Here in China, COVID-19 has changed the conversation about journalism. We need a similar shift in attitudes back in the UK. #BuildBackBetter
In December, several hospitals in Wuhan began receiving patients with pneumonia of an unknown etiology. From Decemebr 27th to 30th it was becoming clear that a mystery virus was circulating in the city. Wuhan’s health commission published two urgent documents about the illness. At around the same time, doctors in the city were trying to alert their friends and families to to the new danger.
As has been well publicised by now, some of these researchers and doctors were punished by their employers and the authorities. Among them was Dr Li Wenliang – who would later contract the virus himself and sadly died from the resulting illness. Li has become a household name in China because of two posts on his social media; the first attempting to alert colleagues about the virus and the second detailing his subsequent punishment by local police.
Fast froward to February. Caixin, a Chinese media outlet with a reputation for quality reporting, published an in-depth investigative report on the researchers and doctors who had identified the coming pandemic back in December. The same week Caijing, another well known Chinese news outlet, published its own investigation detailing how local officials had obstructed the work of a national investigation team sent to the outbreak’s epicentre in early January. The articles did not mince their words, outright accusing the local officials of “lying”. The pieces were viewed millions of times on Chinese social media.
COVID-19 has ironically offered a sort of proof-of-life for an endangered genre – the investigative report. Although the two articles I mentioned above received the most attention, a number of other respected publications have also published their own hard hitting reports from Wuhan. They’ve covered everything from hospitals struggling to cope with the number of patients to incompetence at a local Red Cross Society of China branch.
The quality of their investigations have been outstanding and have given a much needed boost to the traditional media industry in China. Only 20 years ago investigative journalism was still a haven for idealism as well as a lucrative pursuit. Those days may be gone, in part thanks to competition from digital outlets. Public reaction to the genuine journalistic work being done in Wuhan, however, has offered new hope to outlets willing to conduct such work. From my point of view (as someone with a bit of experience of competing for “clicks” in the digital age) these outlets have offered a strong rebuttal to those expressing doubts about the value of investigative reporting in the “post truth era”.
My hope is that this new found desire for quality investigative reporting will not be unique to China. Certainly the problems in the media are universal. Journalism all over the world is suffering an identity crisis. What’s the point of upholding professional standards such as fact-based reporting and objectivity when all audiences seem to want is sensational content that reinforces their pre-existing biases and prejudices? What is the value of professional journalism? Is it still necessary? Will it be replaced by social media or citizen journalism? Can the industry even survive?
Now grassroots media and citizen journalists certainly have a contribution to make, but we lack the sorts of resources and access to authoritative sources that big media companies have. This, if we’re being honest, limits our usefulness in times of crisis. And we face a future likely to be full of crisis, whether natural or man made. For that reason we need to cultivate dedicated professional journalists and media outlets capable of carrying out challenging investigative reporting under difficult circumstances. In the UK, “journalism” has largely been reduced to rewording press releases to make them sound like news.
I envisage a reformed BBC in the UK, no longer just a mouth piece for the Tory party, among other measures. While internet platforms control access to audiences, media companies still set the news agenda much as they always have. And this in turn still influences politics. We need to break this relationship between the media barons and the politicians. As Lenin pointed out, in bourgeois nations “freedom of the press” is really only a freedom for a handful of media owners. We need to establish a fundamentally different conception of “freedom of the press”, one that benefits the media consumers rather than the media owners. That would mean no more self regulation for the media, for starters. We could also do away with the requirement that journalists must submit questions to the PM in advance of press conferences, thereby avoiding the current situation where only approved questions get answered.
Back in Wuhan, under growing public pressure and media scrutiny, the police have finally apologised to the family of Li Wenliang. The apology came a few hours after China’s top anti-corruption agency released their investigation into Li’s death. “The punishment issued by the police station was inappropriate, and the law enforcement process was non-standard”, the investigation concluded. The investigation had found that the two police signatures to the punishment had in fact been signed by the same officer – the second officer had not been involved in the process. The local authorities were ordered to correct their error and hold the relevant individuals responsible.
Nearly two months after Li’s death, hundreds of people are still leaving comments under his two social media posts every day. One such comment reads: “We know you can’t hear us, but we came here to tell you there’s finally an apology”.