Apr 12

BBC News and what the future looks like from the top floor

I listened to a briefing recently by a senior person at BBC News. I heard it on background, so I can’t name the individual but you can take it that this person knows a lot about a newsgathering operation which employs, worldwide, 6000 people. The world’s largest, so far. A few snippets:

  • Chinese state broadcasting is set to become the world’s biggest newsgatherer. We don’t know when. In parts of Africa, people don’t see the Chinese as having any agenda or slant. The BBC is sometimes seen as having a post-colonial British agenda.
  • In Britain, approval of the BBC diminishes the further you go from London.
  • The BBC cuts programme is known as “Delivering Quality First” or “DQF”. In the newsroom this is rendered as “Duck Quick or you’re F*****.”
  • We may be cutting back on two on-screen presenters on the news channel but we’re re-appointing political reporters at local radio stations. In local politics coverage, papers are “nowhere”.
  • The first five bi-lingual (i.e. not English mother tongue) correspondents reporting across the network are just about to start work.
  • The audience is pretty bored with the primary campaign in the US presidential. We kid ourselves about the level of interest. The Radio 4 audience is actually pretty hostile to the US.
  • We have a dilemma about local coverage: the BBC Trust stopped plans to do that. We’re not in a good place.
  • When the Leveson Inquiry began, the BBC began its own internal investigation. Pretty uncomfortable having your own records gone through. As far as I know, the Daily Mirror haven’t yet done their own inquiry.

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Feb 12

The Chinese squeeze on Hong Kong’s press: my mistake

I drew attention yesterday to two changes of editors, one in India and one in Hong Kong, which I thought important. One conclusion I drew was almost certainly wrong.

In the case of the new editor of the South China Morning Post, I thought that the tone of the commentary I read on Wang Xiangwei was overwrought. It seemed to be assumed that because he was born on the mainland, he would be the creature of the regime in Beijing. But I was writing from superficial knowledge and I sent a link to a journalist friend in Hong Kong. He rapidly corrected my opinion. He is pessimistic about what will now happen, even if the state’s influence over the paper takes the form of a slow squeeze rather than any sudden stifling.

My friend wrote:

“I think you underestimate the ruthlessness and determination of the Communist Party and its United Front Department to influence and manipulate the media in HK. It is not using the Propaganda Department and (powers of) confiscation as it does in the mainland, but the ‘capitalist’ means, like takeovers, mergers, pressure and lobbying.

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Feb 12

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.


The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.

But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.

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Jun 11

“Grabbing discursive power” – a new argument in China

The commentary in the western press on the hacking of Google email accounts has started a hardly surprising backlash in China itself. The China Media Project (at the University of Hong Kong) has spotted a remarkable editorial in the Global Times (an English-language offshoot of the Peoples’ Daily) adapted from a blogpost by the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin.

The editorial is striking for two things: firstly the emphasis on how a proud and powerful country like China can no longer stand aside from the struggle to grab “discursive power” in the world’s networked conversation. Note the pungently aggressive nationalism throughout.

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Mar 11

The information spaces in Vietnam

When people reflect on the effect of modern communications on a communist state, they tend to think first of China and its efforts to limit information reaching its citizens by digital means. But there is another communist state in Asia wrestling with the same problems: Vietnam, where I spent last week.

Like China, Vietnam has opened up to western business and the many organs of the party have plunged enthusiastically into capitalism. The army is big in mobile phones. This loosening has only worked up a point: inflation is rising, rigid inefficiencies survive and corruption continues.

The local media discusses very little of this. The only sources on what is going on inside the power structure are rumour and decoding the stilted formulas of the official press. There’s a knowledgeable analysis of the media here – but the fact that it’s written under a pseudonym tells you something about the party’s readiness to expel foreign correspondents it doesn’t like.

The state’s power is felt in a lighter and subtler way than in China. You’re in a taxi in one of Hanoi’s battered and dusty streets and suddenly you pass a building which stands out for its neatness: railings freshly painted, gravel swept, armed sentries who look like they mean business. A polished black Mercedes is just passing under the striped barrier. That little glimpse reminds you that inside the government machine is another machine, the party, which actually decides.

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Oct 10

The Chinese twittersphere

There’s endless back-and-forth over whether or not Twitter really played a significant part in the failed Iranian  “revolution” of June 2009. Did Twitter grosssly exaggerate the opposition strength and help to identify people subsequently arrested? Or did it link previously disconnected people and help to bring the regime to the brink of   collapse?

This theme is picked up and applied to the very different Chinese experience by Professor Hu Yong, who is reflecting   on the flood of tweets unleashed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. In China, he says, social media like Twitter are not likely to be suddenly transformative but they do push a “more subtle social progress”.

I predict that the next topic in Twitter Studies will be the role of covert tweet manipulation in totalitarian societies. Twitter and social media massively increase the range of networks at the price of removing face-to-face contact. Looking someone in the eye is often the best (if not the infallible) way to check whether someone is who they say they are or whether they are telling the truth.

Oct 10

Liu Xiaobo: small things can matter

Two sidelights on the Nobel Peace Prize given to the imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo. There has been plenty of commentary, both understandable and doubtless right, that awarding a Nobel to a jailed dissident in China will make not the slightest difference to the attitude taken towards human rights by the Chinese communist party.

Perhaps not. But there are a couple of things to note about Liu Xiaobao’s case which give tiny fragments of hope that this prize will focus people across the world and maybe even in China on what is wrong. The Nobel committee have selected Liu not because he has suffered more than any other dissident but because he zeroed in on why rights don’t actually exist in China while they are theoretically written into the country’s constitution.

What Liu always seized on was the inability of a Chinese citizen to use the law against the government if the government has, or may have, broken the law. Rights written about in a constitution are worthless unless enforceable by law which also covers the authorities. This is succinctly summarised in this “explainer” from Slate. It may be a small and, for now, apparently insignificant point but this will one day be the hinge of political reform in China. One day.

Secondly, the Nobel promotes a name and an idea like almost nothing else and there is one thing that many people outside China, without resources but with the qualifications, can do to help freedom of expression inside China. I would not know this if I had not happened to announce an award to two Chinese journalists, Shi Tao and Li Changqing, a few years ago. Neither man was at liberty to collect their award; both were in jail. (The award was the “Golden Pen of Freedom” given annually by the World Editors Forum and World Association of Newspapers; citations are here and here).

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Sep 10

China’s media and “soft power”

Hat-tip to Richard Sambrook for pointing me to this superb analysis of the Chinese media, its layers, ambitions and limits by a professor at one of the Hong Kong universities. I may not be alone in finding the Chinese media’s growth hard to see clearly; this piece makes sense of the combination of (huge) state power and outlets that belong to a more loosely controlled zone.

While on the theme of China’s soft power ambitions across the globe, here’s a background piece from a couple of years ago by Mark Leonard in Prospect magazine. He went to China to talk to its policy wonks, assuming that they were a handful of dried-out party functionaries in back rooms. What he found suprised him.