Acton Institute Powerblog

China’s BBC ban is a warning for those who could crack down on ‘fake news’

Chinese President Xi Jinping. CC BY 2.0)

Shortly after the Capitol riot, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated, “We’re going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation.” This week, China put her words into action. It banished the BBC from Chinese airwaves, allegedly because of the global news service’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and Uighur Muslims’ persecution amounted to “disinformation.”

The BBC reported on its own silencing:

China’s State Film, TV and Radio Administration said that BBC World News reports about China were found to “seriously violate” broadcast guidelines, including “the requirement that news should be truthful and fair” and not “harm China’s national interests”.

The BBC’s reports on Chinese activities “seriously violated the relevant provisions of the ‘Regulations on the Administration of Radio and Television’ and the ‘Administrative Measures for the Landing of Overseas Satellite TV Channels,’ violated the requirements that news should be truthful and fair, harmed China’s national interests and undermined China’s national unity,” according to the government body.

The Chinese Embassy also chided the BBC to “stop fabricating and spreading disinformation.”

The ban – which took effect at 11 p.m. Friday, local time (10 a.m. Friday, Eastern time) – follows years of Beijing artificially limiting its audience. Although the BBC still aired in China, the government had long restricted its reach:

The commercially funded BBC World News TV channel broadcasts globally in English. In China it is largely restricted and appears only in international hotels and some diplomatic compounds, meaning most Chinese people cannot view it.

The global news giant responded with characteristic British reserve, saying it was “disappointed” by its ouster from the world’s most populous country. It added that its journalists “have reported stories in mainland China and Hong Kong truthfully and fairly, as they do everywhere in the world.”

The timing – one week after the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) revoked the broadcast license of China Global Television Network (CGTN) – provoked allegations that the ban represents a tit-for-tat in an international dispute. But for media consumers in the United States, it raises serious concerns about the law of unintended consequences.

The rationale – and some of the steps – taken by China against the BBC are identical to those American pundits have advocated for Fox News and other right-of-center media outlets. CNN media critic Oliver Darcy wrote that a handful of networks including FNC had “helped prime President Trump’s supporters into not believing the truth,” triggering the vandalism of the nation’s Capitol on January 6.

Others have been more pointed.  “We are going to have to figure out the OANN and Newsmax problem,” Alex Stamos told CNN host Brian Stelter. “These companies have freedom of speech, but I’m not sure we need Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and such bringing them into tens of millions of homes.”

Still others, like AOC, have flirted with government actions that would stress the limits of the First Amendment (hardly the only way that socialism violates the Constitution).

The BBC ban is not the first time a foreign power has invoked Western arguments to censor domestic journalists. In April 2019, Vladimir Putin signed a law fining citizens up to 500,000 rubles (approximately $6,800 U.S.) for posting “fake news – unreliable socially significant information that is disseminated as credible messages and poses a security risk.” Putin cited the EU’s adoption of the Code of Practice against Disinformation at the time – a code initially “voluntarily” adopted by various media. But last May, the European Council released a report that the “self-regulatory” nature of the agreement created drawbacks that could only be remedied by “co-regulation” from that global governance body.

Of course, there is more at work in the U.S. media’s calls to defenestrate Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network than civic-minded concern about journalistic integrity. Such a move would also sideline CNN’s most successful competitor. Moreover, the cable providers have a financial stake in this decision: AT&T owns CNN, while Comcast owns MSNBC. Such market interference could trigger an FCC complaint that these companies favored their own product, according to Bloomberg News.

In essence, CNN, Nicholas Kristoff, and others are demanding the cartelization of the news media. A cartel exists to restrict supply, erect barriers to entry, and increase the receipts of its members. By pressuring carriers to drop those expressinig an alternate viewpoint, the “fake news” ban would artificially deprive viewers of choice, competition, and additional perspectives not heard on CNN or MSNBC.

The best means of assuring media integrity is competition. “The media should be viewed in the same way as any other economic activity,” writes Julian Jessop at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs. “This means that, in general, consumers should be free to decide what to watch, hear and read, without having their choices limited by politicians, regulators or a handful of dominant producers.” It is precisely the mainstream media’s dubious coverage, viewpoint bias, and resultant poor reputation that led to the rise of Fox and other outlets in the first place.

Regulating competitors out of business cannot restore the luster of the media’s integrity. It can only deprive individuals of news and commentary that aligns with their own values and beliefs.

And, as leaders in China and Russia show, it can give cover to autocratic tyrants half a world away to bully, cajole, or regulate their critics into silence.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is the former Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty.