Huge cash injection for China state media

Large Western media organisations could do nothing but shake their heads this week as reports came out of China that $US7 billion dollars was to flow into state media. While newspapers, television, radio, and even internet properties in the Western world were being gutted by their parent organisations, China spoke of expanding its reach in an aggressive global drive to improve “brand China”.

Speakers: Cam MacMurchy, media consultant to CCTV and other China media organisations; John Marcom, former vice-president of Yahoo! and former president of Time Inc International; Bruce Dover, head of ABC’s Australia Network and former News Limited executive

CONNORS: The three huge China state media arms of CCTV, Xinhua newsagency and People’s Daily are reportedly busy with consultants conducting brainstorming sessions and drafting proposals to share the wealth. The traditionally state Chinese state media seems set for an expensive makeover, one which China media consultant, Cam MacMurchy has been recently involved with.

MACMURCHY: Yes it’s a lot of money and I think during the Tibetan protest or the torch relay protest that happened last year it really woke China up, the leadership in China to the fact that their story wasn’t being told in the west, and those issues are complex. And I think China wants to do a better job of trying to get their side of the story out.

CONNORS: Sitting on the other side of the media world John Marcom has seen big budgets before. As a former vice president of Yahoo! and an international president of an arm of the world’s largest media company, Time Warner, John Marcom has built huge international media networks.

MARCOM: If the ambition is to sort of be a player it’s going to take living by the same standards that competitors from all over the world live by.

CONNORS: He says big bucks don’t necessarily mean big rewards.

MARCOM: Money doesn’t buy necessarily the know-how or the talent to do stuff that will hold people’s attention and engage consumers. Money doesn’t really buy if we’re talking about news, money doesn’t buy credibility, which is probably the biggest thing that consumers of news judge news on, and they know what balance is and they know what fairness is. And even in China despite I think attempts to block some content, people get a lot of content from around the world from a lot of different sources. Sure I think you can buy a lot of studios and a lot of game shows and a lot of promotion, but if you can’t come up with ideas and creative approaches that engage people you won’t be very successful.

CONNORS: The state-run media has to compete?

MARCOM: Well I think state-run media if they’re going to be viable institutions in the future they realise that audience attention is going all sorts of other places, not just to sort of one-way broadcast or publishers nowadays, but things probably a little bit more beyond yahoo if you think about how social networks and gaming companies and gaming experiences work, people’s attention is diverted in all sorts of different ways.

CONNORS: China’s huge investment in its state media comes as Time Warner writes 40 billion US dollars off its books and the venerable New York Times newspaper faces huge criticism for losing a comparatively mere 14 million dollars last year. Bruce Dover was on the News Limited team that first signed CCTV to its US cable networks in the 1990s when money was tight. He’s also formerly of CNN, and is now the head of the ABC’s international television service, Australia Network.

DOVER: Look I mean CCTV programming in those days was pretty basic, it was very much of the old communist propaganda style. I mean they had very long boring sort of spring pageants that went on for about three and a half hours or documentaries that sort of endless shots down the Yellow River. And then news of course tended to be rather one-sided in the way they represented itself to the world.

CONNORS: From your time at CNN you would have seen it develop, you would have seen Phoenix develop also in the southern part of China. What sort of progress have they made in even their news gathering?

DOVER: Well I look I mean obviously just recently and for the 50th anniversary of CCTV in Beijing and look the quality of the equipment, the news gathering they have is world’s best. The journalists in terms of gathering the news have access to the best equipment, but they still suffer the restrictions of what they can freely say in terms of their reports, I think that’s the hang-up that they have.

CONNORS: And that’s the biggest hurdle of China’s media push says Cam MacMurchy, that a stream of directives from China’s central propaganda departments doesn’t instill great hope for the unbiased news the west demands.

MACMURCHY: People knowing that China’s got media controls, that it’s a communist one-party state that people take what’s broadcast from them with a grain of salt naturally, and the second factor is it’s not produced to the levels I think that a lot of sophisticated viewers would expect. You could make the case that there’s propaganda from a lot of countries on a lot of channels, but if the propaganda’s done well perhaps it doesn’t seem like propaganda. And I think that’s where maybe they’re falling down a little bit.

CONNORS: And with the revelation also this week of a petition by Chinese intellectuals saying “CCTV turns news bulletins and historical drama into propaganda to brainwash viewers”. China’s state media seems to face an uphill battle.

MACMURCHY: I’m actually kind of surprised at that petition mainly because many Chinese people they’re aware of the domestic media is propaganda and they’re aware that it’s heavily slanted and shows the view of the Chinese government, especially this year as we head into some major anniversaries, such as the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in ’89, 50th anniversary since the Dalai Lama fled and others. So it’s shaping up to be a contentious year.