My Take

A news junkie can't get his fix in China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 3:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 3:45am

A pan-democrat reader once taunted me: "If you love China so much, why don't you go live on the mainland?"

As much as I love the motherland, I can't live without the American and British news media, and you only have limited access to them across the border. You learn to discount their US-centric bias, which is a minor irritant. I know this is an unpatriotic thing to say. But while I could conceivably do without HBO on pay TV, as a news junkie, I just can't function without The New York Times, Bloomberg, BBC, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal (sans its right-wing editorials). They are regularly blocked wholesale for long periods or censored on individual stories.

Beijing has apparently declared war on these news groups. The visa applications of more than 20 journalists from The New York Times and Bloomberg, according to the Times' columnist Thomas Friedman, have been held up, apparently in retaliation for their digging into the massive wealth allegedly amassed by the close relatives and associates of some of the nation's top leaders. Many experts believe Beijing was angered because that crossed a red line.

Well, I am no sinologist but those stories in the past two years exposing the dodgy official wealth are among the best reporting I have seen.

But why weren't those stories exposed by Hong Kong and Taiwanese journalists and their organisations when they are closer to the source without the pressure of official censorship to which their mainland counterparts are subject.

At this point, my pan-democrat critics will scream, "self-censorship". I am sure there is an element of that.

But we are talking about dozens of news organisations here. Self-censorship for all of them? That would be more effective than state censorship. I think a more insidious reason has to do with the relative low pay and social prestige of local reporters, at least relative to the foreign media. This means it's hard to retain those who have shown real talent, drive and courage. When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Those who prove to be no monkeys but lions quickly jump ships and join the more prestigious - and far-better paid - foreign news groups.

But you can argue that low pay is a form of self-censorship.