Auntie, watch out – the Chinese, Arabic and Russian BBCs are after you

Out on assignment in Iraq this month, I bumped into two fellow newsmen from China Central Television, who have just opened their first permanent news bureau in Baghdad. My first thought was that they were a bit late: Iraq has been simmering down as an international news story since about 2008, and in the wake of the Arab Springs elsewhere in the Middle East, most big TV networks have already either scaled down their Baghdad bureaus or shut them altogether.

However, for CCTV, as it’s known, the new office in Baghdad is just one small pawn in a much bigger expansion plan, which, I was told, has seen them open 60 new bureaus worldwide. I almost dropped my notebook when I heard that. Yes, 60 new bureaus. To an old foreign correspondent like me, raised in an era of constant downsizing, that kind of thing is unheard of.

Yet CCTV’s expansion plan is not borne of some insatiable new desire among Chinese people to learn about the outside world. It’s also so that the outside world can learn about China. Because much of these bureaus’ footage is for CCTV-9, a 24-hour English-language news channel that is broadcast worldwide, offering a Chinese take on global affairs for a non-Chinese speaking audience.

CCTV-9 is just one of a number of well-funded “transnational” English-language news channels that have sprung up in recent years, among them Al Jazeera English, Russia Today, France 24 and Iran’s Press TV. Another, in the same vein, is Euronews, which is quarter-funded by the European Commission.

All have been created, to some extent, to provide an alternative “world view” to CNN and the BBC, whose British-American perspective is seen as dominating international news broadcasting. Indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that some of the main players in this game – Russia, Britain, America, France, and China – are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

So what is the coverage like on these channels? Well, on certain pet issues, bias does occasionally show. Al Jazeera English, in my experience, is seldom entirely detached about Palestine, while Euronews does seem to carry more than its fair share of earnest features about what young Bulgarians think about their “new European identity”.

Press TV’s coverage of Iran’s 2009 uprising was predictably timid, and more disturbingly, the channel was recently fined by Ofcom for running a “confession” from a journalist who had been tortured and threatened with execution. Likewise, I would never entirely trust Russia Today’s coverage of countries in its “near-abroad” such as Georgia or Estonia, although it’s fair to say that Western media is often biased in the other direction.

However, one of the pleasures of covering international news is that it isn’t always that tangled with domestic political agendas, and on a lot of stories, these channels’ approach is no different from the BBC’s or CNN’s. Besides, in the case of Al Jazeera English, for example, a lot of their reporters tend to be ex-BBC, ITV and Sky hacks, for whom basic impartiality is fairly ingrained.

More importantly, though, the lack of any need to cover domestic diary stuff gives them a far greater leeway to pick the more interesting stories on their patch. One Al Jazeera hack who I met recently in a bar in London reckoned he did a better service for viewers now than the BBC or ITV did, especially in the regions.

“I’m based in London but I spent a lot of my time up north in places like Tyneside, looking at what life is like for people up there in the recession. Up there, they don’t give a sh–– about what’s happening in Westminster, it means nothing to them, and yet you watch the Beeb or ITV and that’s all you see. I’m not the greatest reporter in the world, me – I’m pretty average to be honest – but I sometimes get the feeling like I’m the only one doing any regular reporting on these peoples’ lives any more.”

Fair enough, in the interests of journalistic balance and disclosure, I should add that on the night we met, a few drinks had been taken, and my friend may have exaggerated a little. But while it may be sometime before Al Jazeera overtakes Auntie in the nations’ affections, another recent chance encounter suggested to me that he may have a point. This was in the back of a cab in Ireland, when the driver, upon learning that I worked for the Telegraph, informed me matter-of-factly that he now got all his daily news by watching Russia Today.

Read all Colin Freeman’s Telegraph Blog posts here

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