Media censorship, whether it’s in the interest of the government or the business it amounts to the same thing


Media systems around the world differ from each other on a number of bases. The history, social identity, economic and political structure of each country is reflected in their media. China, a nation in a state of change, has seen an influx of free-market and liberalised ideals in their media landscape which can still be described as communist in nature. Australia, a constitutional democracy, though still largely conservative, inherited a more liberal, western media system, which enjoys a perceived independence from government control.

This essay will give a general overview and comparison between the media systems of China and Australia. However, it will also examine the many similarities between the two and offer insight as to how their systems and practice of journalism are more similar than some would have one believe.

Media systems a reflection of society in which we live in

Hallin and Mancini (2004) suggest that news media systems are a reflection of the society within which they operate, and that one cannot fully grasp the concept of differing media systems without an understanding of the political and economic structure of that particular society or country.

One cannot understand the news media without understanding the nature of […] the system of political parties, the pattern of relations between economic and political interests, and the development of civil society, among other elements of social structure (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 8).

This assumption is based on Siebert et al (1956) who pioneered thought on different media systems in an effort to understand the basis on how the news media operates. Siebert et al (1956) defined the ‘four theories of the press’: Authoritarian, Libertarian, Communist, Social responsibility. Each theory is based on the political and social structure of the country within the news media operates.

The press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within it operates. Especially, it reflects the system of social control whereby the relation of individuals and institutions are adjusted. We believe that an understanding of these aspects of society is basic to any systematic understanding of the press. (Siebert, 1956)

However, due to increased globalisation and the rise of the Internet, McKenzie (2006) suggests that the four theories of the press or the more modern interpretation, the normative theories of the media, are biased and do not reflect the purpose of the media. McKenzie (2006:72) indicates that normative theory has been conceptualised into philosophy, which enable identification of the values that underpin a particular media system. He also presents two contemporary philosophies: Developmental and Democratic-Participant. (McKenzie 2006: 72)

Chinese media model

Beijing Media Corp Expects US$100 Million In Listing In Hong Kong
A newstand in China. Photo: Getty images.

McKenzie (2006:76) identifies the Chinese media model as the communist philosophy, which originates from the primary writings of Karl Marx who theorised that common ownership of production controlled by a centralised government would direct a more egalitarian society with an absence of class distinction. In terms of the communist media system, the government largely own, control and promote media content.

China’s largest and most prominent media organizations- Central China Television (CCTV), the People’s Daily Newspaper, and the Xinhua News Agency- are all agencies owned by the government. (McKenzie, 2006:86)

McKenzie (2006:86) argues that China has an Authoritarian second-philosophy, which is characterised by obedience to the state and its leader (McKenzie 2006:73-74). Obijiofor and Hanusch (2011) explain that the authoritarian elements in China’s media are the remnants of past propaganda usage during the reign of Mao Zedong from the mid 1940’s to the dictator’s death in 1976. The regime spread Maoist doctrines though the mass media (Huang, 2002; Obijiofor et al., 2011:34).

There was no such thing as press freedom. Press criticism was not tolerated and so too (sic) was bad news. (Huang, 2002; Obijiofor et al., 2011:34).

It was not until 1978, where Deng Xiaopeng came to power and began to reform China’s political and economic systems, that the media landscape changed (Sun, 1996; Chengju, 2001; Obijiofor et al., 2011:34). Western news agencies were permitted to establish bureaus and offices in China, which enabled a shift away from propaganda and more press freedom (Huang 2002; Obijiofor et al., 2011:34).

This historical perspective is crucial to understanding China’s changing media today. As the country moves towards a more free-market economy so does the media, liberalist ideas are mixing into the traditional communist and authoritarian systems. China is seeing strict censorship and control whilst introducing some freedom of the press.

