CCTV election coverage opens new front in media war

CCTV's ambitious global expansion takes a giant step this week with live coverage of the US election, but can the service garner credibility?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 3:07pm

The headquarters of CCTV America in Washington sits just 10 blocks from the White House. By the time the identity of the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is known later this week, China will have opened a new front in what it sees as a war to wrest control of the global news agenda from Western-dominated media giants such as CNN and the BBC.

From 8pm US time on Tuesday, 50 million people around the world - just a tiny fraction of them in mainland China - will be able to watch uninterrupted English-language coverage of a US presidential election in real time through a Chinese - albeit state-controlled - prism for the first time.

In one of China Central Television's biggest journalistic undertakings outside its home market, the station will air up to six hours of live coverage of the election results as ordinary Americans find out whether Barack Hussein Obama, 51, or Willard Mitt Romney, 65, is to be the next president of the United States.

More than 100 journalists, producers and technicians will staff the output, which will consist of live debate and discussion from CCTV's studios in the American capital, plus reaction from correspondents based in 10 cities around the world.

(CCTV's promotion video on 2012 US presidential eletion coverage)

This will be no tour of the hot spots favoured by the traditional behemoths of global 24-hour news. As well as Beijing, anchor Mike Walters will link up with correspondents in Havana, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Nairobi, Mexico City, Bogota and London.

The content, say senior executives at CCTV America, will be "free and open" on all the issues raised as the results come in, a not inconsiderable pledge from a broadcaster strictly controlled by the apparatus of a one-party state.

Since 2009, Washington-based Jim Laurie, a veteran television journalist and former University of Hong Kong journalism scholar, has been working as a senior consultant with CCTV in Beijing, Shanghai and Washington. He was closely involved in the setting up of CCTV America, which began broadcasting in February, and in the production of the election night coverage.

The November 7 live special has been masterminded by the director general of CCTV America, Ma Jing, who could not speak to the Sunday Morning Post because she was directing coverage of the carnage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy.

But a press release from CCTV America describes the coverage as "an important first" for the channel "during an important political week for both the United States and China" as it comes ahead of the start of the 18th Communist Party congress on Thursday, which will see a new generation of leaders ascend to power in Beijing.

Laurie says while the coverage - which CCTV is also billing in the run-up as "unique" - will be accented on the economic and world trade implications of the presidential campaign and its results, nothing will be off limits.

"Looking at the content and the line-up that we have, all of the issues that have been brought up in the US election campaign will be addressed in this broadcast," he says. "For example, we are excerpting the two presidential debates in which China was mentioned.

"We will fully explore Romney's statement that from day one of his presidency he would declare China a 'currency manipulator'.

"The Chinese position is this; whereas Fox News and other channels in the States will simply let ride a statement like China is a cheat or currency manipulator, we will broadcast these sound bites, but we will have the riposte to that. That seems to be the guidance that we are getting here in Washington."

The coverage is the latest expression of China's attempt to boost its presence in the global media milieu after President Hu Jintao defined "soft power" development as a key national strategy in his political report to the 17th party congress in 2007. Beijing has spent billions of dollars expanding its global "transmission capacity" in a media marketplace that it perceives as being dominated by Western outlets that "victimise" China, whether by design or habit.

At a time when most Western broadcasting and newspaper companies are retrenching, China's state-run news giants are expanding rapidly in Africa and across the developing world as Chinese investment there explodes. CCTV has opened up a Washington-style operation in Nairobi, Kenya, which broadcasts to the whole of the African continent.

Laurie says next on the Chinese radar is South America, which, thanks to Al Jazeera's refocusing on the Middle East as a result of the Arab spring, is getting under-reported.

A potential dilution of Western media domination came in the shape of the upwardly mobile Arab channel Al Jazeera English in 2006. Indeed, a number of CCTV's recent hires who will take part in the live broadcast are formerly from the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, which China looks to as a model of sorts on how to do rolling 24-hour international news from a non-Western-centric perspective.

Among them is Anand Naidoo, most recently of Al Jazeera and before that CNN. Naidoo will chair panel discussions on politics and international relations with a long list of notable guests, including former US national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski.

"Chinese media outlets are benefiting from the fact that the traditional networks, including the BBC, are being forced for various different reasons to cut back," Laurie says.

"This has made some pretty good journalists available to CCTV. In Havana, we have Michael Voss, who was with the BBC for many years, including five or six years as Havana correspondent. We've got Stephen Gibbs, formerly the BBC's man in Mexico, who's just moved to Rio de Janeiro and who will give the Brazilian perspective on the election."

Of course, two former BBC swallows don't make a summer, as David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the HKU pointed out in a recent article.

"The most salient symbol of China's official failure to grasp the game rules of soft power and credibility is in fact Melissa Chan, the Al Jazeera correspondent China sent packing earlier this year," Bandurski writes on the project's website.

"Al Jazeera was feted by many Chinese officials and scholars as the act to follow, a new international channel that was non-Western but could gain a high degree of credibility for its coverage. By ejecting Chan and forcing the closure of Al Jazeera's Beijing bureau, China has effectively admitted the impoverishment of its hopes of building a credible international news channel.

"Whatever its ambitions may be, it is determined to control the 'voice' of China - as though it were not the product of the full complexity of China's culture and ideas, but rather a megaphone to shout over the heads of international audiences."

On top of this, the fact remains that the vast majority of China's 1.3 billion people will be unable to watch CCTV's groundbreaking coverage of the US polls, even if they wanted to.

Laurie admits that the tone and scope of the CCTV coverage within mainland China's borders will be significantly different from that of the English-language broadcast out of Washington.

Baptist University professor of journalism Huang Yu says: "In contrast to the much freer and more candid discussions to which international viewers are expected to have access, domestic coverage is likely to refrain from some contentious issues in bilateral relations, instead focusing on issues such as US strategy in other parts of the world.

"The unprecedented coverage of the election in the United States aims to demonstrate to the world that CCTV is as good as any other international news organisation. The North American branch has undergone huge expansion and done a lot of preparation since earlier this year."

Qiao Mu , associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who specialises in international communications, says Beijing wants to use the election as a platform to give a Chinese perspective on a global event.

On domestic coverage, Qiao says: "[CCTV] will definitely try to soften US criticism of China while stressing the importance of ties and intertwining of the economies of both nations."

However, making real inroads into what they perceive as a Western-dominated global media landscape could be a long, hard slog, according to both Huang and Qiao.

"The Chinese government has long aspired to have a big say via greater presence of Chinese media internationally to match its economic clout and it has the resources, the technology and a pool of professionals to deliver such ambition," Huang says. "However, the government might not be ready to allow CCTV to run independently in line with the professional international standards of other international news outlets."

The main obstacle CCTV will face is the global perception of it as a government tool, Qiao says, in contrast to most of the private or publicly funded but independently run media outlets.

"The sustainability of its overseas operations could be called into question if, after the leadership transition, the new leadership wants to give top priority to domestic issues, such as addressing a widening wealth gap and raising the standard of living, instead of spending on media expansion overseas. The government might also be forced to scale back or cancel certain expansions because of rising public discontent as a result."

Additional reporting by Raymond Li