China and the media

2008-04-01 00:00

The media have recently told us and shown us a great deal about the protesters in Tibet, western China and Nepal, who are opposed to the continuing Chinese presence in Tibet. China is in an acutely embarrassing position. It has now become a great world power and hopes by its handling of the Beijing Olympics to present to the world a mature, smiling face. At the same time, however, it is determined to make no political or territorial concessions of any kind, and it is prepared to maintain the status quo through the use of its sheer demographic power. These two aims are scarcely compatible, and the world’s media have taken a certain legitimate pleasure in highlighting this fact.

It has to be said that China’s presence in Tibet is not quite as outrageous as the media have sometimes implied. Over many centuries Tibet has often been under Chinese rule, and it is perhaps because of this, as well as for sensible pragmatic reasons, that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, asks not for total independence but for autonomy within the broader Chinese union. This is far from what Tibetans have now. China’s hegemony seems to have been exercised in a deliberately cruel way: its policy of shipping into Tibet both Chinese officials and many thousands of Han Chinese citizens seems designed to wipe out the very concept of a Tibetan community. The Dalai Lama has called this cultural genocide. It is a fine thing that the media have been able to reinforce the stand taken by the protesters at the very moment when China is vulnerable.

All true democrats respect and support the freedom of the media. And the more the media can do, the more thoroughly they act as a bulwark for open democratic values. Television is of course particularly powerful. When the whole world can see hundreds of police or troops moving in to crush the protests of robed unarmed Buddhist monks, whether in Myanmar (Burma) or in Lhasa, Tibet, there is no point in the authorities trying to pretend that the story has been fabricated or exaggerated. In some of the protests the Tibetans became aggressive. Everything needs to be recorded; it is all part of the story.

The freedom of the media is crucial then. Some may read what I have said, and say, “Thank God for the U.S. and the West. It’s the Western media that probe these barbaric Asian regimes.” But stop: things are not so simple. The recent record of the West in relation to both barbarity and the actions of the media is a distinctly patchy one.

Take the invasion of Iraq, undertaken by the U.S. and Britain. The media were certainly allowed to be critical of the whole exercise in a way that would not have been permitted in China or some other repressive countries. But, for all their freedom or apparent freedom, the media failed to get at the truth of what was going on: they were allowed to query the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but they weren’t given access to the crucial documents which showed that such weapons were figments of politicians’ imaginations. Also the fact that the whole war was based, not on a desire to “liberate” the people of Iraq, but on a determination to secure the supply of oil was never made much of by the media. Then, though restrained criticism was tolerated, many journalists actually allowed themselves to become “embedded” within the attacking and occupying armies. This meant of course that, though we saw on TV some of the casualties of war, the operation was viewed largely through the military field glasses of the “coalition”. An ordinary citizen of Iraq is unlikely to have regarded all this as an illustration of the freedom of the media.

Consider too the American prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. Some people have been held there without being brought to trial, and deprived of most human rights, for five years. The media have been banished from that place as firmly as from any Chinese prison. No, that is perhaps not wholly true. One has seen on TV an occasional glimpse of prisoners in orange uniforms walking up and down within their metal cage, but the aim of such shots may well be to give viewers the false sense that they are seeing something significant. No representative of the media has penetrated Guantanamo.

And then barbarity. The illegal and (in most people’s view) unjustified invasion of Iraq has produced far more deaths than many Tiananmen Square massacres — not that one wishes in any way to condone Tiananmen Square. Let us not forget all this when we praise the West as a place of freedom and humanity.

As for the Western media: quite apart from the charges of profit-induced laxness contained in Nick Davies’s striking new book Flat Earth News, they are simply far better at reporting and analysing the crimes of others than their own.

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