Why China banned the BBC, and why it matters – CNBC

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The BBC’s Broadcasting House in London

Carl Court | Getty Images

LONDON — There was one less TV channel for China’s 1.4 billion people to tune into during this Chinese New Year after the nation banned the BBC from broadcasting to its citizens.

China’s National Radio and Television Administration said Friday that it won’t allow BBC World News to continue airing inside China and in Hong Kong. It accused the BBC of failing to meet the requirement for news to be truthful and fair, and accused it of damaging China’s national interests. 

The BBC said in a statement: “The BBC is the world’s most trusted international news broadcaster and reports on stories around the world fairly, impartially and without fear or favour.”

It added: “We are disappointed that the Chinese authorities have decided to take this course of action.”

The BBC has recently covered a number of sensitive issues in China, including its treatment of the minority Uighur people in China’s Xinjiang province.

On Feb. 2, the BBC reported on the alleged rape and torture of women in “re-education” camps for Uighurs. The Chinese government told the BBC the allegations were “completely unfounded.” It said the “centers” in Xinjiang are designed to combat extremism and develop Uighurs’ vocational skills.

On the coronavirus, the BBC broadcast footage in December of what appeared to be people being aggressively hauled away for testing by authorities. It also questioned whether China’s death figures can be trusted.

China has criticized the BBC for its reporting on Xinjiang and the coronavirus. The Chinese embassy in London did not respond to a CNBC request for comment but the Chinese government says that its response to the virus has been swift and effective.

Tim Davie, the head of the BBC, hit back at China’s decision on Saturday, saying “media freedom matters.”

The broadcaster’s director general said on Twitter that the latest developments are “deeply worrying” and argued that the BBC should be able to do its reporting “without fear or favour.”

He added: “It is of deep concern when our journalists are restricted and their work curtailed.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday that China’s decision to ban BBC World News in mainland China is an “unacceptable curtailing” of media freedom.

“China has some of the most severe restrictions on media and internet freedoms across the globe, and this latest step will only damage China’s reputation in the eyes of the world,” he said on Twitter. CNBC has reached out to the Chinese embassy in London for comment.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a professional association of Beijing-based journalists, said it was concerned by the reasons China’s National Radio and Television Administration gave for the BBC ban, including the charge that BBC broadcasts have harmed China’s national interests and undermined China’s national unity.

The FCCC said it thinks such language is “intended to send a warning to foreign media operating in China that they may face sanctions if their reporting does not follow the Chinese party line about Xinjiang and other ethnic minority regions.”

A BBC employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the discussion, told CNBC that it’s “obviously worrying for the audience over there that a neutral news service has gone.”

Meanwhile, Matthew Brennan, a China-based technology analyst, told CNBC that the block is a shame, but not unsurprising.

What prompted the ban

The ban comes after Ofcom, the U.K.’s media regulator, withdrew the license for CGTN, which is China’s English language news channel.

Ofcom said on Feb. 4 that CGTN had filed misleading ownership statements and is “ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Richard Sambrook, the former director of the BBC’s Global News division, which was responsible for leading the BBC’s international news services, told CNBC that the BBC ban is a direct response.

“China has predictably responded in kind against BBC World News,” said Sambrook, who is now the director of the Center of Journalism at Cardiff University. “China already bans BBC services in Chinese languages and to a large extent the BBC’s online site. These kind of ‘tit-for-tat’ media moves are reminiscent of past years (during the cold war for example) when they were not unusual.”

Sambrook added: “The moves can perhaps best be seen to reflect a chilling of relationships between the U.K. and China — in line with a shift in relationships between China and the West more broadly.”

Sambrook said BBC World News, which is a commercial operation, will lose out on some income as a result of the ban.

Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said the BBC decision can’t be compared to the CGTN decision.

While the Ofcom decision was about the ownership structure of CGTN, China’s decision to block the BBC was to do with content, Nielsen said.

Nielsen pointed out that anyone in the U.K. can still access CGTN, they just can’t watch it on TV.

“It’s important to remember that while symbolically important, television distribution is trivial really in terms of CGTN’s reach in the U.K. and beyond,” Nielsen said, adding that the channel had less than a million viewers, which is less than half of the Sky Cinema Sci-Fi Horror channel.

“The real audience for that outlet is arguably online and the Ofcom decision doesn’t change anything about anyone’s ability to access CGTN content on its website, via Facebook, via Twitter, via YouTube, or any other means.”

No huge impact?

Kerry Allen, a Chinese media analyst at BBC News who translates, writes, edits and broadcasts stories that have a Chinese media angle, pointed out that the latest move won’t have a huge impact on people in China.

“It (the BBC World News TV channel) can only really be found in hotels and diplomatic compounds, and viewers are accustomed to seeing the screen suddenly turn black when China stories are reported,” she said.

“Chinese media have recently wanted to paint a picture of the U.K. suppressing Chinese voices, and instead highlighting damning reports on China,” said Allen. “There’s a certain irony in government media taking this stance, as this is something that China has already done long-term — censored any media organization that contradicts government rhetoric, and stories that paints China in a negative light.”

Allen pointed out that people in the country are able to access the BBC website and BBC radio stations when they use a VPN, or a virtual private network.

What happens next?

Nielsen said China’s decision to ban BBC World News is more to do with politics than it is to do with media.

He said it can’t really be seen as anything but a “warning shot that any sort of restrictions on China’s ability to project soft power overseas can be met with similar steps in China itself.”

“I think both international media and international journalists are wondering about to what degree and for how long they will be able to report from the mainland in particular if they report on issues that the Chinese government considers sensitive or controversial.”

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