BBC World and Phoenix Television Today
The questions this book seeks to address could not be more timely. As China seeks to know more about the world, where she is an increasingly significant economic and cultural player, and the world seeks to know more about China, rival approaches to journalism, media, and the production and distribution of news and information are becoming critical areas for study. As well as examining rival political histories and systems, this inevitably necessitates tackling the deeper cultural questions that impact on the general expectations of journalism, and therefore of its actual practice too. It follows that although the most basic practice of journalists and their newsroom procedures might appear similar or even identical, when studied in their own particular context, the differences become far more obvious.
This study demonstrates that although technological changes, ‘always-on’ delivery systems, globally dispersed audiences and consequent deadlines lead to apparent similarities in journalistic practice and procedure, these factors actually mask significant long-term differences. Chinese journalists see themselves primarily as ‘information providers’, with all context and commentary provided by more senior staff, while BBC journalists see themselves less as information providers, and more as ‘storytellers’ responsible for their own context and commentary. British journalists are found to be nearly always suspicious, or at least questioning, of ‘official’ sources of information and comment, whereas their Chinese counterparts are much less so. This less questioning approach is explained by reference to Confucian attitudes to hierarchy and mutual respect, as well as to more recent political history, which on occasion still features direct state control of editorial content and commentary.
It has always seemed to me that journalism has two essential parts: the ‘finding out’ and the ‘telling’. My limited experience of Chinese journalists and media organisations has found them to be increasingly savvy about the ‘telling’, but still very uncertain about the ‘finding out’. The idea that it is acceptable for journalists to be questioning and even sceptical of the authorities may not only conflict with their deep-seated notions of hierarchy and respect, but also with the political authorities who have the power to protect themselves from anything inconvenient or embarrassing. What is clear is that this attitude marks a fundamental difference between much journalism in China and journalism here in Britain and the West.
The author is cannot be certain that in the long term very much will change on these broader fronts, but I am not entirely convinced that she is right, and for two reasons. The first is that, as China embraces a market-based economy, the requirement for verifiably accurate information becomes absolutely critical, particularly with regard to company and sectoral output and performance. Without that the system cannot function, and without journalists and media organisations who are both trustworthy and have the ability to provide it, the economy may eventually falter. The second reason concerns the character of Chinese journalists themselves. When asked as part of this study to talk about their personal aspirations, top of the list were ‘heroism in investigation’ and ‘curiosity in observation’, both of which would be very worthy additions to any book of journalistic ethics.
This study could therefore not be more timely.