Chinese state TV broke Ofcom rules with biased Hong Kong coverage

CGTN could face fine in UK for failing to represent anti-Beijing viewpoints during protests

China’s state television channel repeatedly breached British broadcasting rules with biased coverage of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, according to a decision by the media regulator that could set up a diplomatic clash between the two countries.

Ofcom said it was minded to formally sanction CGTN, the English-language rolling news channel owned by the Chinese government, for a “serious failure of compliance” after it failed to represent anti-Beijing viewpoints as protests raged across Hong Kong in late 2019.

The watchdog concluded the channel – which has been dubbed a propaganda outfit – often focused on violence by protesters against police officers, while downplaying attacks by the authorities on the public.

Its output also parroted the views of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government without giving sufficient airtime to people with alternative views, while focusing on economic disruption to businesses rather than the reason they were being disrupted.

In its defence, CGTN argued it was “particularly challenging” for the channel to air pro-democracy views on the Hong Kong protests because people demonstrating against the actions of the Chinese state were reluctant to talk on camera to the Chinese state broadcaster.

However, as part of its efforts to avoid sanctions – which could include a substantial fine – CGTN found itself arguing that the protests by millions of Hong Kong residents were not entirely without purpose.

The channel told Ofcom that its mention in one report of “social problems in Hong Kong, including high rent and housing prices”, was a comment that “clearly indicated that the protesters have legitimate concerns”. CGTN also said it had made sure to acknowledge “that there has been violence used by the Hong Kong police against protesters”.

It remains to be seen how China will respond to the sanctions. In March, Beijing revoked the visas of many American journalists after Donald Trump restricted the activities of CGTN and other Chinese outlets in the US.

CGTN, which holds a UK broadcasting licence and has a very small audience, is part of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive push into English-language media, following other government-backed news services such as Russia’s RT channel. The sanction also raises ethical questions for the dozens of British journalists who have been hired over the last year to work at CGTN’s new base in London.

In an attempt to avoid breaches of British broadcasting rules it had hired Nick Pollard, a former Ofcom board member, as an adviser. However, he resigned last year in the middle of the Hong Kong protests. CGTN is still facing separate ongoing investigations by Ofcom into claims it broadcast forced on-air confessions by Chinese prisoners, as well as wider questions about its ownership.

CGTN said viewers understood it was representing a different view and the channel was simply serving its purpose “to inform our international audiences of the Chinese perspective, which is often alternative to the mainstream western media”.

The channel said one of its Hong-Kong-based correspondents had tried to approach or contact more than 50 young protesters or opposition figures while reporting on the demonstrations over the past few months. However, it said “most of them have rejected such approaches as they are hostile to the media from mainland China and to Mandarin-speaking reporters”.

However, Ofcom concluded that simply because pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were reluctant to appear on the channel, it did not mean CGTN should not seek to represent their views in order to meet the standards of due impartiality.

Contributor

Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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