Hugo de Burgh reports on the emergence of investigative journalism in the People's Republic and its unexpected effects
The Sanatorium Director replies confidently to the reporter before him: "I assure you I had nothing to do with the alleged selling of patients into prostitution."
Reporter : "Then please look at the monitor"
Both men look. Before them is 'hidden camera' footage of the Director negotiating exactly such a sale to the disguised, yet recognisable, reporter. Scene 2
Presenter to camera: "The man was an athlete, yet he died in a jump from a second floor window. Or else he was manacled, beaten and then flung out head first by the policemen commanded to cow him, who were then protected by the Prosecutor. You decide."
Welcome to News Probe, a leading vehicle of investigative journalism transmitted weekly on China Central Television. Established in 1995, it now has an audience of between 30 million and 50 million, providing 52 programmes per year (unless any are pulled) for 40 minutes each. The audience, says editor Zhang Jie, was originally expected to consist of intellectuals, but he and his team rapidly realised that they had a huge following among the peasants and migrant workers. Large numbers of them call in with harrowing tales of exploitation, expropriation and corruption. All the calls are logged and the tales told are pored over for possible programme stories.
A police officer, trapped by his own clumsy attempt to cover up a murder, is skewered by the reporter's calm, analytic, sceptical querying. A hospital executive weeps as she admits that hundreds died of SARS because her department did not supply sterilised equipment. The forestry official is finally made to admit that, because he withheld compensation from peasant farmers, the men were driven to suicide as the only way they might draw attention to the plight to which they and their families had been driven. A woman, sold into prostitution by the managers of a drug rehabilitation sanatorium where she was being cared for, leads us to the people responsible. We see the reporters going from witness to witness until someone finally has the courage – or the foolhardiness – to say what he saw from his window on the day of an interrogation.
What's going on?
The appearance of investigative journalism in China since 1992 has shown that what westerners assume to be a manifestation of liberal democracies can flourish in quite a different context – and often with surprising effect.
Despite the limitations on them, Chinese media, and investigative journalists in particular, are quite clearly having a significant influence on public life. They are introducing new and unconventional ideas, changing terms of reference, forcing the pace of reform, giving voice to concerns and calling attention to issues.
It would be easy to presume that the relaxation in censorship and the greater freedoms enjoyed by journalists are a symptom of a general liberalisation, heralding the collapse of authoritarian rule. But this interpretation is difficult to square with the enthusiastic way in which senior members of the Communist leadership appear to endorse investigative journalism.
Itï¿½s not that there are not limitations as to what that leadership allows. The News Probe team has to be sensitive to politics, and distinguishes its own favoured stories as "live tigers" while those less revelatory are "dead tigers". There are times when it is either not politic or not possible to chase live tigers.
The chasing itself is done with verve. "How I wish we could do that," sighs Andy Bell of the BBC's Panorama, watching a reporter march into a police station and capture the interviews that will eventually nail his targets. "The Police Federation would never allow it."
True, Chinese journalists may be avoiding the biggest sharks of all, but they are putting terror into the hearts of some powerful local despots with impressive courage and tenacity. News Probe's is journalism at its most enthralling, rewarding, demanding.
But there is a fundamental difference in approach between News Probe and its British counterparts, according to Kevin Sutcliffe, responsible for the Dispatches investigative strand at Channel 4. Dispatches journalists usually start with an issue – poor nursing in the health service, the quality of meat used in restaurants and cafeterias, let's say – and then seek out particular instances of the points they want to make. But the News Probe stories he's seen concentrate entirely on the dissection of specific instances of abuse or corruption or management failure. The British journalists will have in their sights those ultimately responsible – high officials, business leaders or politician – and will attempt to nail them. The Chinese will content themselves with exposing the instance and, aside from summaries at the end in which they urge government departments to pay attention to the findings and not make mistakes in future, will not generalise out.
Perhaps the Chinese audience is quite capable of drawing the conclusions for itself and does not need a journalist to name the minister who has failed or the judge who has connived. Smart leaders and would-be leaders watch these programmes, and learn.
The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe 10-15 years ago was hastened and assured by the news media. In much of Latin America, journalists are credited with forcing elites to let democracy flourish; Middle Eastern society today is supposedly being transformed in its attitudes to authoritarian regimes because of the introduction of new ideas by, principally, Al Jazeera. Georgia's Rose Revolution appears to have been forced by a powerful media. But in the Anglophone countries, rather than being hailed as guardians of truth and freedom, journalists are widely blamed for the contempt in which politics is held, and the damage this does to democracy.
Thanks to technological changes and shared practices, a new transnational media class may be developing, or at least journalists with common characteristics. Since China probably has the world's biggest media system, it seems logical to ask what is happening to the news media, or to journalism, there. What are emerging as the functions of journalists and journalism in China today? How do the changing political economy of the media, government exigencies, popular pressures and professional norms interact and influence the practices of journalists in China, at a time when, in different ways, their colleagues are becoming increasingly influential elsewhere?
Under the late Deng Xiaoping China rushed to get rich; his successor's preoccupation was with creating a middle class of commercial and educated entrepreneurs. By contrast the present Chinese government has shown an awareness of the social costs of rapid economic development and a desire to deal with the travails it has visited upon the poor, the peasants, the communities far from the sparkling cities. President Hu, well before reaching the top, made clear his commitment to these issues through his involvement with the Hope Philanthropic Project. This scheme, set up to improve educational opportunities for youngsters from the poor west of China, was itself subject to investigation for corruption by another television series, CCTV's Focal Point, though there was no suggestion that President Hu Jintao was involved.
The government wants to have honest officials, to curb exploitation of the voiceless and to reduce the dissatisfaction which now commonly erupts into demonstrations or expresses itself in potentially subversive religious activity. Investigative journalism, by exposing offences and drawing attention to how authority fails to live up to expected standards, is helping to police development and represent popular concerns. Of course there are different interests competing in politics, and journalists often fall foul of a particularly powerful lobby. So there are regular dismissals and even imprisonment when journalists get matters wrong.
Nevertheless, a necessarily superficial glance gives the impression that Chinese journalists, in a variegated and highly commercial market, are indeed performing the same kind of tasks as their counterparts elsewhere. Of course in China, as elsewhere, there are cultural inhibitions to the unfettered reporting, investigating or analysing of facts. On the one hand, commercialisation of the media has made the sector more responsive to the customer, more populist, more critical, more neophiliac, And it is increasingly impatient with wasting too much space on heavy politics.
On the other hand, though, the government's political control has not diminished, and it continues to own and operate the media. Monopoly, the strict licensing system and low taxation are foundations of the industry's prosperity and have strengthened the editors' hands within the Party, even though they still report to Party cells. Senior journalists are Party members and state officials, with high status and authority. They cope with the contradictory pressures of the market, audience expectations, politicians' demands and ideology.
Despite these caveats, the poor devils who present petitions on their knees to reporters outside TV stations or newspaper offices know what they are doing. The investigative journalism is real. Things change as a result of it, bad people are punished and systems reformed. And every year it shines its torch on new subjects, supporting the claim of News Probe that it is: "in pursuit of justice; balanced and in depth; getting at the truth."
Hugo de Burgh is Professor of Journalism at the University of Westminster and Director of the China Media Centre, which will be officially launched on June 16. He wishes to acknowledge the help of Xin Xin, University of Westminster, and of the leaders and team of News Probe, who made it possible for him to write this article. A version of it will shortly be appearing in China Review.