I actually wanted to call this piece “The Curious Journalism of Bill Birtles and Stephen McDonell”, but then people would miss “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” wordplay. Bill and Stephen are a tag-team, so you really can’t critique one without the other.
I only occasionally take a look at Australian news on China these days, usually when I’m in the mood for being fear-mongered to or being treated like a vacuous reader who doesn’t like facts. If I’m in the mood for stories about no stories or cringe-worthy A Current Affairs/Today Tonight-style journalism, I can reliably turn to ABC’s China-based foreign correspondent, Bill Birtles.
Yesterday was one of those days. I saw this piece of speculation from ABC/BBC China-based foreign correspondent, Stephen McDonell:
I pointed out to Stephen that over the last two years the Chinese Government has been cracking down on foreign teachers from all over the world who have breached their visa conditions (usually for illegally holding down a second job) and placing them in cells before sending them back to their home countries.
As usual, Stephen McDonell doesn’t like being confronted with facts. The pattern I’ve picked up from observing him is that he’ll first try to employ the “I am an only child and I have a brother” logic, and when you pull him up on that, he'll chuck a tantrum and throw some elementary-level Chinese into the mix. I remember last year he put out a war cry to his Twitter followers when a female Chinese journalist critiqued his puff piece that Chinese public servants won’t talk to him because he is a journalist. Never mind that the Australian Government imposes the very same rule on our own public servants, and never mind that Stephen's child-like Mandarin was likely off-putting to the interviewees - these are just annoying facts for Stephen. For Stephen’s war cry to have a chance of working, he had to strawman the Chinese journalist by cutting out a key part of her quote. Stephen wasn’t happy when I confronted him about this.
Stephen also wasn’t happy this time when I confronted him for his lack of research and lack of contextualisation. One of Stephen and Bill’s go-to weapons to shut down debate is to try to dismiss their critics as “trolls”. Their default position is to play the player instead of the ball. True to form, that’s what happened again yesterday.
But vindication is a sweet thing. And my vindication came in less than 12 hours from a tweet of support from this guy:
Whilst the majority of the foreign teaching community in China have known about this trend for the last year or so, it was news to Stephen whose job it was to be one of the first to know:
Now to turn my focus to the curious Bill Birtles. In April this year I exposed Bill’s colleague, Nick McKenzie, for his Four Corners’ interview with a Chinese international student, Lupin Lu, that was deceptively edited to paint her as a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party, despite her three denials of such. I helped Lupin sue the ABC, and she ultimately got a settlement (with a gag clause). At the time I published my exposé, I was ignorant of a “brotherhood” existing at the ABC. Two days after I published my piece, Bill took it upon himself to track down my personal WeChat account (used for social purposes only) to taunt me. For those who aren’t familiar with WeChat, it’s China’s version of Facebook, except, unlike Facebook, you can only find someone by their username or phone number, not by a name search. This is what made Bill’s stalking all the more creepy. Bill also used a fake LinkedIn account under the name Monte Carlo to stalk me on that platform too. I don’t know why a journalist needs a fake LinkedIn account when they can do searches in private mode, but I guess it was Bill’s way to let me know that the ABC folk were monitoring me. The irony is that this is the type of behaviour Bill criticises the Chinese Government for. When I shared this with a senior male leader of the China-watching community, Professor James Laurenceson, his response was right on point: "What could possibly motivate someone to break professional conduct in that way?” When I told my Chinese friends about Bill’s cyberstalking, they were actually worried for my safety. They wondered if Bill could be obsessive enough to stalk me offline too.
Yesterday I confronted Bill about his unequivocally creepy and unprofessional behaviour. He responded with a Trump-esque lack of shame:
As you can see, Bill feels entitled to have access to my personal WeChat account with no regard for my right to privacy. I’ll get back to this point, because I need to add some more context.
Last year I decided to self-publish a novella about China. As you do, you set up a Twitter account for promotional purposes. I thought long and hard about whether or not to publish my book under a pen name. Each author has their own reasons for a pen name. For me it was about protecting my career. I was fully aware that the “reds under the beds” hysteria was growing in certain circles of the Australian elite class. My book slaughters many sacred cows, hence I was fearful of being labelled a Communist. The whole premise of my book was to dispel damaging myths about China perpetuated by Western media, so I continued that theme on Twitter. By doing so, I was accused of being pro-Communist and being on the Chinese Communist Party payroll by academics and journalists (including Stephen McDonell). My decision to use a pen name was the right decision. My decision to later publish the hardcopy in my own name was the wrong decision, as evidenced by Bill’s stalking.
The “China-watcher” community has a reputation for being a boys club. It’s even harder to break into that club if you are a young woman with dissenting views. The message Bill Birtles is sending to similar young women is to "know their place", otherwise they may be stalked and intimidated too. This must have a huge chilling effect. For someone who portrays himself as a proponent of free speech, he’s not doing a very good job at cultivating it in practice.
Now to finish on a lighter note. Whenever Bill or Stephen have attempted to enter a battle of wits with me, I always got the vague feeling that they are reminiscent of a fictional Hollywood character who thinks he is witty, but is the only person who finds himself so. Yesterday, I finally realised who that character is - Michael Scott from The Office.
Here’s a case on point:
Turns out Bill is a fan of quotation marks, but doesn’t really know how to use them. What’s the definition of a novella? A work of fiction or narrative prose between 17,000 and 40,000 words. My book is 23,000 words. Tick. What’s the definition of a pen name? An assumed name used by a writer instead of their real name. Tick. I’m a bit confused about the best seller reference because I’ve never claimed it to be a best seller. No one else has either. But hey, if Bill’s tweet is going to increase my book sales, I’ll take it!
To sum up, my day on Twitter yesterday reminded me that entering into discussion with a counterpart who is not sharing your pursuit of truth is a waste of time. You're not going to find any Christopher Hitchens or Ronan Farrows in the Australian China-watching journalist community on Twitter. So for the rest of today, I’m going to spend it outside.