Every newspaper makes mistakes. It’s an unfortunate fact of life in an industry that has to deliver a wide range of information every day. But that’s what corrections are for. Just acknowledge and rectify the mistake and readers will usually trust the paper even more for it. I’ve never seen such a correction in Global Times…until today.
Last month Global Times ran piece called Australians uncertain about China’s new power, which cited a 2008 incident where Chinese students protested Tibetan and human rights activists at the Canberra Olympic torch relay. It was printed under the name Rory Medcalf, program director of international security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
But it turned out Medcalf had just been interviewed by Global Times and, unbeknownst to him, his ideas were patched together into an op-ed with his byline slapped on. The phrase “[...] triggered by Tibetan separatists’ attempt to block the event” was also added, despite the fact that he never said it.
Medcalf wrote a post about the incident concluding, “The fact remains that someone on the newspaper’s staff thought it was perfectly acceptable to put words into my mouth to suit the Communist Party line. This is a real pity, since in principle it is a good thing for a Chinese newspaper to reach out to international audiences and to devote space for foreign commentators to communicate in their own words. The Global Times undermined this potentially positive initiative through some failures of basic journalistic standards.”
Today, the Global Times editor responsible for the incident, Gao Lei, made an unprecedented move and agreed. Global Times published an apologetic response where Gao explained that it was wrong to ever put Medcalf’s name on the byline to begin with. As for the “separatist” part, Gao explained that he had in fact been studying in Australia in 2008 and organized a counter-protest in Perth.
“My mind flashed back to the days when Western media gave what I saw as biased reports around Olympic torch relay and I tossed off the word ‘separatists’ with outrage,” said Gao. “I used the word unthinkingly, as it is the term commonly used by Chinese media source. It ended up in the article appearing as Medcalf’s words. Of course professionally I made an extremely serious mistake. Medcalf wrote a blog post to clarify his opinions and I am truly sorry for the distress my misrepresentation caused.”
For regular Global Times readers (or readers of most any Chinese media outlet) this honest acknowledgement of letting personal bias interfere with journalistic ethics is quite remarkable. This was an obvious contrast to Hu Xijin, the paper’s editor-in-chief.
In this excerpt from a 2010 piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut recalls an interview with Hu Xijin:
In our interview he didn’t seem to care whether his missiles were aimed at me personally or my profession, my country or the wider Western world. Australia was too insignificant to lecture China: ”You are driving a cart and we are driving a truck.” Ditto for Japan, given its entire stock of highways was no greater than China could build in a single year. And the New York Times was ”full of lies”.
On the subject of lies, I mentioned that his paper had egregiously misrepresented some of my own stories written in the Herald. He reassured me of his great personal commitment to truth and to pushing the boundaries of free speech. Earlier he had told me that Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace prize winner, deserved to be in prison for being ”a liar” who advocated ”Australian-style” democracy.
Again, contrast that to Gao Lei, a junior editor, who said about her mistake:
What I see from this unfortunate incident is the challenges Chinese media, and China as a whole, face in the expanding international engagement. Among issues where the West and China has profound disagreements, Tibetan situation is one of them. For both sides, a simple word can carry heavy political weight.
As a junior editor, I still have much to learn. Meanwhile, I remain optimistic that open dialogue and exchange of ideas will still help reduce long-held misperceptions.