A mysterious media agency is behind a fee-for-service offering to federal election candidates, including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, placement of favourable news articles and interviews on the Chinese-language social media platform WeChat.
- Australian Financial News (AFN) is one of the most prolific publishers of election content on WeChat
- It has clients across the political spectrum, but federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg makes up large proportion of content on the platform
- His office has denied that it had paid the media agency to publish flattering editorial coverage
Australian Financial News (AFN) has published more than 131 advertisements and articles related to the federal election since January, according to researchers from Deakin and Monash universities who are monitoring election material on Chinese social media.
Some of this content is presented as news articles written by independent journalists.
The ABC has discovered a proposal from AFN for a political candidate that offers, for a fixed price, six weeks of ads, as well as a video and article on WeChat.
AFN has helped at least five political campaigns from across the political spectrum advertise to Australia’s Chinese-speaking community via WeChat, which boasts more than 1.2 billion active users, many of whom are among the 1.2 million Chinese Australian voters who will cast their ballot on Saturday.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, and North Sydney candidates Catherine Renshaw for Labor and independent candidate Kylea Tink, have all been featured in advertisements on AFN’s WeChat channel.
Mr Frydenberg — who is in a life-or-death struggle in the inner-city Melbourne seat of Kooyong against independent candidate Monique Ryan — has paid for advertisements on AFN’s WeChat Channel.
It was Mr Frydenberg’s campaign that featured most prominently on the AFN channel, with more than a quarter of all AFN election content — including ads, advertorials and commentary — since January 6 containing at least one reference to the Treasurer.
When pitching to prospective clients, AFN also sent examples of the WeChat advertisements they had published on behalf of Mr Frydenberg to prospective political clients.
“There are banner advertisements with the Australian Financial News promoting the Morrison government’s economic record and plan for a stronger future,” a spokesperson for Mr Frydenberg said.
“Information on Anthony Albanese’s record of supporting higher taxes on Australians has also been featured through banner advertising.
WeChat researcher Robbie Fordyce from Monash University also noted there had been a marked increase in the number of advertisements and positive editorial content about Mr Frydenberg from April 2022 onwards.
He said “this level of coverage” would typically only be available to paid clients.
While the Treasurer’s office acknowledged that it had placed authorised campaign advertisements on AFN, it denied paying the company to publish flattering editorial coverage.
“There is no payment for articles,” Frydenberg’s spokesperson said.
An elusive business presence
Though AFN has been a prominent player on WeChat during the election campaign, it maintains an elusive business presence.
Its listed business address in the Barangaroo precinct of inner Sydney was empty when the ABC visited last week. Its phone number was also no longer connected to the business.
Its director, Han Guoliang, was also previously a director of, and shareholder in, Chinese-Australian media outlet Sydney Today.
In 2020, AFN apologised for publishing “false allegations” about an Australian funds manager.
A 2021 AFN press kit, it refers to itself as an “AFN think tank” which lists economist and former Labor Party trade minister Craig Emerson as a member.
Mr Emerson says he’s never heard of AFN.
“I’m unfamiliar with this organisation, and don’t have any recollection of having been involved in any of their dealings,” he told the ABC.
“It appears the description of me is straight from my website.”
The press kit also listed a series of companies and Australian government departments as their “cooperative partners”.
The list includes organisations such as business news and data provider Bloomberg, two of Australia’s largest consulting firms, PWC and KPMG, and Victorian government agency Invest Victoria.
Of those that responded to the ABC, all denied having any current connection with AFN.
Invest Victoria said it had “no record of any relationship or partnership with Australian Financial News”.
A fee-for-service business
Fan Yang from Deakin University — who is part of a research group that examined more than 3,200 election-related advertisements and articles on WeChat from 134 public accounts since May 2021 — says companies such as AFN operate as a fee-for-service business while maintaining the appearance of a news organisation.
“They’re somewhere between the media and a business,” she said.