A move towards a more free press in China

Tibetan monks lead a prayer vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London in 2012. Photo: AFP

Freedom of the press is theoretically guaranteed under the 1982 Constitution, which provides rights of freedom of speech, assembly, association and procession and demonstration. However, these rights are restricted by other clauses relating to social stability and national security, interests of the state, and the primacy of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. (McKenzie 2006:107)

Complete private ownership of traditional media as well as direct foreign ownership is forbidden. Newspapers require registration to a government or state-sanctioned organization whilst private ownership of internet service providers is permitted albeit with more stringent rules and regulations (McKenzie, 2006:106).

In China, the government regulates the media, however, it also allows the media to self regulate in areas regarding entertainment. McKenzie emphasises that whilst the media is becoming more commercialised that does not equate to being liberalised.

On one hand, the government is more lenient and tolerant […] On the other hand, the government exercises strict ideological control over information flow in the media. (McKenzie, 2006:106).

Whilst China’s media landscape is diversifying it has not changed its fundamental political role. Censorship on issues critical to top officials is still prevalent, indeed Stockmann and Gallagher (2011) cite that:

Marketization of the media can coexist with the authoritarian political control over media content. (p 442)

Australian media and its British roots


Australia primarily follows the British and, more recently, the US models of the press (Henningham, 1993: 77-78). According to McKenzie (2006:84), the underpinning philosophy that influences the UK media is social responsibility, which is characterised by the relative freedom of the press adhering to codes of conducts incorporating notions such as fair balance. This can be seen in Australia through the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of conduct, where journalists are to do their utmost to abide to these principles (MEAA, 2014).

In Australia, professional guidelines such as the MEAA drive journalists’ work. Depending on which media, the public can make complaints to either the regulatory government body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), or the Australian Press Council which is the regulatory arm of, and is funded by, Australian newspapers and magazines (Finkelstein, 2012:19).

Comparatively to China, media organisations are privately owned, such as Fairfax Media, and some are also funded by the government, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). However, the role of the government is to remain unobtrusive but observant to failures of media self-regulation (McKenzie 2006:78).

Social responsibility philosophy positions media ownership as a public trust wherein media organisations have certain obligations to society and exist primarily to serve the public. (McKenzie 2006:78)

However, Hallin and Mancini (2004: 22) argue that a distinguishing feature amongst differing media systems is the development of the mass circulation press. Their Anglo-American or Liberal Model of the media stipulates that the commercialised media is more dominant and oriented towards a mass audience that is not necessarily interested in politics (Obijiofor et al., 2011: 20-22).

A concentration of media ownership and the interests of the business


Privatisation in the western world leads to a commercialisation of the news which is defined by any action intended to boost profit that interferes with a journalist’s or news organisation’s best effort to maximise public understanding of those issues and events that shape the community they claim to serve (McManus 2009; Obijiofor et al., 2011: 156).

Rhetoric surrounding media freedom allows for deregulation of the market, which has been argued by the likes of Petley (2009) to lead to a concentration of media ownership. The result is a lack of diversity as is the case in Australia, highlighted by the Finklestein review in 2012, in regards to the newspaper industry, which is predominantly owned by Fairfax and News Corporation. The ensuing lack of pluralism accentuates forms of market censorship.

Market censorship […] relates not only to the idea that media control not just determines the content to a large extent but also that the market actually re-invents the concept of media freedom to serve its own purposes. (Steel, 2012:160)

An Australian example of the this sort of behaviour could be the Daily Telegraph’s response to the government’s proposals to amend the privacy act, in 2013. The Daily Telegraph reported that the government intended to impinge on press freedom and equated proposed regulations to improve responsibility with (implied) authoritarianism. (Media Watch, March 2013)

Herman and Chomsky (2008 [1998]) argue that:

The way in which the media explicitly orientates itself towards the goal of making a profit, at the expense of genuine democratic deliberation, betrays the news media’s limitation in its provision in sustaining an arena for debate and dialogue. (Steel, 2012:162)

Picard (2004) explains that the quality of journalism suffers when media organisations place their business interests above the public interest.

