Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Age's news reports from Beijing

It is only natural that readers in western countries rely on foreign correspondents of their local papers to get some glimpses of life in other countries. This medium is so important that the risk of some resident correspondents tending to abuse the trust of their home readers and give fuzzy pictures of their liking is very high, and few at home country have the means to check them out, they are in effect the lords of news by themselves. For an important country to Australia, China has drawn attention from media organisations from Australia, and resident correspondents are common in Beijing and routinely give their say on what is going on over there. It is in this respect that a reporting by such Beijing correspondents shake and form the minds of Australians about China. Needless to say, the picture is seldom pretty in their writings. One particular correspondent, Ms. Toy, has been particularly picky or nasty in her news reports, as far as giving misleading messages and displaying her preferences openly. "Openly" means she was hardly checked for accuracy, and her readers had no way of knowing what is true, especially when she quoted sources in Chinese. I have been reading the Age's China reporting for a long time, and found it hard to accept her version of things on many occasions, especially hard to swallow her own sentiments and bias in many of her writings. Routinely, I wrote to the Age's editors to remind them something is wrong in her reporting and interpretation of things in China, but few responses came. The following are some of my views expressed on Ms. Toy's strange ways of writing from her Beijing post.
I am glad to report that perhaps as a result of this pursuit of made errors and prejudice, Ms. Toy's name dropped from the list of news reporting Beijing correspondents from the latter half of 2008, and her written pieces disappear from the Age's news columns. But if she persists, she could find a place in another western media organisation to continue her career of reporting on China in her old way.

After reading Ms. Toy's leading article on Olympic relay, I wonder whether she stations in Beijing or in Melbourne. Most of her quoted sources are from overseas, Europe or the US, those comments people can read anyway from thousands of other English language papers. One important information missing on the same day her article came out is from President Hu Jin Tao, which says clearly the issue with the Da Lai La Ma is of national unity and security, not religion, ethnic minorities, or human rights. And the President said all these to the face of Kevin Rudd, visiting at the time. Is this clear enough? Why her report is slow to include this newest information in relation to Rudd's visit, a visit many Australian reporters hope to get explosive outcomes or confrontations, good for news? Hu's words have indicated clearly the way forward, the way the Chinese government and nation will handle the Tibet (Xi Zang) issue in the future. Then why her piece still asked the question of the way forward? The objections and disagreements from the West, and some Chinese, now are not relevant, after Hu's direct, no-nonsense talk with Rudd. If Ms Toy did station in Beijing, she would not have missed this important information. Another possibility is that she did deliberately not to report on this official stand of the Chinese government, in case it conflicts with her written reporting back to the Age.
Another sign of her article being late is that the relay in Argentina went smoothly, as reported in the Age, contrary to her prediction of ongoing violent protests to the relay everywhere thereafter.
One more sign is that the Olympic Committee President already stated that boycott is not what people around the world (including those in Europe and the US) wanted to see and that even if some western politicians decided not to attend the opening ceremony,the Games will be a success. This is not at all in her reporting from Beijing, especially that of the President's statement.
One more information lacking in her article is about the mounting waves of protests by overseas Chinese against western media's unashamed bias and distortion on the issue of Xi Zang (Tibet). Instead, her report cites a few unknown Chinese writers' letter which allegedly differs from the official policies.
This letter, even if it exists, is certainly unrepresentative and unpopular in China and among overseas Chinese, and is anyway dismissed outright, as shown in President Hu's statement. Her report relies heavily and repeatedly on a celebrity architect Ai, son of a famed Chinese writer who himself suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Taking Ai's words as a typical Chinese public opinion, especially on the issue of Xi Zang (Tibet), is definitely unwise, and he has shown consistent tendency to please his western visitors and journalists, to say what they wanted to hear. And citing one source for over half a dozen times is also questionable, for the reason that the two parties may forge an alliance, thus losing crucial objectivity in later reporting.
If Ms Toy was a journalist stationed in Melbourne, these mishaps and missing information should not be taken seriously. When Australians rely on overseas correspondents to provide them with the latest and correct information on countries of significance, such reporting will only cause confusion and breed misconception to readers back home.

