A dodgy dossier? How News Corp hyped a US government reading list into a China coronavirus 'bombshell'

Daniel Hurst in Canberra

It was touted as a world exclusive – a “bombshell dossier” that exposed China’s “batty science” and backed up Donald Trump and US claims that Beijing was covering up the true origin of Covid-19.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, went big with a Saturday morning splash and six pages of reporting attributed to “a dossier prepared by concerned western governments” – and the story was quickly amplified and exaggerated by Trump’s media backers in the United States.

It gathered steam in subsequent reporting as something even more weighty: the New York Post called it “a damning dossier leaked from the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance” while Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked why it was so hard for some people to accept “objectively that the evidence suggests [coronavirus] came from a lab” in Wuhan, China. Carlson’s program contained a graphic that claimed: “Dossier was compiled by intel agencies of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.”

Related: The Murdoch media’s China coronavirus conspiracy has one aim: get Trump re-elected | Kevin Rudd

But there was a problem: the document at the heart of the reporting did not contain any genuinely new information, it did not outline any direct evidence of the lab leakage theory, and it wasn’t culled from intelligence gathered by the Five Eyes network.

Instead, the material – now reported to have been authored by the US State Department – was a fairly straightforward timeline and summary of publicly available material. A source likened it to a “reading list” or “reference paper”.

The Guardian understands from a source who has read the 15-page document that the material relevant to the Wuhan lab leakage theory makes up only a small portion of the file, and it does not include any conclusive findings.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation first reported on Tuesday that the original paper was a background research report compiled and widely distributed by the US state department. The ABC went on to say that the US embassy in Canberra has held private meetings with Australian government officials to clarify the matter.

The embassy declined to respond to these claims when contacted by the Guardian on Tuesday.

But the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, a longstanding critic of Murdoch’s News Corp empire, told the Guardian: “These revelations should be utterly humiliating to the Murdoch media, except that the Murdoch media has zero shame.”

Rudd says the damage has already been done. He believes the document “was leaked to News Corp in Australia with the clear intention that it would be funnelled back into the American media, giving the appearance that Australian spies were backing Trump’s claims”. In reality, though, “Australian intelligence officials don’t believe Trump at all”.

Origins of a suspect scoop

The saga began on 2 May when the Saturday version of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph trumpeted a “WORLD EXCLUSIVE” under the headline “CHINA’S BATTY SCIENCE: Bombshell dossier lays out the case against the People’s Republic”.

The journalist, Sharri Markson, noted in the original story that the dossier included a raft of criticisms of China’s “assault on international transparency’’ and concerns about practices at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but she also referred in other paragraphs to an ongoing investigation by Five Eyes intelligence agencies.

Those two elements got conflated when the story was picked up and amplified by rightwing media in the US and elsewhere, with many reporting that it was a joint report by western intelligence partners.

When Markson was interviewed a few days later on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News, the graphics referred to a “leaked intel dossier” and the US host declared that “this is the most substantial confirmation of what we suspected that we’ve had so far, and because it’s a multinational effort I think it would be hard to dismiss it as a political document”.

Markson told Carlson everything in the document was “factual” but there were “leftwing sections of the media that don’t want to believe that this virus may have leaked from a laboratory”. She added: “Of course we don’t know that yet, that’s being investigated, but they don’t want to even think about it.”

I would attach no significance to it whatsoever. It’s just a list

Allan Behm, Australia Institute

Markson was also interviewed about the story by rightwing Trump backers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon. In the Bannon interview, Markson herself clarified that it was not an intelligence document that formed the basis of her report. “This isn’t an intelligence dossier,” she told Bannon. “This is a factual report that builds the western case against China’s cover-up over this virus and it’s a case that China is denying.”

It came against the backdrop of claims by Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that there was “enormous evidence” the coronavirus came from a lab – a view that is at odds with the mainstream scientific view about the likely origins.

The resulting media coverage in the US was part of a “boomerang effect”, according to one Australian official.

What is the ‘dossier’?

The Guardian understands the 15-page research paper doesn’t have any markings on it showing who authored it, and nor does it contain any classification markers, but it includes a chronological list of relevant public open-source reporting from 2013 to late April.

The document points to published news reports and journal articles about a range of issues including the Chinese officials moving to silence doctors and whistleblowers and the delays in acknowledging human-to-human transmission of coronavirus. The ABC reported it had the status of a “non-paper”, a document that can be used to trigger discussion or debate with foreign governments.

Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former defence department deputy secretary for strategy, says a “non-paper” usually means a document that does not have “policy weight” behind it.

“It seems very clear that this is not classified intelligence product. It seems to have been a summary of publicly reported information about the outbreak of the virus,” Jennings says.

“I would expect that our own departments would be doing precisely the same thing. Often these things are compiled as reading lists for senior officials. This is absolutely routine business for bureaucracies anywhere.”

Allan Behm, the head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute and a former senior defence official, says the reporting had made “a mountain out of a molehill”.

“I would attach no significance to it whatsoever. It’s just a list,” Behm says.

“I think the net result was to build up a nothing into something and that fed into the kind of shrill hysteria we saw a few weeks ago, and it still echoes.”

Behm says from what he knows about the document he doesn’t believe it was created maliciously or represented an attempt “to set Australia up” with dodgy intelligence. Instead it was “hyped” up in media reporting.

Jennings doesn’t write off the labs theory as a possibility to explain what happened, saying it should continue to be explored, and he argues China’s lack of transparency over the issue “doesn’t help”.

“But equally I think a major concern that does seem to have been lost in the discussion of the labs has been about China’s handling of wet markets,” Jennings says.

Prof Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college, played down the significance of the fact the document was leaked to media, telling the ABC all governments were likely to be “trying to persuade media organisations of their world view, their policy positions, their perspective”.

‘Overreach’ to help Trump

Rudd, the former prime minister, says the version of reality repeated in news reports around the globe had the side-effect of “politicising and discrediting western intelligence”.

He argues the dossier was never intended to put pressure on China, but to bolster Trump’s re-election campaign and distract from the US president’s failures to manage Covid-19 at home.

“While it may have helped Trump, the Daily Telegraph’s overreach has only helped efforts by China to wriggle off the hook for the questions they actually must answer – including the role of wildlife wet markets, failures to control the virus early on, and dealings with the World Health Organization,” Rudd says.

Markson declined to comment, saying she had no intention of speaking about confidential sources. She responded to the ABC report by retweeting her original piece:

The Guardian reported earlier this month that the Australian government had pushed back at US claims the coronavirus may have originated in a Wuhan lab and had determined that the supposed “dossier” was not a Five Eyes intelligence document.

The saga is one of several to cause tension in the relationship between the US and Australia in recent times. On Sunday, the US embassy moved quickly to clarify comments by Pompeo that communication channels may potentially be severed because of the state of Victoria’s involvement in China’s belt and road Scheme.

The speed of the walk-back of Pompeo’s latest comments suggests, according to one Australian source, that the embassy had learned lessons from the dossier episode.