For example, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son spent a little over a week in Australia, details of their trip monopolised Australian media attention to the detriment of issues in Ukraine, where there was one journalist, and to South Sudan, where there was none at all (Media Watch 28 April 2014).

Compared to governmental control

News organisations, like Bloomberg and Murdoch’s empire, have allegedly intentionally suppressed information concerning China in the fear of economic repercussion on their business. For example, Murdoch has, in the past, put a stop to publications critical to China (Petley 2009).

More recently in 2012, Bloomberg published a series on top Chinese political corruption, which was consequently censored in China. Due to a fall in revenue, Bloomberg allegedly put a stop to following investigations into the corruption in 2013 (Media Watch 28 April 2014).

This highlights the fact that censorship effected by political threat in China is not so dissimilar to self-censorship in the west to protect financial interests.

In addition, in some areas such as the prohibition of pornography on television, viewing regulations both China and the Anglo-western media systems have recourse to authoritarianism, or external regulations (McKenzie, 2006:86). Also Australia imposes limits to free speech via defamation and contempt laws.

Journalists operating in these systems

The theoretical framework governing journalists’ practices can be characterised by professional, educational, cultural, societal and organisational norms and values amongst other subtle contributors (Obijiofor et al., 2011: 37-60).

The role of the journalist is perceived similarly in both Australia and China. For example, the primary perception of news amongst journalists surveyed by Weaver (1998a) was getting information to the public (Obijiofor et al., 2011: 45). The importance of acting as the public watchdog rated highly in western countries, including Australia, whilst the importance was less so in other developing democratic or newly democratic countries such as Taiwan. However, Weaver (1998) notes that Chinese journalists placed the role of watchdog higher some other western journalists.

As Weaver pointed out, ‘what journalists in a survey say is sometimes inconsistent with what they do in practice.’ (Obijiofor et al., 2011: 45).

In a case study Wang Jun, a journalist working for Xinchua News agency at the time, observed the near demolishing of a heritage site, Cai Yuanpei’s house, China’s Voltaire, by the government to allegedly make way for new construction. Jun rushed to the scene took photos and conducted interviews to proceed back to the office and compile a report for the internal governmentally circulated ‘neican’; it is necessary for media outlets to report any matter that would harm the Chinese Communist Party. Here, Jun clearly acted within his own moral framework whilst abiding by organisational policy. (Polbaum, 2008:20)

Obijiofor and Hanusch (2011) note that there is an ideological dissonance between the communist model and the growing market demands.

In the short span of a few decades, journalism education in China has evolved into a mixed culture with Chinese educational mentality expressed in Russian-style operation built on an American foundation. (Obijiofor et al., 2011:76). In China, journalism education or obtaining a degree before entering the work force seem to be the expanding norm (Obijiofor et al., 2011:68).

Australia has only in recent years moved from an apprenticeship based learning system to an importance placed on obtaining an undergraduate degree followed by a one-year cadetship or traineeship with a media company (Obijiofor et al., 2011:70-71).

As mentioned previously Australian journalists abide by codes of ethics governing their media organisation, which would be based on the MEAA codes of ethics. The MEAA code of ethics is described as the fundamental social responsibility principles of journalism.

Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. […] They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. Alliance members engaged in journalism commit themselves to: Honesty, Fairness, Independence, Respect for the rights of others. (MEAA website 2014)

The Australian and Chinese models of media vary in a number of ways. The Australian model is based on social responsibility principles and the Chinese model is based on communist philosophy. However, the media are powerful institutions that have the capacity to control, adjust human interests and dictate what is in the public domain. In a changing world, the media is in a constant state of conflicting ideals as their interests compete with that of the public consumer.

As Siebert writes:

All human societies, it seems, possess an inherent capacity to develop systems of social control whereby the relations of individuals and of institutions are adjusted and common interests and desires are secured. (Siebert 1956:10)


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