Written by Vivien Marsh.

The lesser-known musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber are rarely cited by scholars of Chinese media. However, the international expansion of China’s prime official English-language information channel, CCTV News, frequently calls to mind the one-woman show Tell Me On A Sunday, [i] whose protagonist works her way across America and through an assortment of unsuitable men in pursuit of affirmation and love. “I’ll give up pork,” she tells one particularly ill-matched suitor, “and I will tune that old viola, quote things by Emile Zola (…) There is nothing I wouldn’t do; I’ll be the perfect little lady for you.”

Anyone who spends time watching CCTV in English will recognise the parallels. As China boosts its media provision overseas in pursuit of that elusive concept, ‘soft power’, the CCTV News dragon is seeking affirmation, if not exactly love. It has ‘glocalised’ to sometimes dramatic effect, packaging and presenting news in a variety of styles for viewers on different continents. This dragon currently has three heads – its network centres in Beijing, Washington and Nairobi – which at times face in different directions. Fire-breathing appears to be optional.

As the output is handed during the day from one of CCTV’s network centres to another, the look and tone of the news programmes undergo such radical changes that viewers could be forgiven for thinking they had inadvertently switched channels. The bulk of the news programming still comes from Beijing and mixes a government news narrative inside China, mostly delivered by Chinese reporters, with more nuanced overseas coverage from almost exclusively non-Chinese journalists. This mix is jettisoned when control passes to CCTV Africa in Nairobi, whose content is resolutely African, along with nearly all of its reporters and presenters, even though Chinese journalists are among those working behind the scenes. And CCTV-America – seen as the flagship of the trio – looks globally diverse and sounds glossily Anglo-American, with the focus on international strategy and the United States. Audience opinions are solicited enthusiastically through Facebook and Twitter, both blocked inside China itself.

What, then, is this creature whose image is projected into western living-rooms? You usually know where you are with a dragon, but this one has the capacity to confuse. It is true that international news in general has in the past few years acquired a global ‘face’ – BBC World News television, for example, has departed from its previous, visibly Western-dominated journalistic base to make increasing use of bilingual correspondents reporting from the countries in which they grew up. But when CCTV – as a state broadcaster – adopts similar tactics, the viewer is left wondering whether its message has also changed.

To take one example, the first few weeks of the Hong Kong protests were prominently covered by CCTV News editors in Beijing, with the focus – as one might expect from the Chinese broadcaster – on official pronouncements and disruption to business. However, when the output switched to CCTV-America, Hong Kong news often slid down the running-order or vanished altogether. This may be fascinating for media scholars, but it is perhaps baffling and frustrating for the casual viewer who is trying to get an idea of what China (or at least its leadership) thinks. What is CCTV News for, after all, if not to provide a government angle on issues of the day – including those inside China? The acceleration of China’s media expansion abroad was, after all, partly in response to Beijing’s frustration at the global acceptance of a western, and primarily Anglo-American, perspective on news.

A recent scholarly paper [ii] described conflicting news narratives at CCTV-America as a collision of ‘statist’ and ‘internalized neoliberal’ news values which had left the channel in an ambivalent position, hampering its efforts to break the western domination of global news. A conference in September at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus heard that Chinese media in Africa, too, were engaged in a complex process in which they emulated successful Western formats while attempting to create an alternative news agenda. More subtle forces are at work here: international reports on CCTV News often display a different focus or language from those of their western rivals which needs time and analysis to discern. But for the audience, the question is often a simple one. As a conference at Tsinghua University heard, research suggested that CCTV’s viewers did indeed seek a Chinese perspective and not a repeat showing of what was on CNN or the BBC.

Media pundits in Britain recently fulminated at the launch of a dedicated UK version of the Kremlin-funded news channel RT, seeing in it the antithesis of Reithian ideals of balanced, impartial news. However, Reith did not live in a multi-channel universe in which a plethora of Anglophone international news providers competed for his attention – but in a far less sceptical age, one in which news, dispensed by a monopolistic elite, had to be authoritative and uniform. Today’s channel-hopping, smartphone-wielding news consumers graze their way through a multiplicity of sources on screen and online, many of them unofficial, before arriving at their own view of events. Having banned Press TV of Iran, British regulators now appear to be evaluating impartiality in television news on more of a sliding scale.

It can be argued that a widespread critical attitude to media in a mature market legitimises the presence of news channels tied closely to the state, such as RT UK and CCTV News, alongside more traditional public service broadcasters whose remit is to ensure the existence of a public realm for independent debate on issues of the day. In this context, CCTV News works as a news provider, in the same way that BBC World Service journalists keep an eye on Xinhua, Tass and government organs across the globe while compiling their news. It does not work, of course, within countries whose palette of information is restricted.  In the global mediasphere of the 21st century, transparency and honesty (rather than simply impartiality) are key in the developed world – consistency, too, because building trust takes effort and time. CCTV News might benefit from putting out a unified message in order to attract the overseas audience it seeks.

Vivien Marsh is a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster (CAMRI, China Media Centre) and a former editor on the BBC World Service News Asia-Pacific desk.  She is a CPI blog Emerging Scholar and tweets @vivmarshuk. Image credit: CC by Dr. Xu 徐醫生/Flickr

[i] Lloyd Webber, A., Black, D., Webb, M., & Rabinowitz, H. (1987). Tell me on a Sunday. [Hamburg], Polydor
[ii]Liu, Q. (2014). Ambivalence in China’s Quest for “Soft Power”: A Case Study of CCTV-America’s Multiple News Standpoints.