When the 168 year-old News of the World was shut down in 2011, the actor and comedian Steve Coogan described it as “a wonderful day for the press; a small victory for decency and humanity”.
The British newspaper was closed in response to its involvement in a huge phone-hacking scandal that brought into question the ethical standards of the media in general.
In Coogan’s view, “they have sunk lower than anyone thought they could”.
Over in China, and there’s a backlash against another newspaper – and again it’s because of morally questionable behaviour by journalists.
On January 16 the popular singer Yao Beina died of breast cancer aged 33. Yao had found fame as a performer on the second season of The Voice of China but she also won widespread admiration for her decision to donate her eyes’ corneas on her death. However, a less saintly performance was about to be enacted by the Shenzhen Evening News, when three of its reporters gained entry to the operating theatre, and began taking photographs of Yao’s corpse.
There was understandable uproar as her family members and friends protested at this invasion of privacy and defiling of her memory.
The journalists – who were said to have dressed like doctors – were soon persuaded to delete the photos but a publicity storm still ensued, as various parties sought to name and shame the southern Chinese newspaper. The morning after the incident, Yao’s manager launched this salvo on his weibo: “Shenzhen Evening News! I [expletive used] your ancestors of 18 generations. Do you have a man’s bottom line? Are those nasty things you did worthy of Yao Beina’s donation of her corneas? Is this fair to her father and mother? I hope that all people with any conscience re-post this message to expose this behaviour.”
The singer’s music company Huayi Brothers also issued a statement saying that the journalists should be punished and that it was considering legal action.
Huayi’s boss Wang Zhonglei referred to a dignified testimonial that one news channel had carried on Yao, before commenting acidly on his weibo: “One media opted to be high-class, the other to be dirty.”
As news site The Paper also noted, the incident has triggered fresh debate about the professional conduct of China’s reporters. Numerous netizens posted comments that the incident had left them “speechless” and that the newspaper’s behaviour was “shameless”.
Recognising that its employees had gone too far, the Shenzhen Evening News issued an apology, although it denied its journalists dressed as doctors: “For those who have been questioning the improper behaviour of our reporters, after our own investigation and verification, we have found that at 7pm on January 16 our journalists did temporarily enter the operating room to photograph the cornea transplant surgery. When relatives said it was wrong, the reporters immediately deleted all the photos and obtained forgiveness from Yao’s father. We hereby express our sincere apology for causing distress and anxiety to Yao’s relatives, fans and netizens.”
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