A free press is the best route to credibility
State-run broadcasting giant CCTV has hit the headlines with a string of reports that, taken together, reveal some of the contradictions of today's changing media scene. According to the Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily News, a group of 22 mainland academics and lawyers launched a campaign last week under the slogan 'Boycott CCTV, say no to brainwashing'. The signatories have called on people 'not to watch, visit the website, listen to and talk about [CCTV broadcasts]'.
They alleged CCTV has failed to perform its role as a watchdog, citing the case of the melamine-tainted dairy products from the Sanlu company.
Before the milk powder scandal came to light, the broadcaster made a special programme about the production of Sanlu's dairy products, which included a 1,100-step inspection process.
Questions were raised about the credibility of the show's content after the scandal erupted. Some people asked: 'What power has enabled [Sanlu products] to have passed the 1,100 inspection hurdles?' Sanlu management reportedly agreed to spend money on advertising with media organisations on the condition that they ban any follow-up stories on the melamine scandal.
CCTV was the subject of another controversy when it was accused of flouting the basic tenets of journalism after it included what appeared to be an advertisement for Coca-Cola in a segment on a daily news show featuring the country's two most famous sporting icons.
The segment shows NBA star Yao Ming visiting hurdler Liu Xiang at an apartment in Houston, where Liu was undergoing treatment for his ankle injury. Every moment of the footage features at least one bottle of Coke in the shot. Critics questioned whether CCTV served the interests of the people, or their advertising clients. Despite concerns about malpractices within the mainland's media sector, such as chequebook journalism, bogus reports and corruption scandals, propaganda officials are apparently more concerned about the image of the country overseas.
Beijing has reportedly set aside a staggering 45 billion yuan (HK$51 billion) on the overseas expansion of its main media organisations, including CCTV, Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily.
Frustrated with what they maintain are biased and misleading reports in the western media about the nation, Chinese propaganda officials have emphasised that efforts should be strengthened to 'better convey a good image of China to the world'.
To be fair, Beijing has made efforts in recent years to relax reporting restrictions for overseas journalists on the mainland.
Although certain restrictions still existed during the Olympics, there was a degree of improvement in the right of journalists to report freely. Beijing hopes that its latest move will give a positive image of a new China committed to embracing the international community and universal values such as a free press and an accountable, transparent government.
Cases such as the campaign to boycott CCTV, however, are a reminder of the realities on the mainland. Obsessed with the notion of control, mainland officials are adamant that the media should play a vital role in fostering a positive environment, which will be even more important in a year featuring the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.
But the tasks of serving the political imperatives of the powers that be, and the interests of commercial clients, will continue to take their toll on the media's credibility and trustworthiness.
Half truths and lies will remain just that, even when they are made available to a bigger audience. The best way to eliminate bias and enhance the rest of the world's understanding about China is to allow journalists to tell the truth.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.