INTERNATIONAL MEDIA BUSINESS: Dodging the censors

Rachel Oliver investigates how media owners manoeuvre their product within stringent rules of censorship.

Keeping your business profitable while maintaining product quality is a fine balancing act. The more emphasis on the former, and the latter suffers. When your business is media and your product is news, the lines can become distinctly blurred, particularly when your global expansion plan targets markets that don't take too kindly to press freedom. In those countries, the issue then becomes one of deciding where your loyalties lie - to your brand promise or your bottom line.

One of the most restrictive media regimes globally is China, which unfortunately is also the number one target market in Asia, if not the world, for media owners to crack. Here, international news providers are being given a choice: to either tone down their reporting of sensitive issues or risk being taken off the newsstands and off the air.

The BBC was taken off the air for ten days following its coverage of Falun Gong demonstrations during Hong Kong's fifth anniversary handover celebrations earlier this year. The Chinese foreign minister came out and publicly stated that the BBC had "repeatedly" violated conditions set in its broadcast agreement, but would not give any further details of what the BBC had actually done wrong.

"I think the main irritation was that it was featured 14 times that night," Patrick Cross, the managing director of BBC World, says, adding that the dispute was fairly insignificant.

So insignificant, in fact, that the resolution included "no conditions, no new agreements at all", indicating that the channel could be in trouble again in the future if it continues along the same agenda.

Cross is willing to accept this as he says that the BBC's stance remains one where the brand heritage must come before commercial gain.

"Our policy on covering Falun Gong hasn't changed at all," Cross says.

"We've explained to them that the signal goes out globally and we have a duty to explain what happens in the world and it wouldn't necessarily be aimed at China. They respect our values, but there could well be a misunderstanding of our objectives again."

As the BBC signal was only unavailable for ten days, with no China-specific campaigns planned during that time, Cross says there was no disruption on the part of BBC World's advertisers. Nor did anyone mention the incident.

"They know news channels are controversial and they know that our viewers are senior, intelligent professionals, and they also know that the brand has a high level of integrity. If we were to change our editorial policy, they wouldn't be interested."

In China, it is common for the likes of Time, The Economist and Newsweek to be taken off the shelves if the content does not fall in line with Chinese standards. But due to their commanding a tiny part of Chinese adspend, the commercial fallout is not yet so severe as to influence their editorial direction.

The main irritation lies in the route to market. The Economist is read by only 3,000 people in China, so when the 15 June issue was pulled because of a "dossier on China", which was in fact a 20-page country report circulated with The Economist globally, the commercial repercussions were fairly minimal. But out of that 3,000, 1,000 copies were destined for the newsstands, according to Peter Barker, the circulation director at The Economist, and that was the most damaging of all. "Unfortunately, that 1,000 is where our acquisition base is for new readers," he says.

BBC World's viewer figures are fairly small in China, reaching around 60,000 sets in foreign compounds, hotels and some universities. And the vast proportion of ad dollars come from outside China and are bought on a regional or global basis. To that end, any suggestions of commercial pressure to taper its coverage of China is a bit premature. The real test will be when international media are allowed greater exposure in China.

"Advertisers advertise because they know we are above pressure," Cross says. "All governments complain, the British government has complained before about news. But I think we are viewed as putting out fair and accurate reports. Our brand values are about trust and integrity."

One shining example of how brand integrity can live side by side with commercial success is in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's nemesis, the Zimbabwe Daily News, run under the helm of editor Geoffrey Nyarota, has been systematically threatened and terrorised for its unswerving stance on independent journalism.

Its printing press was firebombed earlier this year; its distribution outlets have been threatened with violence in rural and other no-go areas should they dare stock the newspaper; and its own advertisers have been warned to stay away from the newspaper completely.

Despite this, the Daily News has an immense following and has just recently been judged the biggest selling newspaper in Zimbabwe, selling more copies than its nearest competitor, the government-owned Herald.

Government interference with the newspaper's editorial coverage begins with information black-outs. "We don't have easy access to information on the Government, up to the extent that we may not be invited to government press conferences in case we cover it in a way they can't dictate. So it creates a barrier for information," Nyarota says. "Our circulation has been adversely affected by these conditions. Distribution stock outlets frequently refuse to take the paper for security reasons," he says. "They are threatened with violence, so they cannot distribute the Daily News until the situation subsides. We lose sales in those areas."

The circulation currently stands at 80,000, which is not a far cry from its peak of 100,000 before its printing presses were bombed earlier this year. The problem since then has been that the Daily News has had to use a contract printing company "who struggled to print 70,000-75,000". The Herald currently sells to 50,000 readers, exactly half of what it sold at its peak.

Government-affiliated bodies are not allowed to advertise in the Daily News, according to Nyarota, and while the ban does not extend to non-government advertisers, he estimates that about 20 per cent of the paper's advertising base has fallen off since the elections. "It is their fear of being associated with newspapers that have been branded as anti-government," Nyarota says, adding that the paper's advertisers have been pressurised by the Government to pull their adspend.

On the reverse, some advertisers have publicly come out and supported the newspaper, by placing pro-Daily News messages in the newspaper, though bearing in mind that any ad appearing in the paper in these conditions is a statement of support in itself.

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