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CCTV report on Starbucks triggered storm of internal dissent

Editorial staff felt segment attacking coffee chain for its pricing was silly but criticisms could not be expressed openly, sources say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 7:26am

A CCTV investigative report accusing Starbucks of overcharging mainland customers for coffee triggered enormous disquiet among journalists at the network and even some soul-searching after it aired.

The October segment - the brainchild of a network executive who noticed Starbucks coffee cost more on the mainland than in Britain - was mocked by internet users and criticised by economic experts.

But the reaction inside CCTV, which has targeted numerous foreign firms this year, was just as harsh, said a person with direct knowledge of how the report came together, and a former employee who left weeks ago.

However, those misgivings were all expressed in private or on a mobile phone chat application, illustrating how journalists are still reluctant to challenge editors in a system beholden to the Communist Party.

"I couldn't find you a single person at CCTV who genuinely agreed with that report. Everybody thought it was very silly," said the person with direct knowledge of the segment. "Of course, during meetings, the higher-ups all said it was right to do the report and no one disagreed." The person didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

CCTV did not respond to requests for comment.

The network has taken many foreign firms to task this year over their pricing, poor quality and shoddy customer service, including Apple and Samsung Electronics. In some cases, the reports have won plaudits from viewers and forced companies to change their practices. For example, Apple apologised to mainland consumers for poor communication over its warranty policy and changed some of the terms.

The two sources said they were not aware of any government directive to CCTV to target foreign firms. At the same time, CCTV editors were praising reports focused on the rights of consumers, they said. Government bodies and state-owned firms were too sensitive to investigate, putting foreign companies in the firing line for hard-hitting corporate stories, experts said.

Indeed, notes summarising an editorial meeting before the Starbucks report aired shows how much foreign firms are in the cross-hairs. "It's not just coffee. At the same time, it's lots of luxury goods, like cars, international brands, they've all come to China to dig for gold," said the notes, taken by an employee at the meeting. "For most of them, their prices in China are the highest in the world."

Starbucks has said it understood the concerns raised in the report, but its prices were based on local market costs, including infrastructure, labour, ingredients and rent, which differed by market.

The person with direct knowledge of the Starbucks report said many journalists thought it was a bad idea to begin with. "There wasn't a single person before the broadcast who was brave enough to stand up and say this report is problematic and we can't do it like this," the person said.

After it was broadcast, journalists lambasted the report within the corridors of CCTV's headquarters in Beijing or in groups on the popular WeChat app run by Tencent, the internet company, said the two sources.

After the criticism of the report, it was raised quietly as a cautionary tale in low-level editorial meetings, said the ex-CCTV employee, who also declined to be identified.

Still, senior editors see foreign firms as key targets for investigative reports. "It was not a cohesive theme, but was suggested at general meetings - the idea that we have to be vigilant against these foreign companies that are short-changing Chinese people."