Wendi Murdoch, a Train Crash, and the Money-Seeking Western Media

Wendi Deng’s lightning counterstrike against the man, allegedly a comedian, who attacked her husband with a plate of shaving foam last week triggered a flood of media coverage, from profiles of the woman herself to interviews with the coach who nurtured her spontaneously weaponised volleyball skills. In China, the story has spurred a reassessment of Deng’s relationship with Murdoch and, as Evan Osnos writes, has been pushed enthusiastically as a vehicle for news of the phone hacking scandal. From The New Yorker:

Wendi Murdoch’s omnipresence in the Chinese press is not simply about her. Even before the punch, Chinese state media had been savoring the News Corp. case as a chance to turn the tables and chide Western reporters and politicians for misdeeds. As a piece in the Guangming Daily put it, “Murdoch has showed us once again that the so-called independence and objectivity [of the Western press] is merely a fig leaf that the western world uses to fool its people.”

Are Chinese reporters really so eager to flog their British peers? Not exactly. Party news bosses have explicitly instructed them to report as much as they can on the News of the World case, according to Chinese journalists. Ji Ye, a director at Phoenix television, wrote, “Over all my years in the business, the internal instructions have always been ‘you are not allowed to report on such and such’ or ‘we have to toe the line on such-and-such.’ But this is the first time that we’ve received an advisory saying we can report more extensively, more freely. We’re totally overwhelmed with gratitude, and we don’t know what to do now!”

The Murdoch-mania is so conspicuous that some Chinese viewers are asking if it has anything to do with the fact that it coincides with the moment that Party leaders are struggling to quell criticism over a train crash that casts doubt on the safety of a marquis political symbol, China’s high-speed rail network. (As one Chinese commentator put it, “The evening news has the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal over and over again, but only a brief piece on the disaster in our own nation.”)

The trend had begun, however, days before the crash in Wenzhou. On Wednesday last week, China Media Project translated part of a representative Xinhua editorial:

Experts believe that all along Western media and Western countries have always held up the banners of “freedom” and “human rights” to cast blame on other countries. But one result of this “phone hacking scandal” is certainly a massive attack on the outlook on journalism in Western countries and [their claim to] superiority.

The “phone hacking scandal” has thoroughly exposed the inherent money-seeking nature of Western media. Ling Haoying (凌昊莹), an associate professor of media economy at the Communication University of China (CUC), said the News of the World hacking scandal shows that many Western media, including News of the World and the Sun newspaper, are about profit-seeking, and this profit-seeking orientation makes it difficult to be truly “objective.” Under the current market and news systems of the West, the profit-seeking nature of media means that news reports cannot possibly attain to the “pure independence and objectivity” they boast of, and carrying out self-discipline is extremely difficult for them.

As Isaac Stone Fish noted at The Daily Beast, these arguments fit a familiar pattern:

As allegations of illegal acts by Murdoch’s papers continue to surface, “this is the perfect time for Chinese media to criticize Western media for its hypocrisy,” says Michael Anti, a Chinese media commentator. When Western media criticizes Chinese media for its sham reporting or its propaganda, an average Chinese reader could be led to think “well, Western media is also very rotten,” says Anti. The Xinhua article crows “the American government that always bragged about ‘press freedom’ was revealed in 2005 to ‘prefabricate news’ during the Iraq War… all that stuff is a common occurrence in Western societies.” […]

China’s media strategy could backfire if domestic commentators start likening Murdoch’s monopoly to the Communist Party’s deep-reaching tentacles into the media and security apparatus. So far, it appears that only Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post drew that comparison, writing that “the tactics sound too familiar” to mainlanders, except that for them the perpetrators are “the omnipresent internal security police or the state security agents trying to snoop on any political dissent or any journalist daring to probe for politically incorrect stories.” Despite an ongoing crackdown in China, “there is a very upbeat atmosphere” in the media here, says Ying. Perhaps it’s time for the mirror to be turned inward.

Osnos, similarly, points out that the authorities might be well advised to exercise restraint in decrying the hacking of citizens’ private communications. The Xinhua editorial did place less emphasis than it might have done on elements of the story such as police negligence and corruption, and the vital role of tireless investigative journalists in uncovering it.

See more from CDT about Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch.