So Liu does not claim to be objective. She just says that there is no such thing as objective journalism, that it’s all agenda-driven. Fair enough. There are plenty of media critics in the West who feel the same way. Still, some of China’s state media reports seem straight out of the foreign-ministry spokesman’s mouth. For example, as Western governments and media criticized China and Russia for vetoing the UN Security Council resolution against Syria in February, CCTV published a Xinhua piece on its website headlined, “Harsh rhetoric against China’s veto of Syria resolution is misleading.” The story that followed lacked the kind of balance or nuance that Westerners associate with quality journalism.
Liu knows it will not be easy to change long-held perceptions of China in the West. “I don’t think it’s a problem that we are state-owned,” she says. “A lot of our revenue is dependent on advertising, so we don’t have as strong ties to the government as some may think.”
Can CCTV become the next Al Jazeera, a serious new player on the global broadcast field? Some people familiar with the inner workings of CCTV are skeptical. One, Wang Xiqing, worked for CCTV News for nearly eight years before joining the BBC as a producer in the Beijing bureau. “They have the ambition, but I am not sure they have the wisdom,” he says.
The tradition of top-down decision-making is a key flaw, in Xiqing’s view: “Senior party officials call the shots, and sometimes they give you orders that do not fit into the world of journalism,” he says.
At least one foreigner in the CCTV newsroom, Zakka Jacob, has a different take. Jacob was a TV presenter with India’s Headlines Today before moving to Beijing as a CCTV News anchor. He points out one advantage of being a state broadcaster: “The single guiding factor for any TV channel in India was ratings,” he says. “The absence of ratings gives me more elbow room to cover a story for what it is worth.”
Jacob says he has never heard of stories being influenced by orders from the top. He is among nearly 50 non-Chinese journalists who work at CCTV News’s Beijing headquarters, and many more are being recruited. Most are native English speakers, hired as copy editors to smooth the rough edges of the language barrier.
CCTV’s top management and editorial positions, meanwhile, are held by Chinese staff members, and the channel heads or presidents have to follow the diktats of the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Li Changchun. He is fifth in the pecking order of the Communist Party and Forbes magazine ranked him the world’s 32nd most powerful person in 2010, describing him as the man who “controls what 1.3 billion Chinese see, hear and speak.” CCTV’s recently appointed president Hu Zhangfan was editior-in-chief of the party-owned Guanming Daily. Last year, at a conference, he was quoted as saying, “The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece.” A lot of CCTV’s success will depend on how much independence these high-ranking party officials give the journalists.
China’s global media dreams hinge, to some degree, on covering regions and issues that Western broadcasters tend to ignore. “Your link to Asia” is the CCTV News tagline, and officials are betting that viewers from Asia and from developing nations will trust Chinese media more than they do their Western counterparts.
In Africa, for instance, China’s widespread investment in local industries and infrastructure has led to growing economic clout and goodwill. For Africans weary of the West’s bad-news-only coverage (poverty, political turmoil, natural disasters), CCTV offers a welcome alternative. On February 26, Talk Africa devoted its entire half hour to a London conference that brought together representatives from 50 countries to discuss solutions for Somalia. “New hope for Somalia” sounds like an overly optimistic title, but when you consider that the conference received almost no mention in the Western press, you begin to see how Chinese media can appeal to an African audience.