The killing of a South Korean coast guard officer by a Chinese fisherman should have been tailor-made for China’s CCTV News as it embarks on an ambitious plan to become a global network with assertive international coverage. Instead, according to CCTV employees, the story languished for hours as editors awaited political guidance from above, while would-be competitors such as Qatar’s al-Jazeera reported extensively on the December attack.
In charting its growth, CCTV is closely studying other models, especially al-Jazeera, which rolled out a global English language 24-hour news network five years ago and quickly made a name for itself.
Qatar’s government bankrolled the station as part of its ambitions to parley its massive energy wealth into international influence, much as China is seeking global media stature behooving its booming economy, which now ranks as the second-largest in the world, behind the US.
However, while al-Jazeera’s access and deep knowledge of the Middle East — and a hands-off approach by its masters — have been its greatest assets, state-run CCTV’s emphatic allegiance to the authoritarian state and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seem to be its biggest liability.
This greatly challenges CCTV’s credibility and agenda to influence and channel global public opinion, said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project Web site at the University of Hong Kong.
“The role of the media as defined by the party is to serve the party’s interests,” Bandurski said.
A longtime CCTV program producer, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, said virtually everything in the news report is decided based on political considerations. The issues are discussed at meetings, but the decision always lies with the top bosses, while the journalists have no say in the outcome, she said.
Still, CCTV is gearing up to super-size its global footprint this year in pursuit of swaying a foreign audience to China’s views and confronting what Beijing considers the Western media’s innate anti-China bias.
The network is opening studios in Washington and Nairobi, Kenya, each employing as many as 200 staff members. Worldwide, it will increase numbers of foreign correspondents from 66 to 80 by the end of this year, with more to come, according to people familiar with the plans.
Yin Fan, spokeswoman for CCTV’s international department, said the station was withholding comment until a formal launch of the expanded service.
Many of the reporters, cameramen and technical staff are being lured away from other news organizations with the offer of high salaries and attractive perks.
At a time when budgets are tightening in newsrooms, Beijing appears willing to pour billions of dollars into expanding its international media footprint. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper has reported the total budget to be as high as 45 billion yuan (US$7.1 billion), although no official announcement has been made.
Many of the biggest stories emerging from China last year are off-limits, including arrests of lawyers and dissidents. Reports on the much-criticized response to a deadly high-speed rail crash hewed to the official line, while unflattering stories such as December’s stabbing in the Yellow Sea that sparked anti-Chinese protests in Seoul can be downplayed or ignored entirely.