Written by Vivien Marsh.

If my former BBC boss Richard Sambrook was right to question the survival of 24-hour rolling television news in the social media age, why are the Chinese authorities now hugely expanding their own such operations in order to get their message across overseas?

China may have banished Western social media infrastructure (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) to the dark side of its Great Firewall, but its own social media apparatus – whether Weibo or Weixin – regularly outflanks state-run media in reporting breaking news, the raison d’être of conventional rolling channels for the past two decades.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss China’s “going global” initiative for its official broadcast media as a box-ticking soft power propaganda stunt, conceived by bureaucrats in offices far from the TV transmission gallery – or, as Professor Rana Mitter suggested in a BBC/Reuters Institute seminar last year, a mere placeholder for a possible future strategy.

But the extent to which Beijing sees television, radio and print – “legacy media” – at the heart of its communications planning was evident at the recent inaugural Sino-British Media Forum in London (see my article in China Report, Vol 09, February 2014: website for online access under construction at http://fm4media.com/).

The declared aim was to build bridges with the Western press – symbolised by the venue inside one of the vast Victorian towers of Tower Bridge.  Around the table, British journalists and news executives faced an array of heavyweight names from China’s leading national official media outlets, from China Radio International to the China Youth Daily and including the CCTV presenter Bai Yansong. The welcoming address was delivered by the combative editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin.  There was no room at the table for the trailblazing Nanfang Media Group; no velvet fist inside the daunting iron glove.

The ritual recriminations had to be got out of the way. Chinese delegates complained that much British press coverage of China was biased and hostile, the product – according to one editor – of a “superiority complex”.  The British contingent retorted that a function of Western media was to hold political power to account, and China should not consider itself singled out for harsh treatment.  British journalists asked for wider access to China to allow them to report more broadly: the Chinese railed against the perceived western assumption that their media were nothing but mouthpieces of the state.  “We criticise the government every day (…) You like to point the finger but we are more subtle.”

But the Chinese side had not come half-way around the world just to complain: they said they wanted to collaborate, brainstorm and learn.  Several indicated that the rise of social media made them uneasy for their futures, and were anxious – in all senses – to trade ideas with their hosts.  Broadcast news remained very much part of the Chinese plan: presenter Bai Yansong felt CCTV was only now developing into a “global station”.

The elephant in the room was the suppression of Western social media in China – dismissed by one Chinese participant as irrelevant – and the blocking of online publications such as the bilingual chinadialogue. At the end of this initial forum participants committed themselves wholeheartedly to continued and broader collaboration. But equally, the representatives of two opposing media systems had spent much time restating the beliefs they set out with.

These mixed messages are mirrored in the appearance of China’s English-language TV news channels for viewers overseas.  Chinese friends observe that the multi-national CCTV News in English “doesn’t look Chinese”.  CNC World, the newer offshoot of the Chinese news agency Xinhua, may look more Chinese but even avid media-watchers in Britain admit they haven’t yet got round to looking at it at all.  What image – or images – of China are being conveyed here?  Are China’s English-language media intended to project China’s values or simply give Western viewers what they’re used to?  The picture is confused.

Far from filling airtime cheaply with talk-shows and debate, CCTV has invested hugely in its English-language newsgathering operation, particularly in South America and Africa.  Television still commands massive audiences, in China as much as in the West.  And the websites of CCTV and CNC World are also set up to cater for online news on demand.  Here, there is serious intent.

Writing for this blog last year, Professor Gary Rawnsley argued that the Chinese government is concerned with the outputs rather than the impacts of its soft power strategies; that it is obsessed with counting viewers, students and aid, while overlooking the more telling issue of how people respond.

But there are times when output is a more reliable measure than impact. Self-censorship and non-reception caused by blanket prejudice cannot be construed as an indicator of quality of content.  If foreign audiences are reluctant to tune in to Africa Live because it is part of CCTV News, this does not prove that the programme itself is inaccurate or substandard. Only through rigorous analysis of output is it possible to establish, for example, if non-Chinese journalists working for an official Chinese news organisation have renounced the news values they acquired in Africa or the West – or if, in acquiring Chinese news values, they have somehow reneged on a commitment to report the truth.

Web 2.0 has opened up a consumption pattern for news media outside western norms that did not exist before.  As Sambrook and McGuire point out, people now use a variety of sources to create their own news agenda.  The whole thrust of social media is routine and willing exposure to a multiplicity of viewpoints.  Why should news aficionados not be interested in what the Russian channel RT says about the Winter Olympics in Sochi, about what CCTV in China says about unrest in Xinjiang? Today’s news consumer is not the credulous, impressionable viewer of fifty years ago.  Seeing is not necessarily believing.  Signals – for now – can remain mixed.

Vivien Marsh is BBC World Service journalist turned doctoral researcher at University of Westminster (CAMRI, China Media Centre), comparing British & Chinese broadcast news. Vivien is a Regular Contributor to the CPI Blog’s Emerging Scholars column and she tweets @vivmarshuk.