Reading Ms Toy’s reporting on China often gives one a sense of reading last week’s newspapers. One feels that while there is nothing new in her reports, she tries hard to impress the reader of her closeness to the story or deep-throat sources, or something all the people missed but she doe not. This show of self-centredness is quite annoying sometimes.
Take her dispatch on May 24, for example. She presents the story of tents missing in Chendu in a serious tone and claims all Chinese-language newspapers and their websites reporting such incidents are blocked, so implying Chinese people are deprived of their right of knowing the truth. In fact, this is old news, as there have been tons of blogs writing about the story with photos, and officials already promised to investigate and prosecute those misbehaved. All of these are on open websites, under discussion constantly. One can’t believe Ms Toy pretends to be the only one on this story while others are in the dark.
For the allegation that there is little reporting on quake prevention or substandard construction, I don’t know what Ms Toy has been reading, as if she is unaffected by daily hot debates and discussions online and in newspaper sites.
The story lines on initial response to restrict news reports on the quake allegedly by the Propaganda Department are also old and cold, and your correspondents have made a big fuzz about that already, including Mr. Garnaut in Beijing. So, Ms Toy recycles that story in order to fill up this bucket of report.
About reporting mostly on tragedy and heroic human actions, rather than negative gutter journalism and digging of possible neglect or corruption, Ms Toy appears to be late in reporting again. The choice between the former and latter as the focus of reporting or discussion has been widely and openly debated in the media and online in China. Initially, angry people were hard to control their rage and condemned those who may be responsible. Gradually, the mood changed, as people reached the conclusion that during this unprecedented tragedy the first priority is to save life and get relief in, the most humanitarian choice at the moment. Investigation and possible punishment will follow, but not to impede current rescue effort. That is why it seems journalists toed the line, as Ms Toy prefers to describe, simply because first the magnitude of the disaster warrants the emphasis on life rescuing rather than cynicism or sarcasm, and second organization and rescue effectiveness obviously improved as time goes on. There is no shortage of exposing bad behaviours in this whole process either, including the reporting on missing tents or substandard building materials (the party disciplinary commission made the pledge to do just that a few days ago).
Ms Toy is accustomed to naming a few sources which cannot be identified, and making those invisible figures back up her main points. And some of the “volunteered” opinions are really weird and cannot be substantiated, such as the claim that the government’s days are numbered after this quake. No wonder that senior journalist and dear friend of Ms Toy’s had his remark rebuked, since that would make the publication appear extremely silly and become the laughing stock in the country and among overseas Chinese.

After reading today's report by your Beijing correspondent Ms. Toy and the original speech in question in Chinese, I believe she added a little too much of her own elaborations in the piece, as well as largely ignored the main text.
The key points of party control of legal departments are drawn from a couple of sentences in the original speech, about which I have to say the translation is quite liberal, either picking out a few alarm-sounding words or failing to see the limited significance of routine party jargon. She virtually amplified the volume of the jargon and made them stand out in the whole text.
Several of her assertions are hard to be found in the Chinese text. "Better-educated people"? This is not to be found; instead "socially mobile citizens" are mentioned in a way as to organise them in an orderly fashion. We all understand this refers to millions of roaming peasant migrants to big cities, but they are certainly not "key citizens" or "better educated" of the country as presented by the correspondent.
Also, about "re-education camps for political and religious activists", it is in the text of work-and-study schools for law breaking teens (you can say that these schools are loosely in the large category of re-education camps, but not precisely the same). The sharpest words in the report, "an independent judiciary was not appropriate", seems not coming out of his mouth.
The whole text focuses on restoring the reputation of the legal system and work for the "harmonious society". Many measures and words in that are surely responses to the worsening injustice and unfair treatment of people, exactly aiming at countering the corruption and illegal activities mentioned at the end of this news report. Whether this speech works or not is not the point here.
I strongly recommend that the editors download a copy of the text, get someone who really read Chinese, and check the text word by word before convinced of those words indeed spoken and approving the report. I don't blame the routine tendency in the media to print sensational overseas stories; I am just amazed how often original words turned into something else in the papers.

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