China and “so-called freedom of speech”
China’s official media highlight Britain’s Murdoch Scandal to illustrate Western hypocrisy, writes Judith Bruhn.
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 25: Protesters from the campaign group 'Avaaz' demonstrate outside the high court with a puppet of British Prime Minister David Cameron after Rupert Murdoch gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on April 25, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
“Suddenly the west’s so-called freedom of speech has become a cruel casualty of the News of the World”, the Chinese People’s Power Forum declared in July 2011. After Britain’s phone-hacking scandal was revealed in 2011, media ethics became a passionately debated topic in the Chinese media. While usually at the receiving end of criticism concerning media ethics, professionalism and objectivity, Chinese state media were quick to use the case to demonstrate the “hypocrisy” and “corrupt nature” of western media and its system more broadly, as Xinhua reported on 18 July 2011. This is not surprising as the Chinese authorities have a history of referring to the “so-called freedom of press” in derogatory terms.
Xinhua criticises “freedom of press” as a banner under which news corporations can do anything, including “recklessly violating citizens’ privacy and other rights … The long praised democracy and dedication to human rights of certain governments have not protected their citizens’ rights from being violated”; instead they tolerate such behaviour taking place before their eyes. In another article of 15 July 2011, Xinhua further criticised various fabricated news stories by western media; “while claiming their own ‘objectivity, fairness and enjoyment of press freedom’, some western media and governments accuse others of interfering with press freedom. But no matter how pretty their own label, they still cannot conceal their hypocritical nature. Once you lose your moral standards, you are bound to lose your credibility”.
At the same time, People’s Power Forum, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily ‘s discussion forum, spoke of the connection between the media and control by private capital, but it did not dare to draw a parallel between this and the Chinese government’s own control of Chinese media. On the contrary, the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Party, conveniently ignores the link between state-controlled media like itself and the government. Instead the article claims the incident was not a case of western media ignoring its social responsibility, rather, it was reflective of the inherent difficulty of western media and democratic institutions. The article argues that while the western media like to portray themselves as a fourth estate, balancing the executive, judiciary and legislature to uncover the truth, in reality they are slaves to commercial interests. As a result they will use illegal means to gain access to exclusive insider information and to seek favourable policy support. It concludes: “The excessive freedom of press means that the western democratic system is locked in a circle – the media hold public opinion hostage, and public opinion coerces politicians, and therefore politicians collude with the media.”
This kind of commentary on the News of the World case reveals a more general attitude towards the west. Given the right occasion, such as this case or the 2011 London riots, state-owned media are encouraged to promote these views. On 18 May 2012, Beijing Daily criticised “commercial newspapers” as too influenced by Western notions of journalism, which it called the “poison” of “so-called freedom of speech”. The article entitled “Singing the main theme is the social responsibility of Chinese media” openly argued that what China needs is media that foster social stability, rather than report problems such as corruption among officials, environmental problems or food safety. Instead the Chinese media should “sing the main theme” – meaning the tune the party sings.
In the west, as in China, the initial shock of the case in 2011 led to a general questioning of the British media and shaken public trust. In July 2011, Gordon Lynch wrote in the Guardian, “The News of the World is not just unethical: it has violated sacred images which it had itself helped to create.” Yet, as Timothy Garton Ash points out, the very public handling of the case, including a televised judicial enquiry cross-examining prime ministers, media proprietors and editors alike, served to demonstrate the value of openness and transparency. The case raised uncomfortable issues, but it highlighted certain problems, and the public debate that followed allowed the government, media and the public to find solutions and rebuild trust. China’s own issues, on the other hand, like close ties between the Party, state security, money and the media, and resulting control and censorship, received no such treatment.