China Global Television News or, CGTN, began broadcasting in the UK in 2002 under the name CCTV-9. In its application for a British licence the Chinese channel claimed to be an editorially-independent state broadcaster, similar to the BBC or the France Televisions Group.
But on February 4, following a series of complaints, British media regulator Ofcom revoked the channel’s broadcast licence after concluding that CGTN “is an organ of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature”.
Such entities are banned in the UK under the Broadcasting Act of 1990.
Needless to say, the Chinese government was extremely unhappy. Exactly a week after the CGTN licence had been withdrawn, China’s National Radio and Television Administration revoked the limited licence of BBC World News in China, accusing it of harming China’s national interests and undermining national unity – a reference to reporting on Covid-19 and human rights abuses in the western region of Xinjiang.
Neither ban is going to impact on a large number of viewers. In China, BBC World News was only available in four- and five-star hotels, or residential compounds housing non-nationals. And even in those secluded environments, screens would typically black out when sensitive China news was broadcast.
In the UK, CGTN had fewer than a million viewers – meaning it was less-watched than Sky Cinema’s Sci-Fi Horror channel.
But the double ban is about more than the licences being pulled, highlighting instead the widening gulf between China and a number of Western governments and an increasingly intense clash of values.
The complaint against CGTN in the UK began when two foreign nationals were arrested in China and then made televised confessions of their crimes. CGTN then aired them. The plaintiffs – Peter Humphrey and Peter Dahlin – argued that these confessions were forced and the channel broadcast them under instruction from China’s Communist government.
CGTN also came under scrutiny in the UK for failing to include a wider range of views in its coverage of Hong Kong’s political unrest in 2019. In the end, however, it was not banned for its content per se. Instead Ofcom decreed that Star China Media Limited, the organisation which had registered the channel in the UK, did not control it in the way that UK law requires.
Star conceded this, but it was then unable to transfer the licence to CGTN’s real provider, China Global Television Network Corporation, as that is deemed to be a Chinese government entity.
The People’s Daily decried action against the channel, framing it as an issue of media freedom and another example of double standards. “This kind of brutal suppression of the Chinese media has fully exposed the hypocrisy of the so-called freedom of the press that Britain has always flaunted so proudly,” it wrote.
It went on that “Chinese media abide by journalistic ethics, and uphold the principles of objectivity, impartiality, truth and accuracy, carrying out ordinary news reporting in various parts of the world, including the UK”.
It did not mention an incident in 2018 when a CGTN reporter heckled and slapped a human rights activist at a Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. The correspondent was then hailed as a hero at home.
CGTN was similarly combative about its handling in the UK, insisting that the real reason that the licence was withdrawn was because the government “fears news of China’s success being objectively reported in Britain”.
“Because China has had success in fighting against Covid-19 and its economic recovery from the pandemic, it is therefore vital for British authorities favouring a new Cold War with China to prevent this reality from being known and reported on in Britain,” it claimed in an editorial on its website.
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