Hong Kong daily views Chinese media practice in light of UK phone hacking issue

Friday, Jul 22,2011, 9:42:22 PM

Compared with the now-defunct News of the World, the China Economic Times has rarely blipped on the radar screen of the international community - not until it disbanded a five-member team of investigative journalists this week.

The story about the Chinese government newspaper's decision to close the two-year-old team was given prominent coverage on Tuesday [19 July] in some English-language newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post.

The management was quoted by journalists as saying "it was part of a turn towards more economic reporting". But doubters believe it has to do with the work of the investigative reporters in making hard-hitting exposes of government wrongdoings.

David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project, said in the Wall Street Journal report that "it's a very worrying sign". He was referring to the ongoing round of intensified pressure from the Communist authorities for the media to toe the official line.

The latest setback to China's fragile independent press has come at an interesting time when the dubious culture and practices of an international media empire, News Corporation, became the subject of much soul-searching, finger-pointing and satire among journalists and society in different parts of the world.

In a report published on its website on Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency commented that the "phone-hacking-gate" scandal has exposed the hypocrisy of the Western press. Under the present market-oriented Western media system, it will not be possible for the press to be "pure, independent, fair and objective" as they have claimed because of their profit-seeking nature, according to the unnamed article. Under the Western system, it is extremely difficult for the press to exercise self-restraint, it said.

The Xinhua article quoted a journalism academic as saying the spillover impact of the incident might affect other News Corporation newspapers and the press in the United States.

But while ridiculing what they called the hypocrisy of the Western press, the Chinese propaganda machine has stopped short of praising the press on the mainland. That is not surprising. Indeed, the whole set of questions about the role and function of the press in China has indeed been a taboo the ruling party has tried to avoid.

This is despite the drastic, profound changes in China's media landscape in recent year that saw the rapid growth of the internet, social media and the emergence of independent media, which, taken together, constituted a far more complex picture than those being seen from the West.

Hu Shuli, founder of the independent Caijing magazine who now runs the Caixin magazine, is adamant it would be too simplistic to view mainland media as a mere tool of the state, adding there are now different voices in the media sector.

Speaking at a luncheon meeting in Hong Kong last week, she took an optimistic view on the development of independent media in China as long as they stuck to the mission and stance of telling the truth to the people.

Truth, ironically, is less relevant in the success story of the media empire of News Corporation. What is more ironical is that the assertion of people's right to know has become the convenient excuse for sensational press to intrude into the private lives of celebrities and venture into dubious ways of news gathering.

If anything, the disbandment of the investigative team at the China Economic Times is just another small episode in the development of independent media in China in its fight for a meaningful watchdog role.

It may sound mission impossible to China-bashers and doubters. That could not be more critically important in China's development as a watchdog that tells the truth and bites could help ensure powers are not abused, laws are not ignored and rules nor arbitrarily enforced by the authorities.

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