Monday, August 25, 2008

After the Olympics: Evaluating the Global Media Coverage

I woke up this morning to Radio National, and heard the BBC report on the 2008 Beijing Olympics closing ceremony. In commenting on it being a spectacle of noise, fireworks and lot of dancers, the BBC reporter commented:

China can do what democracies can't, because its government is not accountable to the voters.

Um, hello? Government in democracies do not spend lots of money on public spectacles? Taxpayers will not accept this, and want the money to be spent on roads, hospitals, schools etc.

Next Saturday, in the city of Brisbane, the democratically elected government will conduct Riverfire, a public spectacle on the Brisbane River involving, yes, noise, fireworks and dancers.

The transparently bogus claim made by the BBC reporter - that only undemocratic governments can put lots of resources into public spectacles - has typified a lot of coverage of the Beijing Olympics, particularly from Britain.

The hold of the concept of totalitarianism on the Western journalistic imaginary has been quit striking. In a way of thinking that was presented by the 'Four Theories of the Press' model back in the Cold War era of the 1960s, the line has been run that in countries with state-run media and one-party governments, all activities are an extension of the monolithic one-party state. This in turn is contrasted to an entirely normative account of how the media actually function in liberal democracies, making everything appear to be a construct of state ideology.

To take another example, Marina Hyde in The Guardian could attribute the large number of volunteers on hand in Beijing to, wait for it, the authoritarian one-party state that China has. The fact that Sydney 2000 could get 50,000 volunteer without resorting to a suspenion fo democratic rule seems to have missed this columnist.

China does need good independent journalism, and does need good independent research on its journalism. The closeness of the government, the CCP and the media is a major issue that needs to be addressed to develop a civil society that can accompany its impressive economic performanc and growing world power status.

But as long as Western media coverage of China remains freeze-locked in the model of totalitarianism that was an artefact of Cold War politics, and as long as it pursues criticism of China that completely ignores its own culture and context, we will have an awkward intellectual stand-off.

Quality work on how the world's media covered Beijing 2008 remains to be done.

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