News organizations across the world are shedding staff as they struggle to cope with declining sales and a metastasizing global financial crisis. But not so in China, where the government has reportedly planned a US$6.6 billion expansion of its state-run media.
Much of the money will go toward web-based services, expanded foreign bureaus, new Russian- and Arabic-language TV channels and, most interestingly, a 24-hour English-language news channel in the image of Al-Jazeera.
On some level it’s a savvy move in the conflict of ideas between China and the West. By aggressively hitting the airwaves while Western media is reeling, Beijing has an opportunity to introduce more people to the story the state tells about itself.
This is part of a more general shift in the way this country wants to engage with the world. It used to be that China aspired to be merely in line with international standards. Now it wants to play a role in creating them, and a powerful media is a means to that end.
China’s influence is undoubtedly growing and will continue to do so. But the country’s ability to truly shape global opinion remains tied to whether it is perceived credible and trustworthy.
The domestic media, by refusing to report news or even financial information that runs counter to the Communist Party line, has revealed itself to be first and foremost an agent of the state, more concerned with satisfying censors than consumers. In doing so, it has relinquished any credibility it might have won in a skeptical world.
Putting out a larger number of foreign-language CCTV broadcasts might give more people the opportunity to hear China’s perspective, but it’s unlikely to convert them to that perspective.
Until the prime directive for China’s media shifts from protecting the interests of the government to informing consumers, it will continue to fail to produce a media product that that truly compels and persuades.
Until then, it’s a pipe dream to think that Xinhua could emerge as a true competitor to the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg, or that these new 24-hour news channels could develop into East Asia’s Al-Jazeera. Those organizations will speak truth to power. China’s media has proven time and again that it won’t.