Foreign Broadcasters and their Critics

Germany’s foreign broadcaster Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) was in troubled waters last year, after allegations that Chinese members of the staff had shown a bias in Beijing’s favor. It would now appear that the broadcaster’s management wants to avoid rough seas by keeping a written report by an elder journalist and author, Ulrich Wickert, under the carpet. Mr Wickert’s report acquitted the Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department, but it came with an unfavorable verdict on the station’s crisis management.

One shouldn’t simply imply that the broadcaster wants to sit the problem out. They may really want to keep those of the staff who were embroiled in the struggles last year out of the firing line now.

That would be laudable. But it can’t work. The Chinese audience, so far as they are aware of the case, won’t simply forget about it, and Chinese media dwelled on it long after news emerged which did raise questions about the Chinese department’s professionalism, at least in detail. The former deputy manager’s interview with herself, which slipped onto the broadcaster’s website unchecked, certainly didn’t look good.

So far, the station seems to act in public like if nothing had happened at all. Deutsche Welle had already played an important role in the promotion of democracy before, said Eric Bettermann, its director. With the station’s Global Media Forum, scheduled in Bonn in June this year, the broadcaster wants to offer a platform for the global media community. Bettermann did address quality challenges, according to the Kölner Stadtanzeiger‘s report of February 9. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ulrich Wickert had delivered his report to the broadcaster on February 4 – five days before the announcement of these latest lofty plans.

While the Deutsche Welle’s management thinks of playing an important role in the promotion of democracy, how is its quality improvement process going?

A report by the Guardian of Friday hit me right between the eyes today. It describes how the BBC deals with complaints – the topic in the case reported was Tibet.

Prof Barry Sautman of Hong Kong University had been interviewed about Tibet on Radio 4’s Today pogram. A complainant took issue with the approach the moderator took there, saying that listeners had been treated to about five minutes of pure propaganda about how Tibet is, and has always been, an integral part of China and that subversive elements are trying to split the mother country. The BBC Trust investigated and decided the case.

This makes me wonder who investigated complaints about the Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department before Chinese dissidents and other critics – apparently all of a sudden – managed to set the agenda.

There seems to be a procedure in place at Deutsche Welle (see para 19). But you can read comments from Germany’s political parties’ media spokespeople once in a while more frequently, than from the station itself. Maybe the Voice of Germany should take professional care of quality programming on its own. Does it? And did the critics of the Chinese department make use of the procedure? If not – why not? Did they write their open letter to Germany’s parliament after their complaints hadn’t been dealt with, or did they choose a path of maximum publicity?

Maybe after a successful implementation of quality assurance measures, it will be a good time for Deutsche Welle to become a convincing advocate for democracy – and transparency. The station’s improvement process should be as public and transparent as its ambitious contributions to global democratization. Maybe.

But there is no use in preaching it without living it. The best thing Deutsche Welle can do is to be a reliable source of information. All the rest is either by the way, or even useless.

9 Responses to “Foreign Broadcasters and their Critics”

  1. The Chinese media is still dwelling on the Zhang Danhong incident. I think their excessive reaction has made things even worse for Zhang. On the contrary, the BBC’s way of dealing with this situation is far smarter.

    I’ve been monitoring the Chinese language blogosphere. So far, the news only appeared at the anti-CNN website. A Chinese translation has been produced but doesn’t seem to be able to stir up any sensation. One commenter at anti-CNN did make a comparison with the Zhang Danhong incident. But no one followed on.

    We are two of the few bloggers outside of the UK (and at the China blogosphere) who write about this news. I first got a glimpse of this from the China Digital Times. But for some strange reasons, the entry was deleted less than an hour later. (If you don’t believe me, you can google the title of the Guardian article. CDT’s entry is still displayed. But if you click on the link, it’ll tell you that the blog post no longer exist.) It seems there is a deliberate attempt to quietly bury this incident. Whoever is behind this decision must be very powerful.

    So in short, crisis management involves much more than handling complaints in a timely and fair manner. It also has much to do with putting a lid on media coverage to make sure that public opinion is properly guided to defuse the situation. Only the British can handle crisis with such sophistication. Both Deutsche Welle and the CCP’s propaganda machine have a long way to go to catch up with them.

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  2. Do you remember the Hutton Inquiry? It kind of surprised me that pro-Beijing commenters didn’t come back to the story last year, re “Western media bias” or censorship issues.
    But there, too, the BBC’s approach was striking, six years ago. The whole matter was discussed on the BBC (including its World Service) from one end to the other, and back again, and forth, and back… until it came out of people’s ears. That’s how to overcome a crisis – addressing it openly. I think only few people seriously doubted that the BBC was doing its homework.

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  3. I’m not sure which CDT post you are referring to – but the Guardian article about the BBC incident is still up, right here:
    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/05/tibet-complaint-against-radio-4s-today-upheld-by-bbc-trust/

    thanks for an interesting post and comments.

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  4. Dear Sophie,

    When I click the link, I was connected to a page with a typical green colour background of the CDT and the following message:

    “404: Not Found
    Sorry, the content you requested was not found on this server.

    You might try searching for that which you seek. ”

    Just to let you know that I’m not accessing CDT in China or via a proxy.

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  5. Interesting. I click on the link with no problem, so it must be some technical glitch. In any case, rest assured that the post was not intentionally removed from CDT.

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  6. Sophie: I’m getting a 404 (“not found”) info from your link of June 2.
    C.A.: you may inform Ned that both Australia and Germany might censor the internet ;). He’s been teasing me with (unavailable here) Bugs Bunny videos long enough.

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  7. JR,
    When I told Ned what you said about both Australia and Germany might censor the internet, he looked at me and said blankly, “Don’t be ridiculous!” In Australian slang, he didn’t even beat around the bush.

    Sophie,
    I presume CDT is using a modified wordpress template. You may want to go into the Dashboard to see whether you have accidentally clicked the “Visibility” of you post from “Public” to “Private”. If you can see you blog post while we can’t, the likelihood is that you’ve activated the visibility private option.

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  8. Well… I won’t begrudge Ned his comfortable state of denial. Nobody should eat more facts than he can bear. 🙂

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