Global Times makes first mistake ever

Posted: February 7, 2012 in media
Tags: , , , ,

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.

  1. FOARP says:

    I think the key here is to note that the ‘authors’ of these pieces were semi-officials, that the edit was made by a low-ranked editor, and that the edit strayed into the political field and had the effect of making the Global Times (and by extension, their political masters) lose face. China Daily has for a long time run interviews and opinion pieces by diplomats and the like, and would never dream of editing the output of such pieces because of the political ramifications this might have. Had they done so in a way that might displease their seniors, they too would have published a correction.

    Had it been an ordinary vox-pop‘edlaowai having his opinions on the magic of Beijing’s Hutongs “corrected” (that is, if they even bothered to find a laowai to vox-pop instead of just creating their own), there would have been no question of a correction being published, or any wrong-doing acknowledged.

    As someone who took part in the the human rights protests in London in 2008, it’s also somewhat gratifying to see the rather low calibre and government connections of some of the people involved in organising the nationalistic counter-protests.

    • sinostand says:

      Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I’ve seen plenty of mistakes quietly covered up or ignored completely by GT (assuming they weren’t purposely put there in the first place). And even this apology was questionable. It isn’t a “media misunderstanding” when you violate core ethics and consciously put words in someone’s mouth – whether they’re politically charged or not. That’s something a journalist should know long before they ever become an editor – even a junior one.

      Still, it was responsible to own up to it and the apology seemed sincere enough. And it probably gave the paper a little unexpected credibility. I’m sure if someone put him up to it they thought Gao would be the one to lose face, when in reality, he just made an embarrassing contrast to his big boss…and his boss’s bosses in Zhongnanhai.

  2. FOARP says:

    “Still, it was responsible to own up to it and the apology seemed sincere enough”

    I don’t know. He seemed pretty eager to emphasise that his superiors had nothing to do with it – seems like there may have been some pressure from on-high.

    And let’s just pose a counter-factual. Had the piece gone through without the injected phrase, would the censor have nixed that paragraph? I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they had.

    Likewise, if they had published it as a straight interview, they wouldn’t have thought twice about writing it so that it read “refering to the anti-China separatist demonstrations during the Beijing Olympics, Medcalf said . . . “

  3. MAC says:

    The Chinese edition of the Global Times is so awful that I can hardly view any nod that the English version gives to proper journalism as anything but a front. Maybe I’m biased, my loss I guess.

  4. […] article yesterday, written by the junior Global Times editor who had handled the original story. One observer suggests this apology is quite a remarkable step for the Global Times to […]

  5. Mick says:

    I used to work at China Daily as an English editor and it was everyday practice for the local staff to invent or modify quotes to suit the article. However, this only happened on articles about ‘non-sensitive’ topics – the “Hunan retiree kills 10,000 flies” type of thing. Any article related to officialdom or any of the sensitive subjects had to be left exactly as presented (we even had a manual to explain minutiae such as: the leader of Taiwan must always be referred to as “so-called”).
    This sounds like a junior hack at GT as overstepped the mark and done the usual cut and paste job on the wrong topic – without realising that the subject would complain.

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