Totalitarian powers mostly want foreign journalists to go, but sometimes they want them to stay. China recently detained Michael Smith and Bill Birtles, of the Australian Financial Review and ABC respectively. The men were held in the country so they could be questioned about Cheng Lei, an Australian-born anchor for the state broadcaster, CCTV, who is now being investigated by the authorities. Seven police arrived at Smith’s Shanghai flat late on Thursday night last week and interrogated him, pointing a spotlight in his face. Australian consular officials, who had sensed danger even before this, then gave the two men shelter and got them back to Sydney.
There are now no journalists working for Australian media in China, it is said. It feels as if there are scarcely any British ones either. The BBC still retains a China correspondent, Stephen McDonell (who is actually Australian), but if you google the BBC’s China editor, you see it is stated to be Carrie Gracie, even though she resigned from the post in 2018 because she was annoyed about her pay. The BBC has not replaced her. McDonell tries hard, but the BBC has quietly given up anything like full reporting of China.
In the days of Chairman Mao, the country was so closed that almost all reporting on mainland affairs came from China-watchers based in Hong Kong. In a way, the situation today is even trickier, because the free press is being crushed in Hong Kong. Seventeen foreign correspondents have had their credentials removed this year. Such repression is effective. The western media, especially the BBC, do become more timid (the same problem is acute in relation to Iran). Easier to report lavishly on the evils of President Trump, which, of course, they can do without fear.
This article is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes, available in this week's magazine.
Update: The BBC has been in touch to say that, in addition to McDonell, it has two other correspondents covering this country of 1.3 billion. But still, more than two years after Gracie’s departure, no China Editor.