Great Wall of Media

When the Indian media interacts with the Western press, there isn’t much talk about journalism per se. It’s about the kind of stories being pursued, anecdotes and, increasingly, about the parlous state of Western print journalism.

When the Indian media interacts with the Chinese press, it’s an exploration of life between the inhabitants of two different worlds.

The first round of an India-China media dialogue sponsored by the two foreign ministries was held this week in New Delhi. Beijing and New Delhi have both gotten into this business — there are other unofficial media dialogues as well — because both media are becoming increasingly belligerent in their coverage of each other.

I’ve noticed a widespread view among Chinese officials that government-to-government relations are fine; the real problem is the jingoism of the Indian media, especially the television stations.

One of the issues I and others raised was the nature of the media in China and how different it was from the Indian variety. The Chinese participants at the roundtable admitted they were all state-owned, many were state-financed or their seed capital had come from the government, and that many senior journalists were members of the Chinese communist party.

India, with some 90,000 newspapers and magazines, has no state-owned newspapers and only one state-owned TV news channel – out of about 400.

I argued that the structure of Chinese media meant it was often difficult for Indian media to determine whether, say, the nationalistic Global Times was speaking for itself, for the government or just reproducing some scholar’s point of view. The same was doubly true for state-owned television.

A number of Chinese argued that the iron hand of government censorship was rusting away. They made these points:

One, the print and to a lesser extent the electronic media was driven by market forces. Beijing no longer provided direct funds.

Two, Beijing did offer “guidelines” on news coverage to the Chinese media. But these were often ignored, especially if the demands of the market were in play. The government, in any case, did little more than wag a finger when they broke the guidelines.

Three, as one Chinese scholar noted, Beijing’s concerns were really about domestic issues, not foreign policy. India was not the type of topic they would get guidelines about.

Four, broadly the trend was a loosening of government controls in China over the media. The rise of social media, entry of foreign players, and so on was leading Beijing to slacken off on its controls. It wasn’t freedom, but there was a bit of Middle Kingdom spring in the air.

The Indians were skeptical that a newspaper wholly owned by a government could really have that much leeway. In any case, editors were chosen by the Beijing authorities so the control was in the form of choosing seniors who could be expected to hew to the party line.

Another key and palpable difference was attitudes towards government. On hearing from Indian journalists that they didn’t necessarily trust their Ministry of External Affairs on foreign policy, an astounded Chinese TV correspondent said, “But we completely trust our government on foreign policy. How can you not do so?”

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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