Last week Ofcom, the body charged with protecting us from seeing undesirable things on our television screens, made a great fuss of taking an action that you might otherwise have missed entirely. It banned the Chinese English-language satellite news channel CGTN from broadcasting to our shores.
This channel is the supposedly beneficent face displayed to the world by the Chinese Communist Party
Before this happened most people, to be honest, had never heard of CGTN. Financed to the tune of billions by the Chinese state, this channel is the supposedly beneficent face displayed to the world by the Chinese Communist Party. It has for some years pumped out a regular soothing diet of Chinese-oriented features, news and current affairs. As with the China Daily newspaper that you can pick up in the lobbies of any number of intercontinental hotels, you don’t have to watch it for very long to spot that it is mainly a machine for spewing out dreary, not-very-subtle pro-PRC propaganda.
CGTN had got Ofcom’s goat in a number of ways. It had broadcast as news a confession of investigator Peter Humphreys admitting complicity in data misuse in China, which had probably been obtained by less than gentlemanly means; and there were suggestions that this was not the only dodgy confession it had aired. Its reporting on the 2020 protests in Hong Kong had not been, shall we say, a model of impartiality. But what finally tipped the balance was that, whatever the theoretical editorial structure of CGTN, there were indications that the actual controller of the station’s editorial content was the Chinese Communist Party: something which contravened Ofcom’s prohibition on political organisations controlling broadcasting outlets.
Ofcom doesn’t often pull the plug on broadcasters. The last time it did so was nine years ago in the case of Press TV, on the ground that its editorial strings were being pulled not in London where it was supposedly based, but by the Iranian government in Tehran. On this occasion, however, the ban was fairly widely welcomed. Iain Dale wrote in Conservative Home, for example, that he had no idea why it had taken so long to ban a blatant propaganda operation, and that Ofcom should now screw its courage to the sticking-place and turn its attention to RT, which does the Kremlin’s dirty work in much the same way as CGTN does Beijing’s.
It it, though, such a good thing that we have taken these steps to neutralise CGTN? Let us accept, since it is true, that the station can be pretty poisonous, and is the speciously friendly mouthpiece for a regime verging on the venomous. There are still a number of reasons for doubting whether we should ban it.
If ever there was a classic case for accepting the effect of the market-place of ideas, and saying that the remedy for bad speech is more speech, this would seem to be it
For one thing, while CGTN is a fairly unpleasant outfit which no viewer should in any way trust further than he or she could throw the substantial figure of Mr Xi Jin Ping, it is not clear what serious harm it does. It is notoriously coy about its viewing figures, but western commentators estimate that in the UK they are pretty low. The idea that in large numbers of households in middle England there is a chorus of “Where’s the satellite remote? There’s something good on CGTN” is preposterous: apart from a few enthusiasts, the reckoning is that most of the viewership is made up of the Chinese diaspora, and that many of them use it as a means of improving their English. Those I have talked to who have watched it have done so mainly out of curiosity and amusement at the blatancy of its PRC propagandising. Indeed, one could argue that allowing organisations such as CGTN (and for that matter RT) to broadcast is not only not harmful but actually beneficial, in that it gives the average viewer in the UK a chance to appreciate the difference between a respectable TV channel and a thinly-disguised government mouthpiece.
For another, there is the argument from free speech. It’s not as if CGTN is calling on people to commit immediate violence or illegality. If ever there was a classic case for accepting the effect of the market-place of ideas, and saying that the remedy for bad speech is more speech, this would seem to be it. There is plenty of coverage of what the Chinese government is up to in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, not to mention as regards Huawei and its spyware; there is no reason to think that this will not reach its mark and neutralise any limited ill-effects produced by CGTN.
Indeed, the freedom of speech argument has a practical side here too. The inevitable result of banning CGTN here will be retaliation by China against the BBC. What we have done, therefore, is this: we have taken steps to silence a body which was doing no appreciable harm here and thereby jeopardised the position of a body which – whatever your private views of the BBC – was doing noticeable good in keeping the people of China better informed than they otherwise would be. The exchange doesn’t seem to be a very good one for us or for the world.
Two further comments are worth making.
First, quite apart from its other difficulties the ban on CGTN is not so much a show of strength as a quixotic gesture in futility. Even if we do ban it from satellite broadcasting to its fairly limited UK audience, it won’t stop its message getting through. Provided you have moderately good broadband, as more and more of us do, you can forgo the remote control and watch CGTN live on your laptop whenever you want. (If you don’t believe me, try: I have just experimentally viewed a fairly dreary programme on the channel about finance). And this is something you can do whatever Ofcom says: streams on the Net from non-European sources are entirely outside its bailiwick.
The ban on CGTN is not so much a show of strength as a quixotic gesture in futility
Secondly, there is a more general point. It is becoming daily more difficult to justify the continued existence of Ofcom’s special powers over the contents of what is broadcast to us. Such control might once have been justified because of the overwhelming prevalence of traditional TV and radio in providing news and entertainment to the British public. But this is no longer the case: broadcast material is now but one source out of many, and one of declining importance at that. As the diving figures for TV licence take-up show, for very many of us the Internet, social media and other sources outside Ofcom’s direct control are rapidly taking over as sources of information. In these circumstances, Ofcom’s fairly draconian powers of control over broadcasting are becoming nothing more than an isolated instance of interference with freedom of speech applying arbitrarily to one specific medium, with little other apparent justification.
If one had to draw a historical parallel, the Ofcom regime is beginning to remind one of the Lord Chamberlain’s department and its supervision of what could be said in the theatre until about fifty years ago. Its interventions were in equal measure quixotic, annoying and silly (they were nicely summed up in A.P.Herbert’s pithy post-war couplet, “We censor all dramas / That mention pyjamas”), until the inevitable happened: the whole ridiculous caboodle of theatrical pre-censorship was swept away in 1968. There’s much to be said in 2021 for treating Ofcom’s interferences in the same way.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe