It's a hard tasking trying to sell China these days. What with the crackdown on Hong Kong, the subjugation of Uighur Muslims, sabre-rattling on Taiwan and the coronavirus cover-up, even the most adept propagandists would struggle to present Beijing's rulers in a good light. And sadly for the Chinese Communist Party their current spin-doctors are far from adept, judging by the laughably poor wolf-warrior social media tactics deployed by embassies around the world.
Now though, one weapon has been returned to the regime's armoury here in the UK. Back in February, China’s state TV station CGTN was taken off the air in Britain after Ofcom established that it was controlled by the country’s Communist Party. At the time it was already facing sanctions from the watchdog for its one-sided coverage of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and for allegedly broadcasting prisoners’ forced confessions.
Six months on and the channel is back on air, after Ofcom was force to reverse its position. CGTN's operations in Europe are in French jurisdiction, which under the UK-backed European Convention on Transfrontier Television allow it to air programs in this country. The station yesterday resumed broadcasting, with an oleaginous CGTN spokesman claiming the move 'is in the British public interest' and will enable 'exchanges of information, culture, mutual trust and cooperation.'
Still, judging by the data, CTGN's advocates should not get their hopes up. While little is known about the network's spend on operations here in Europe, mandatory disclosures across the Atlantic show that media bosses spent more than £36 million on its America operations last year. This accounted for nearly 80 per cent of total Chinese spending on influencing U.S. public opinion and imply its European equivalent is a similarly expensive operation.
Past statements of intent would suggest that to be the case. In 2018 CTGN Europe announced grand plans to hire 300 journalists to promote Beijing's agenda in the West. A 30,000 square ft office in Chiswick was hired as a studio and production base; dozens of UK-based news anchors, presenters and producers to were sought to push China’s message to British viewers. The high salaries on offer — up to £160,000 for a director of news — indicated the sophistication of the planned operation.
But CGTN have little to show for all that spend. No video on the CGTN Europe YouTube channel this month has attracted more than 1,000 views; it averages less than five subscribers for every glossily-made clip uploaded. Viewing figures in UK were hovering around 1 per cent viewership share between July 2020 and February 2021; similar numbers to Pakistan's state-backed PTV, India's NDTV 24x7 and American channel Vice. Not a great return, given the significant sums CGTN appear to have spent.
Station bosses will be hoping that second time's the charm in their bid to exchange 'information, culture, mutual trust and cooperation.'