Media love a good scandal, as long as it's not in their own backyard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am

It may be called Southern Weekly and be published in southern Guangzhou, but in mainland media circles the newspaper has earned the nickname Northern Weekly.

One of the most outspoken newspapers on the mainland, it is respected for being bold enough to expose sensitive issues such as land disputes and corruption.

But the issues it uncovers are usually far from home; the newspaper steers clear of touchy topics on its home turf. Southern Weekly isn't the only mainland newspaper adhering to this cross-border strategy to avoid angering local officials - who own and control the provincial publications - and to help the editors keep their jobs.

The upshot is that local media, which should know the ground best and have the deepest resources, sideline themselves in favour of competitors from elsewhere. The revelation of melamine-tainted milk powder in northern Hebei province in 2008, for instance, first appeared in a Shanghai newspaper; in Shanxi province this past March the vaccine that killed at least four children and left many more disabled wouldn't have been publicised if a Beijing-based newspaper hadn't written about it. That followed another incident in the province in 2007 where hundreds of enslaved workers in brick factories were rescued after television journalists from neighbouring Henan province aired the story.

'It's hard to put a specific time frame on' this phenomenon known as yidi jiandu or cross-regional reporting, 'but it started at least as early as the mid-90s,' said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's journalism school.

The groundwork was laid in 1987 when Zhao Ziyang, then the top Communist Party official, mentioned in a report to the party's congress a practice called yulun jiandu, which means empowering the media to monitor society. Previously, the media's role on the mainland was mostly to espouse party propaganda.

That, however, created a conundrum. Journalists began seeking to be more professional and going after big public-interest stories. That suited their newspapers, which at the same time were becoming more commercially oriented and trying to attract more readers. Yet local government officials held the power to dictate what topics were off limits in their respective territories. The solution was to focus on reporting sensitive topics that readers wanted to read about, but that lay outside their own province.

Essentially, 'by the end of the 1990s the media had two bosses' - the party and the readers, Bandurski said.

Editors of Southern Weekly declined to comment on the newspaper's strategy.

Often reporters practise self-censorship,' said Liu Wanyong, an editor at the Beijing-based China Youth Daily, who in 2005 broke the news of a corruption scandal involving a senior official in northern Liaoning province. 'For reporters, it is common knowledge that bad news about your own province is highly unlikely to be revealed as the local government will impose pressure on the paper,' he added.

A local whistle-blower in Liaoning approached several local journalists with information about the corruption scandal. Many said they would like to pursue the topic but couldn't. Finally, the whistle-blower turned to Liu and his Beijing-based publication, which published the news.

The propaganda ministry gives instructions regarding stories that should not be 'stir-fried', or speculated about, though there is no official definition of what speculation is. 'Any mention of that subject is speculation,' another editor serving a major paper in Beijing said on condition of anonymity: 'We have a weekly conference on Monday to discuss stories and on that a very detailed list of taboo subjects is conveyed to the reporters.

'The milk-powder scandal, the killer driver who claimed 'My father is Li Gang'-it will be a long list if we name everything,' he said. 'The latest on my mind is the Weibo campaign to fight kidnappers during the Lunar New Year.'

It's no wonder local journalists and editors are cautious. Consider what happened when Southern Metropolis Daily ran an article about Sun Zhigang in 2003. Sun, a young migrant worker in Guangzhou - where the paper is based - died three days after the local police detained him simply because he didn't bring his ID card with him. Like the Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily belongs to the Nanfang Newspaper Group, which is the Communist Party's mouthpiece in Guangdong province.

The article sparked angry discussions on the internet and led to the cancellation of the arbitrary detentions that the mainland police had used for two decades to deal with paperless migrant workers.

A few months later, three senior employees of Southern Metropolis Daily were arrested, including the newspaper's editor-in-chief, deputy editor and general manager, on bribery charges that were unconnected to the Sun article. One of the three was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment and another got 11 years.

The third person, the editor-in-chief, wasn't charged but was fired and kicked out of the Communist Party. The government never linked the arrests to the Sun article, but many academics believe the crackdown was punishment for publishing the migrant worker article. (The jailed employees were released early in 2007 and 2008 respectively.)

Reports of nefarious goings-on in another province make good reading, and local leaders like to think it makes their own province look better. The cross-border reporting tactics, though, have threatened to sour relations between provinces. To ease tension, several times over the past decade Beijing has ordered all provincial newspapers to halt reporting outside their home territories.

But bans are hard to keep in place these days because of the intense competition between dailies for readers. 'There are two kinds of papers in China,' said Ding Dong, a former scholar at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanxi province. 'One is the governmental paper, like every province's official daily,' he said, and the other kind is a 'sub-paper' of the official mouthpieces 'but with a much stronger market orientation.' For the latter - which often support their mother papers financially - to attract advertising, they need to increase circulation and that means luring readers with real news, not propaganda.

Liu, the Beijing-based editor, describes the relationship between the censors and media on the mainland as like that of a father and son. 'If the child is naughty and commits a mistake, his parent may simply ignore him; but if he sets the house on fire he will be in trouble,' he said.

In the future, some media analysts predict the leash will become even longer and the provincial dailies will be able to report sensitive issues on their own turf without fear of reprisal.

'The media today are fighting for more freedom,' said Zhan Jiang, a professor and media expert at the University of Foreign Studies in Beijing. He noted that while 30 years of economic overhauls have resulted in looser restrictions on mainland media, they were yet to enjoy legal protection. 'In the short run, the government will still be in a controlling position,' he added. 'But in the long term the media' will be freer.