Russian, Chinese ‘news’ coming to a TV near you
Earlier this month, the British Broadcasting Corporation, which sees itself as still the best broadcaster in the world, gave a well-bred expression of fear. Peter Horrocks, who has just stepped down as head of the BBC World Service, said “we are being financially outgunned by Russia and the Chinese (broadcasters) … the role we need to play is an even handed one. We shouldn’t be pro one side or the other, we need to provide something people can trust.”
Horrocks was saying that people could trust the BBC; they couldn’t trust the Russians and the Chinese; but that the latter were now real competition.
The Russian broadcaster, Russian Today (RT) found that offensive. In a bad tempered exchange with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, RT’s presenter Anissa Naouai (who is American) said that her channel’s job was “closing the holes” in mainstream Western channels’ coverage — holes of misrepresentation, unchecked assertion and bias. She admitted – indeed proclaimed – that the Kremlin funded the channel: but it’s reason for doing so is that President Vladimir Putin “wants … Russia to be respected, mutually respected on an equal playing base, and he wants dialogue to prevail.”
RT has denied that it gets more funding than the BBC, and in a feisty reply to the charge, the broadcaster said that money did not account for its growing popularity; that is “happening because audiences around the world, including in the UK, have become inundated with the same talking points from the mainstream media and are looking for something fresh.”
But money isn’t the point. The Russian and Chinese English-language channels – RT and CCTV News – are provided by state broadcasters of the world’s two leading authoritarian states. The news and analyses they give to their own populations cannot do other than conform closely to the policies and priorities of the rulers of these states.
The explicit rationale for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these channels is the proclaimed belief that the West is besieging the defenseless people of Russia and China with mendacious words and images. An article in the Chinese journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) in 2009, charged that “a small number of Western media have managed to dominate the international news and information order, masking the truth, disseminating prejudices, creating through human effort one after another ‘iron curtain’ and ‘vast divide,’ seriously impeding interaction, conversation and mutual understanding between peoples … (this) is now impelling a number of victimized nations to strengthen their capacity for projecting information internationally. This has become a matter of necessity.”
The Chinese and Russians have the more confidence that they can make a change in this non-level broadcasting playing field, because they have succeeded so well with their own populations. Xi Jinping has ordered much tighter constraints on his media (he does regard it as “his”) – and the results of a poll in China this month rated his performance a nine out of 10.
A Russian poll had similarly favorable results for that nation’s leader. Despite the condemnation of the world for its annexation of Crimea and the sponsorship of a bloody rebellion in eastern Ukraine, as well as the sanctions and plunging currency that followed, the latest poll puts Putin’s popularity at 81 percent. The former Russian prime minister, now in opposition to Putin, Mikhail Kasyanov said that state propaganda “is absolutely successful. People are fooled by state propaganda. All media are under full control of Mr. Putin. And this enhances adoration of him and his team.”
The technique has also worked well this past year beyond China and Russia. In Egypt, the new president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, imperiously demanded media loyalty – and got it almost unanimously from newspaper and TV editors, though with some dissent from their reporters. He’s still very popular: a poll four months ago showed him on 82 percent.
India is not an authoritarian state: but its media, now increasingly drawn under the aegis of big corporations who wish good relations with the state, swung mainly behind Narendra Modi – and he won the parliamentary elections hands down. Qatar’s Al Jazeera, a big channel for a tiny state, is a kind of half-way house: it’s increasingly sensitive to its paymaster’s concerns, but its English language service is enquiring, comprehensive and though anti-Western, it’s anti-Western lite.
Western media – that media which call themselves free – aren’t really ‘free’ in an absolute sense. They’re constrained by law, by taste, by proprietors’ interests, by audiences’ prejudices to which they will at times pander. But they’re free from state command: they have an ethic, usually quite strong, of holding power to account; they make mistakes but rarely knowingly lie.
These newcomers on the global news scene are different in principle. They proclaim that they wish to redress the balance, correct the mistakes, rebut the slanders. In fact they are an extension of their country’s power, drawing not on a tradition of independent, neutral and fact-based journalism, but basing themselves on deliberate bias and distortion. The BBC’s Horrocks is right: for journalism to serve free societies – and the world audience – it “needs to provide something people can trust” What good is it otherwise?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article contained several errors. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Russia Today anchor Anissa Naouai states that RT never ran a photo that had been manipulated to show a Ukrainian fighter shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. This article also mistakenly tied the resignation of RT correspondent Liz Wahl to that mistaken claim. Wahl resigned in April. MH17 was shot down in July. Naouai’s name was also misspelled.
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the screen of a television camera during his visit to the new studio complex of television channel ‘Russia Today’ in Moscow, June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool