At the 18th Party Congress over the past week a mysterious Australian journalist has been called on at official press conferences more than any other foreign reporter.
In each of these golden opportunities, she’s lobbed disappointing softballs like, “Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia.”
ABC caught up with the reporter, Andrea Yu, and found out that she’s not quite a foreign reporter, but works for the majority Chinese-owned AMG, which “has close links to Chinese government-controlled media organizations and supplies Beijing-friendly radio programs to community stations in Australia.”
So it seems she’s little more than a CCP shill at the congress.
I think this raises some interesting issues about foreigners working for state-sponsored Chinese media. Here were a couple reactions that caught my eye on Twitter:
With a notoriously competitive media landscape in the West, getting a foot in the door through Chinese state media is a route many aspiring journalists take. I’ve been there. Indeed, several fantastic China correspondents have been there.
But when you work for state media, at what point do you cross a line where your journalistic integrity is compromised.
Some people would say it’s the moment you do any kind of work for them. This was certainly the theme of much of the hate mail I got when writing for Global Times (where I was once accused of “prostituting myself to a propaganda rag”). The thinking here goes that foreigners lend legitimacy to these biased and often misleading organizations. Any reporting that they do, whether it’s flattering or critical of China, is strategically used in order to meet broader propaganda objectives.
I completely disagree with this assessment. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, official outlets like China Daily, Global Times, CRI and even CCTV push the envelope quite often and are full of great journalists. Having foreigners in these organizations makes that envelope get pushed even further and improves the entire industry. And if a foreigner, from the bottom of their heart, believes they’re being completely honest in their reporting – whether it’s flattering or criticizing the party line – then I can’t see a problem with that.
It’s true that if you print something supporting the party line in Global Times, it’ll inevitably be held to a completely different standard than if it were in New York Times, but that’s the breaks. I don’t think journalistic integrity has been damaged in the least.
But Andrea Yu seems to have gone beyond that as a complacent party shill. Her role was to give the appearance that officials were bold enough to take a foreign reporter’s questions, when in fact, they knew they’d be getting a chance to flatter themselves. In this sense, Yu caused people to be misled – especially the Chinese who will never learn about her connection to the government. This is the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.
Yu seems to be aware of her role. She told Wall Street Journal, “[Officials] know my questions are safe … I’m representing a Chinese-Australian company, so I need to ask questions they want me to ask. Believe me, I would have other questions to ask if I could.”
So she’s laid down her sense of journalistic duty and restrained herself from asking what she and her viewers would actually like answered. She’s too eagerly fallen into her role as a stooge, and thus, compromised her credibility.
But it’s easy to sit and condemn from afar. Being in her shoes is undoubtedly a much stickier situation than it seems. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with ABC:
STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But what do you think about it though? Do you feel that you’re being used in that way?
ANDREA YU: Well, it’s been a bit difficult because there are layers. When I first entered my company, there’s only a certain amount of understanding I have about its connections to the government. I didn’t know it had any, for example. So I find out more and more as time goes on. It’s quite difficult as a foreigner, when you first, at least for me in the last month, to know exactly because you get told things not all at the beginning, so that side of it is challenging.
This comes off as kind of air-headed and oblivious, but I understand the point she’s making. Some of my experiences and those of several acquaintances at Chinese companies (not just media) were just like this. It’s not as if you’re told up front what your real job and unethical responsibilities will be. It comes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and in steps so small that it’s easy to descend into something you’d never intended. What seem like opportunities (ie – covering the biggest political event in China) are in fact situations where you’re being exploited. By the time you look around and realize what you’re doing, you’re in too deep and it’s hard to climb back out without seriously disrupting your life.
Yu could put her foot down with her bosses and go with her journalistic instincts (like the intrepid reporters over at Chinese Teenagers News), or better yet, take her services to another outlet. But that’s much easier said than done. Imagine doing that with your own job. And then imagine it’s in an ultra-competitive industry where you’re not sure you’ll get another break.
As Tom Hancock pointed out, Yu is in the state media coal mines. I doubt she ever made a conscious decision to head down the especially dark tunnel she ended up in. Unfortunately, she did end up there and compromised her credibility. But I think more than anything else she’s a victim of a cold system that’s all too happy to push people around like pawns in order to mislead the country and the world.
What do you think? At what point does a state media job become a liability for budding foreign journalists rather than an asset?