And Finally

On the watch

Fresh scandal raises issue of press freedom

On the watch

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire on British journalism, features a fictional newspaper called The Beast. Its proprietor is the domineering Lord Copper, a man who doesn’t like to be contradicted. When Lord Copper is right, his subordinates agree, ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’. When he is wrong, they concur, ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’.

In China there is an equivalent of Lord Copper, albeit it’s a somewhat less colourful character: the state’s propaganda machine. Journalists are regularly given lists of subjects that are taboo. Criticism of senior figures in government is usually off-limits. There was further evidence of that last week when a gutsy article appeared in the Yunnan City Times. It was about a senior official from Fujian province, asking how he could afford to don a Rmb50,000 ($7,996) diamond-encrusted Rado watch, as well as wear a Rmb13,000 Hermès belt. But before the newspaper could hit newsstands the official ordered the edition reprinted minus the offending story.

The newspaper’s boss Zhou Zhichen quickly took to his weibo, and tweeted: “I have never felt such anger and shame.” He lamented the “hundred of thousands” of copies of the paper that were destroyed. Word of the incident soon went viral online, with the Fujian official earning the nickname ‘Uncle Watch’. More surprising was that leading state media outlets also waded in. The Global Times noted that the “Chinese media has been suffering castration for many years” but also felt that the treatment of the Yunnan City Times was “especially shameful”.

The Global Times bemoaned that “the personal interests of a handful of officials constantly intervenes in the media’s editorial process”.

The ‘Uncle Watch’ debacle has portrayed the press as the victim of an Orwellian system. Of course, the reality is more complex. While the goal of press freedom is a worthy one, it also seems true that, when the nation’s newspapers are free to write what they like, they sometimes abuse their power for gain.

This is the case made in a recent article by Century Weekly, which sources a report from the stockmarket regulator, the CSRC. It asserts that companies preparing to IPO have faced extortion from a host of newspapers, which threaten to run negative stories unless they are paid off with advertising. One company that recently listed on ChiNext in Shenzhen told Century Weekly that it had spent Rmb4 million buying off influential newspapers.

The problem is ongoing, says the magazine: “A senior CSRC official said it was wrong for media outlets to abuse their power at the expense of IPO candidates, but that his agency has been powerless to stop the practice because extortion victims refuse to talk.”

Somewhat like the phone-hacking scandal in the UK – where debates on press freedom are counterposed with clear cases of criminal behaviour from some newspapers – these stories also cast the Chinese media in an ambivalent light.

On the one hand, no one wants to see newspapers pulped for exposing potential corruption. But nor do they want to see newspapers acting corruptly themselves, as the CSRC claims is the case.

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