China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday, 11th February that the country’s broadcasting regulator would not be renewing the BBC’s license to broadcast its flagship World News programme, due to a “serious content violation.”
Through an announcement on its website, the NRTA (China’s National Radio and Television Administration) said that the BBC had “undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity,” and that “as the channel fails to meet the requirements to broadcast in China as an overseas channel, BBC World News is not allowed to continue its service within Chinese territory.
The NRTA will not accept the channel’s broadcast application for the new year.” Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, has followed suit, ending its nightly live relay of BBC World News. A BBC spokeswoman stated in an email to reporters that “We are disappointed that the Chinese authorities have decided to take this course of action. The BBC is the world’s most trusted international news broadcaster and reports on stories from around the world fairly, impartially and without fear or favour.” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab also spoke out against the move, calling it “an unacceptable curtailing of media freedom.” He also noted that China already has some of the “most severe restrictions” on such freedoms in the world.
While the NRTA did not offer any specifics for their removal of BBC World News – beyond their claim of a “serious content violation” – the move is not particularly surprising, given the recent series of disputes between the broadcaster and the Chinese state. In December, the BBC produced a report alleging that members of the Uighur minority had been engaged in forced labour in the cotton fields of Xinjiang province. China called these claims “fake news” and accused the BBC of pursuing a political agenda against the Chinese state.
One of the members of the team who reported the story, John Sudworth, later wrote in response that “far from being fake news, our evidence, along with the post-publication propaganda designed to undermine it, is proof of a coordinated effort to control the narrative.” The move also comes a week after Britain’s media regulator OFCOM pulled the Chinese state-run channel CGTN off British television, a move which was due to alleged errors made by the channel in applying to transfer its license to another company. OFCOM’s investigation determined that the company, Star China Media Ltd, did not actually control the content of CGTN, and that content decision were in fact made by China Central Television – which itself is run by the Chinese Communist Party. OFCOM stated that it was, therefore “not eligible to hold a license due to its state links.”
This may simply appear to be a tit-for-tat war over who gets to control the narrative which people – particularly expatriates – get to receive, but the reality goes much deeper than simply media freedoms. The discussion of removing CGTN’s licence began at a time of increased tension between Britain and China, as the decision was made in July 2020 to strictly limit Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in expanding Britain’s 5G network. The ongoing media war is unlikely to have a great impact on either party; BBC World News was previously only available in Western hotels, and even then could often be censored for its content. Similarly, CGTN has never been a mainstay in terms of its viewership in Britain; while the broadcaster does not publish its viewing figures, it seems unlikely that they had a broad viewership beyond Chinese expatriates. Ultimately, it is the removal of BBC World News by Hong Kong that will likely hit harder, due to that region’s historic and linguistic connections with Britain.
While the ramifications so far seem unlikely to do much further harm, they do prompt an important question; how do we define media freedoms? The editorial separation of state and media does not necessarily mean that that media is free or fair. While China undoubtedly has a particularly repressive media climate, Britain’s laws preventing state-linked media neglect to allow the viewer the freedom of choice in their consumption. Both nations have tricky histories with media freedoms, and both need to do more to ensure that media broadcasters can act freely and fairly – but do not go so far as to infringe upon the rights of individual citizens.