with some attempt at good faith. Yet, her reporting leaves us wanting for some, any, elucidation of ‘the facts’: at the moment, we do not know if this dossier even exists; if it exists, we do not know what it says; and if it does contain the information she refers to, we do not know if it is authentic. Markson has insisted that the claims in the document are ‘just the facts’. Perhaps they are: but at the moment, her speech is not truth, but assertion.
Given the controversy of her claims, Markson — and by extension, News Corp — have a duty to defend their legitimacy. Yet neither The Daily Telegraph nor other News Corp subsidiaries have made efforts to clarify, rectify or defend her writings. Instead, they have continued to circulate this unverified and potentially harmful piece of journalism.
For a journalist so strongly committed to the facts — and by fragile, ever-threatened extension, the truth — this is a disappointment. Journalists have a duty to report the facts: though theirs is an intrinsically flawed enterprise, this is the only means by which we can approximate the truth in the mass media. As Markson knows, she has a responsibility to avoid dogma and ideological distortions in her work. Where a politically damaging set of assertions unsupported by evidence is promoted as news, they fail this duty — here, the journalist falls back into that morally contemptuous position, occupied by demagogues, soothsayers and useful fools, where their words serve to manufacture the public’s consent for political aggression against others. We do not deny that China must be held to account for their role in the coronavirus outbreak, whatever that is: however, we do not believe that justice can proceed on the basis of lies, exaggerations, speculation or fraud. Unless we hope for more unjust wars and economic aggression that benefits nobody, we must be better than that.
3 The Australian reported this under the title: ‘China endangered other countries by hiding evidence, Five Eyes report says’.
For Fox News: see https://www.foxnews.com/media/daily-telegraph-sharri-markson-major-new-revelations-on-china-role-coronavirus and https://www.foxnews.com/world/new-dossier-condemns-china-for-destroying-evidence-of-covid-19-outbreak
4 Sky News’ Graham Richardson calls for a ‘reckoning’ in The Australian on April 5: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/commentary/coronavirus-how-the-world-fell-victim-to-the-perfect-ambush/news-story/e83de1232b3dec5b5f93fb5781103078
Other Western politicians have employed the same rhetoric: https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/health-problems/coronavirus-china-hits-back-after-calls-reckoning-over-covid19-lies/news-story/d7c5380243dd1780a81ebf0787d7af17
5 Steve Bannon called the COVID-19 outbreak ‘premeditated murder’ here: https://www.newsweek.com/china-steve-bannon-chernobyl-coronavirus-1501410 and he stated that they ‘owe trillions’ here: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/30/steve-bannon-china-must-be-held-accountable-for-coronavirus-spread.html
The Daily Telegraph: https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/search-results?q=dossier
The Australian: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/search-results?q=dossier