Tangled truths

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am


An erroneous report on Jiang Zemin's death cost Leung Ka-wing his job as ATV's senior vice-president for news and public affairs. Misreporting the life and death of such an important public figure is a major blunder in journalism; from that viewpoint, Leung quit over what was undeniably a big scandal.

But I am reminded of previous incidents involving past leaders. On reflection, this simple conclusion is not good enough.

A number of former state leaders have died during my lifetime. With the exception of Hua Guofeng - whose short-lived tenure at the top occurred three decades ago, and whose death in 2008 was a comparatively low-key affair - the deaths were treated as huge national events, and some indeed had grave political consequences. The death of Mao Zedong unleashed a power struggle, for example, and that of Hu Yaobang ignited a democratic movement.

For these reasons, every time a national leader dies, mainland media organisations find themselves in a strange place: the tension is sky-high yet there's little work to do. Their daily routine is turned upside down: entertainment news is generally cut, business and financial news is cut down, and the political news pages are 'taken over' by Xinhua, so that all reports are standardised. Yet, nerves in the newsroom are on a knife's edge, because editors and reporters need to make sure that the official Xinhua or CCTV report is reproduced without error - a single typo, or the wrong format used, would result in terrible punishment.

At the time Deng Xiaoping died, I was an editor of a Chengdu daily. Needless to say, everybody knew that only the Xinhua copy - in its entirety and without editing - could be used. But what about the page layout? Should the headline be vertical or horizontal? Which font and what font size to use? And what about the size and position of the photograph?

We were a young commercial paper, and no one in the newsroom had any idea what to do, so we resolved to wait to follow the example of the People's Daily. Then, a deputy chief editor had a brainwave; the editor rushed to a competitor's printing presses and, with threats and pleas, managed to get hold of a bromide of the People's Daily layout. Because of this, we managed to publish the news ahead of other papers. We were so proud of our wise deputy editor.

Later, I looked at the Guangzhou papers and was shocked to discover that they had not only used their own layouts, but even the text from their reports did not entirely copy Xinhua's. One even had the headline: 'The respected Deng is gone forever'. It turned out that our smug self-satisfaction at our 'creative' solution was empty; the wisdom that we were so proud of was in fact servility.

China has many of these 'wise' people. They have become adept at living under authoritarian rule, cleverly negotiating the political currents. They dig for scraps of news of 'palace intrigues', try to analyse behind-the-scenes politicking, and are familiar with the ins and outs of the power struggles of the day. They delight in speculating about what's really going on. But an authoritarian system is by nature secretive, and subject to sudden events. So any attempt at speculation is a stab at half-truths. How can analysis based on half-truths be accurate? So, in the end, mainland media become no better than story-tellers who roam the streets to ply their trade. They make no judgment of the government's abuse of power, and instead become apathetic, submissive and even admiring of authority.

Hong Kong media is a lot freer, but some outdated attitudes remain, and its newspapers and magazines are full of reports along the lines of 'the secrets of Zhongnanhai'. It's true that among the bigger dailies and major broadcasters, you'll find little of the so-called news peddled by the trashy tabloids; yet, even these big media players like to delve into the 'real story' of Beijing's 'palace intrigues', all in the name of journalism. Their enthusiasm for these non-transparent power struggles is over the top.

If Hong Kong journalism is to be an integral part of the struggle for media freedom in China, and not just a casual observer, it should understand that no matter how many 'inside stories' it gets, unless its reports can stand up to the rigours of modern journalism in observation and analysis, they will not support a push for change in China. Conversely, if we keep a cold, detached eye on these events, perhaps even treat these goings-on with some disdain, we may hope to bring about some change.

In a democratic society, the health of a former leader would not be a secret, and the media would not need to expend effort on guessing the truth, because his death would not trigger a change in the power structure. Under authoritarian rule, we can indeed make some educated guesses about the power struggles in the wake of a death. But, this kind of speculation not only wastes a society's resources, it will not, in the end, benefit society. We should criticise and denounce such reporting to dissuade media professionals from falling into the trap.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese