Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 05:36 | SYDNEY
Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 05:36 | SYDNEY

Journalism in the Asian century


Nick Bryant


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

15 November 2012 12:05

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Let the footnotes of history record that, in the week the Gillard Government published its Asian Century White Paper, Australian readers of The Economist saw on its cover a picture not of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney but of China's new leader, Xi Jinping. The campaign story, 'America on a knife-edge', merited only a sub-heading, and the fourth one at that.

No doubt this would be much to the Prime Minister's liking. In launching the White Paper at the Lowy Institute, some of her strongest remarks were targeted at the local media for neglecting the region on its doorstep, comments that will strike many journalists as a bit rich coming from a leader who once almost boasted of her lack of passion for foreign affairs.

Watching the BBC World News these past few weeks, it was interesting to see my own news organisation give equal billing in its on-air promos to the presidential election in America and the leadership transition in Beijing. In another symbolic move, London dispatched our World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, to Beijing, when at US election time he would normally be reporting from Washington.

Was it not also telling that the New York Times' most explosive story of the past month was an October surprise for the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rather than Obama or Romney? In terms of scandal, Bo Xilai and his wife also served up much richer copy than any of America's political couples. Perhaps for the first time, Chinese politics produced a story with tabloid as well as broadsheet allure.

Australia is well served by its Beijing correspondents, with Stephen McDonell of the ABC and John Garnaut of Fairfax as notable stand-outs. Richard McGregor, an Australian journalist who covered China for the Financial Times, is also the author of the acclaimed The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Elsewhere in the region, there is no shortage of fine Australian journalists reporting back from Japan, Indonesia or Thailand. Just look at ABC's regional strength, with correspondents of the calibre of Zoe Daniel, Mark Willacy and Helen Brown.

But there are supply-side problems. Newsgathering in China is obviously enormously difficult, given the Communist Party's strongly authoritarian, censorious and secretive streaks. Even the most rudimentary information, like the date when the Communist Party conclave was due to end, is hard to come by, according to TIME's Hannah Beech. And it can be difficult for journalists to get accreditation, although China is probably more accessible now than outsiders would think.

Storytelling is also a challenge, and not only because of language and logistical barriers. We are witnessing a seismic global shift, but finding ways of telling that story, over and over, requires imagination as well as diligence.

I found this when serving as the BBC's South Asia correspondent based in Delhi. There were only so many times you could film a call centre or contrast the shimmering mirror glass headquarters of its global out-sourcing giants with the slum conditions nearby. As the BBC's Asia bureau editor Jo Floto told me: 'The story of China is a story of process — of social and economic change — rather than events.' That is why the Bo Xilai story was such a sensation: it was a running Chinese news story that demanded updates everyday.

Asian coverage, in Australia and beyond, suffers more from a shortage of popular demand rather than problems with supply. For the reasons that Michael and Sam discuss, it is inevitable that America's great carnival of democracy, with its rich human tableau, should generate more excitement that the rather monochrome, heavily stage-managed events in the Great Hall of the People. Inevitably, the race for the White House is more riveting than the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee.

So I doubt whether there will ever be parity between the news coverage of America and China. Beijing is unlikely ever to have the news entertainment value of Washington, or box office stars like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Better to hope that a more Asia-literate country will come to demand more Asian news, not out of a sense of geopolitical correctness but through genuine interest.

Clearly there is a long way to go. Just contrast the discrepancy in coverage on commercial news bulletins of the Chinese leadership transition with the visit of Charles and Camilla. In a sign of Australia's resilient Anglo-Celtic heritage, the cameras captured them on Melbourne Cup day watching from the VIP box as Green Moon, an Irish-bred horse, raced to victory.

Let's hope this kind of coverage of Asian Australians will also soon be a thing of the past: Channel Nine's A Current Affair 'racist beat-up' about the 'Asian invasion' of a shopping mall in the northwest Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, which was debunked within hours by the local paper. What Channel Nine put to air was not Australia in the Asian Century. It was Australia in the nineteenth century.

Photo by Flickr user slimmer_jimmer.