Rupert Murdoch Scandal: Chinese Media Criticize Western Press Freedom

Isaac Stone Fish writes that Chinese media are using the Murdoch scandal to slam Western press freedom.

The day after British opposition leader Ed Miliband called Rupert Murdoch’s political influence “dangerous,” Chinese press agency Xinhua ran an article entitled “Looking at Western Media from Murdoch’s ‘Tapping-Gate’ Scandal,” castigating Western societies for their unethical reporting behavior and faulting the Western press establishment for “infringing on citizens’ rights.” When Murdoch took out advertisements in newspapers across Britain to apologize for News of the World’s wrongdoings, the Shanghai Communist Party newspaper Liberation Daily wrote that “‘freedom of the press,’ once seen as a standard in Western media, is now being widely doubted by citizens from every country because of the wanton growth of [Western media’s] disregard of laws or morals.” The official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, dived into the debate, saying “actually, Western media doesn’t care about social morality.” Ouch. “The spin on these stories seems to be the corruption of Western media,” says Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University. “It is a not so subtle attack on the freedom of the press.”

Beijing has long bristled at criticism of its poor reporting conditions and press censorship. In response, it argues that its repressive media apparatus and the “guidance” the Communist Party provides are necessary to maintain social stability in China’s current stage of development, and that it’s gradually becoming more open. International observers disagree. Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked China at 171st in its Press Freedom Index in 2010, sandwiched between Yemen and Sudan and lower than the previous year; independent watchdog Freedom House said in its 2010 report on press freedom that “China’s media environment remained one of the world’s most restrictive.” A survey conducted by The Foreign Correspondents Club of China in May reported that 94 percent of journalists who responded thought the work environment had deteriorated over the last year; 99 percent said reporting in China doesn’t meet international standards. (Disclosure: I’m a board member of the FCCC, though I wasn’t at the time of the survey.)

As allegations of illegal acts by Murdoch’s papers continue to surface, “this is the perfect time for Chinese media to criticize Western media for its hypocrisy,” says Michael Anti, a Chinese media commentator. When Western media criticizes Chinese media for its sham reporting or its propaganda, an average Chinese reader could be led to think “well, Western media is also very rotten,” says Anti. The Xinhua article crows “the American government that always bragged about ‘press freedom’ was revealed in 2005 to ‘prefabricate news’ during the Iraq War… all that stuff is a common occurrence in Western societies.”

Chinese media draw attention to “the problems of Western media whenever there is an opportunity,” says Yiyi Lu, a Chatham House fellow and an expert on Chinese civil society. When riots shook Tibet in 2008, a photo of police brutality in Nepal wrongly attributed to the Chinese caused widespread anger in the Chinese blogosphere, and inspired the founding of the group Anti-CNN, created to counter “the lies and distortions of facts from the Western media.” Yesterday, Anti-CNN published a story entitled “‘The News of the World’ Scandal Gives Western Media Freedom a Big Slap in the Face.”

The Murdoch scandal is not just about media ethics, but the collusion of the government, media, and law enforcement and the concentration of media power, says Ying. An editorial published yesterday in the English-language government newspaper China Daily argued “In Britain, Murdoch's News Corporation alone owns 37 percent of the newspaper circulation… a check on the Western media concentration would be a blessing to people worldwide.”

China’s media strategy could backfire if domestic commentators start likening Murdoch’s monopoly to the Communist Party’s deep-reaching tentacles into the media and security apparatus. So far, it appears that only Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post drew that comparison, writing that “the tactics sound too familiar” to mainlanders, except that for them the perpetrators are “the omnipresent internal security police or the state security agents trying to snoop on any political dissent or any journalist daring to probe for politically incorrect stories.” Despite an ongoing crackdown in China, "there is a very upbeat atmosphere" in the media here, says Ying. Perhaps it's time for the mirror to be turned inward.