Bloomberg news service censoring stories about China, journalists claim

Employees claim news service is killing articles amid fear they may anger the Chinese elite

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 6:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 6:29am


The decision came in an early evening call to four journalists huddled in a Hong Kong conference room.

On the line 12 time zones away in New York was their boss, Matthew Winkler, the longtime editor-in-chief of the Bloomberg news service. And they were frustrated by what he was telling them.

The investigative report they had been working on for the better part of a year, which detailed the hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top leaders, would not be published.

In the call late last month, Winkler defended his decision, comparing it to the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany, Bloomberg employees said.

"He said, 'If we run the story, we'll be kicked out of China,'" one of them said.

Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, employees said.

Winkler said on Friday that the articles in question were not killed. "What you have is untrue," he said. "The stories are active and not spiked."

His statement was echoed by the senior editor on the articles, Laurie Hays. Several Bloomberg employees in Hong Kong said Winkler made clear in his call that his concerns were primarily about continuing to have reporters work in China, not protecting company revenues.

Even so, they said, he gave the listeners a clear impression that the company was in retreat on aspects of its coverage of the world's second-largest economy.

Bloomberg infuriated the government last year by publishing a series of articles on the personal wealth of the families of Chinese leaders, including the Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping .

Bloomberg's operations in China have suffered since, as new journalists have been denied residency and sales of its financial terminals to state enterprises have slowed.

Officials have said repeatedly that news coverage on the wealth and personal lives of Chinese leaders crosses a red line.

As the article on Xi's family was published, in June 2012, Chinese officials ordered the Bloomberg news website blocked. Today, it remains inaccessible on Chinese servers. No Bloomberg journalist trying to enter China on a new long-term assignment has received a residency visa.

In recent years, some editors at Bloomberg have encouraged reporters to tackle ambitious investigative reports, in order to broaden the company beyond its foundation as a speed-driven financial news service.

Michael Forsythe and Shai Oster were two of the main writers on one of the most notable series last year, on family wealth among China's elite.

A recent article by the pair focused on a Chinese billionaire entrepreneur who had financial ties to relatives of current and former members of the Standing Committee of the ruling Politburo, said employees who had read it.

Until late October, no editor had raised any serious objections to the story, which had gone through extensive editing and fact-checking, the employees said. The final editing stage began in September.

Two senior editors in New York, Hays and Jonathan Kaufman, shepherded the story and were enthusiastic about it, employees said. But the following month, the pair told editors in Hong Kong the story would not be published, employees said.

The next day, Forsythe and Oster took part in a conference call with New York.

The editors there said that the article had no "smoking gun", that billionaires around the world had close ties to governments, and that the article did not provide enough new information beyond what Bloomberg had reported in its series last year, employees said.

"They were adamant that the reasons for killing the story were editorial reasons, not political reasons," an employee added. Winkler, the top editor, then spoke to the four reporters and editors in Hong Kong on a final conference call, which was held on the night of October 29.

The strongest reason he presented was the possibility of Bloomberg being evicted from China, employees said.

He said he wanted to formulate a strategy for staying in China for as long as possible.