The research team found that AFN was one of the most-prolific publishers on WeChat of federal election-related content, and published more advertisements and articles about Mr Frydenberg than any other of the public accounts they monitored.
“In the last week, we have seen several cases with two articles a day from AFN with references to [Mr] Frydenberg,” said Monash University’s Dr Fordyce.
Ms Yang and her colleagues also found that, across all 134 WeChat accounts they monitored for election content, 7.7 per cent included some mention of Mr Frydenberg, whether in an article’s text or as an advertisement appended to a report.
Mr Frydenberg’s campaign also appeared to have provided AFN, and another WeChat channel, with original materials that would later appear in effusive articles.
Eddie Chan, who runs a Melbourne dry cleaning business, was featured in a video and two articles on WeChat, praising the federal Treasurer.
Mr Chan told the ABC the glowing video interview was arranged after he personally offered to help Mr Frydenberg in his re-election efforts.
He said Mr Frydenberg arranged for his campaign team to film Mr Chan in his shop. The footage later appeared on AFN’s WeChat channel.
Mr Chan was happy to appear in the promotional material, saying it reflected his genuine view of Mr Frydenberg.
“Josh puts people together. He has a strong local connection,” Mr Chan said.
Independent candidate for North Sydney Kylea Tink has also run advertisements and an interview article has appeared on WeChat via AFN.
Her campaign told the ABC the company provided a tailored proposal for several advertisements, an interview and a translated video that would run over six weeks.
The advertisements, video and article were a package deal.
In the headline story featuring Ms Tink, AFN wrote that the candidate “understood the importance of seeking common ground while reserving differences”.
“Participating in public welfare affairs has made her more aware of the current social situation and public sentiment in Australia,” the article said.
At the bottom of the paid interview with Ms Tink, a disclaimer states the article is an “election promotion” article.
An AFN article published on WeChat about Labor’s candidate for North Sydney, Catherine Renshaw, includes the following authorisation: “The above information is authorised by Bob Nanva of the Australian Labor Party (NSW). Level 9, 377 Sussex Street Sydney NSW 2000.”
Under Australian electoral laws, content considered to be “electoral communications” typically requires an authorisation to ensure transparency, accountability and traceability.
There is no such disclaimer or authorisation in the articles about Mr Frydenberg.
Asked about the lack of a proper authorisation, Ms Tink’s campaign said they would inform the publisher and ask them to add one.
The AEC and Professor Renshaw have been contacted for comment, but neither responded by publication time.
Positive spin for Frydenberg
AFN’s articles about Mr Frydenberg are almost universally flattering and, in some cases, appear lifted from other news outlets.
One of the AFN stories, published in mid-February, was titled “The next Australian Prime Minister is about to be decided?”
It describes Mr Frydenberg’s life story, and appears to be paraphrasing positive sections of previous media reporting about the Liberal candidate from other outlets, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.
The article claims Prime Minister Scott Morrison was being abandoned by voters for leaving for Hawaii during the Black Summer bushfires and for attending football matches during the pandemic.
“Voters are running away in droves,” the article said. “If the Coalition hopes to return to power, it cannot rule out a new leader, and the current treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, would be a favourite.”
The glowing article then dives into how Mr Frydenberg’s love for tennis has shaped him into a capable leader before explaining how his Jewish heritage made the ideal replacement for the country’s top job.
That story was read more than 25,000 times since it was published, among voters with Chinese backgrounds.
AFN did not respond to ABC questions about whether Mr Frydenberg’s office had reviewed or approved the articles before publication.
However, the story was taken down after being contacted by the ABC.
The Treasurer is facing off against independent candidate Monique Ryan in the Victorian electorate of Kooyong where, according to 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), one-in-nine residents report having Chinese ancestry.
He has faced backlash from Chinese-Australian voters over the Coalition’s anti-China rhetoric.
AFN and Labor did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
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