HONG KONG – For a change, the media itself is in the spotlight these days. The scandal over the illegal hacking of mobile phone messages by journalists in Britain has resulted in the closure of a venerable newspaper, the News of the World, and threatens to implicate not just reporters but politicians and the police.
At the same time, the Chinese government has criticized unnamed “overseas media organizations” and said their reports that former President Jiang Zemin had died “are pure rumor.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has acknowledged that the hacking scandal is not just about some journalists on one newspaper; “it’s also about the police” and about “how politics works and politicians too.”
Much depends now on the inquiry that is being established to look into the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press.
While in the West politicians may have become dependent on the press, in China the media is still tightly controlled by the government. And while the Hong Kong media is free under the concept of “one country, two systems,” in China’s eyes it should not report false information, especially when it is politically sensitive.
“Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin’s death from illness are pure rumor,” the official Xinhua news agency asserted the day after Asia Television Ltd., one of two free-to-air TV broadcasters in Hong Kong, reported that the former president had died.
The Chinese government had to respond, since the ATV report was being picked up by other news agencies.
In the West, if a former leader — or someone in high office-was ill or dying there would most likely be regular reports on the person’s health. However, in China’s secretive society, in the absence of official medical bulletins, there is bound to be speculation, and even premature reports of a person’s death.
The death of the former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was reported several times before he actually died in 1997.
These incidents reflect the competitive nature of the Western press and how different it is from China’s government-controlled media.
In Chinese history, there have been times when news of the death of a leader was suppressed for political reasons. Indeed, this was the case with the death of the first emperor more than 2,000 years ago while he was traveling. His prime minister masked the smell of the emperor’s decomposing body with carts of rotten fish.
But this has not been the case with the People’s Republic of China. Thus, when Chairman Mao Zedong, who led the country from its establishment in 1949, died on Sept. 9, 1976, his death was announced the same day.
Similarly, after Deng died on Feb. 19, 1997, at the age of 92, his death was announced hours later.
There is no question that when former President Jiang dies, this news, too, will be announced.
However, with China’s leadership set to undergo changes in the coming year, Jiang’s absence may well affect the jockeying for power, which accounts for the acute interest in whether the former leader is still in a position to exert his influence.
As it turns out, ATV had apparently heard that news of Jiang’s death would be announced at 7 p.m. on CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, and decided to report this first so as to claim an exclusive.
Instead of earning a scoop, however, it received a reprimand and ATV had to issue a public apology to the Jiang family and to its viewers.
It is in the nature of the media to be competitive. But reporters must know that it is more important to be accurate than to be fast.
The famous headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 3, 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” tells its own cautionary tale. President Harry S. Truman, who narrowly won re-election, was able to triumphantly hold up a copy of the newspaper with the erroneous headline after the votes were counted.
If China doesn’t like the competitive nature of the Western media, which will inevitably result in erroneous reporting from time to time, it can ameliorate the situation by becoming more open and transparent.
But instead of telling the world about the health of Jiang after the erroneous reports of his death, Beijing responded by stonewalling — and censoring the Internet to the extent that even information on the hospital where the former leader is being treated was blacked out.
Such an attitude will ensure further broadcasts in the future of erroneous reports that are likely to embarrass Beijing as much as the media.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1