Mainland media's freedom to fabricate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 1999, 12:00am

Mainland newspapers can no longer be dismissed as state-owned propaganda machines.

Many are now subject to the same rules of the jungle as applied in any open society. The use of half-baked truth and even outright fabrication in pursuit of readers is as rampant there as it is in Hong Kong.

Three recent cases in particular catch the eye. A Beijing paper on July 30 reported that the country's fourth-biggest producer of colour TVs, Chuang Wei, was poised to bow out of the industry. The item was widely rehashed by other publications across the country.

Beforehand, the manufacturer had registered a 50 per cent increase in first-half sales and was on target to meet its annual sales goal of three million sets. However, after the report the firm claimed to have lost business worth 100 million yuan (HK$93.3 million) in August alone.

The company, adamant it has no plan to quit the lucrative market, later found out the article was an advertisement paid for by a competitor.

In the second case, a police taskforce was set up in Wuhan to investigate a highway robbery reported in graphic detail by two daily papers on August 22. Reports said four young men boarded a bus, hit the driver and robbed the passengers - one of whom was reportedly stabbed in the arm.

As part of the investigation, the People's Police interviewed all 10 bus drivers plying that route and more than 200 vehicles were intercepted, but no one could shed any light on the incident.

Puzzled officers then questioned the report's author, who confessed that his story was based on information furnished by his cousin over the phone.

The cousin was duly interviewed and insisted he was one of the victims and had lost 40 yuan in the robbery. His story, however, was not corroborated, and he eventually admitted to having made up the entire story. He said he had lost his money to pickpockets and was too embarrassed to tell his family the truth.

The third case had most repercussions of all. On June 14, the Modern Economic News carried an exclusive claiming a player on the national Olympic soccer team, Shu Chang, was about to quit after being left out of the side. The item was juicy and timely, coinciding with an Olympic qualifier in Shanghai.

It was swiftly picked up by a range of other publications, including the Chongqing Morning Post, Metropolitan Express in Hangzhou and Chengdu's Commercial Daily.

Five days later the reporter who wrote the original article, Mao Liping, followed it up with another piece on how she broke the story. It turned out that she had been sitting next to another reporter who had supposedly just finished talking to the leader of the Olympic team, Li Xiaoguang, by mobile phone.

The second reporter was working for the Wushi Daily, which jumped on the bandwagon only after the Modern Economic News had fired the first shot.

The China Football Federation subsequently denied the report and demanded in its own official publication an apology from the papers. It went so far as denying access to the papers to cover future matches.

The Wushi Daily maintained it had done nothing wrong and accused the federation of abusing its powers. The China Journalists' Federation has joined the fray in defence of the trade. Its mouthpiece, China News, urged the football association to refrain from intimidating the media.

The showdown between the media and the football federation escalated late last month when the latter came up with another statement reaffirming its position.

Meanwhile, mainland readers have been given a rare treat as various official publications engage in a war of words.