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All Eyes on Beijing

Aired August 8, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, all eyes on Beijing. Will issues of human rights and press freedom overshadow China's Olympic showcase of the world? And a guaranteed bestseller, as the first pictures of the Jolie Pitt twins are published, we look at the trade and family photos of the rich and famous.

It seemed one world, one dream, the summer Olympics are the biggest event on the world stage at the moment. But the lead up hasn't gone without controversy, especially when it comes to press freedom.

This week, China was forced to apologize after police handed a beating to two Japanese journalists in Jing Jang province. Separately, news outlets found their access to some Internet sites had been blocked. Access was later restored, but Beijing appeared to set new obstacles for journalists wanting to report from Tiananmen Square.


SUN WEIDE, BEIJING OLYMPIC ORGANIZING COMMITTEE: With regards to domestic and international journalists who wish to interview and film Tiananmen Square, we ask local and foreign journalists to call the Tiananmen area administrative authority in advance to reserve their time.


SWEENEY: While thousands of reporters, camera crews, and support staff are keeping an eye on what's happening at the games, the main press center can cater for 5,600 journalists. But it's estimated up to 30,000 media people are on hand to cover the Olympics.

Let's get a sense of what it's like to be one of them. And for that, we turn to CNN's Anjali Rao in Beijing.

What's it like to be there?

ANJALI RAO: Fionnuala, the sense of excitement here is almost palpable. And it changes on a daily basis. When I was here last week, it was a lot quieter. Busy, anticipation, certainly, but not going off like it is at the moment.

Journalists absolutely everywhere you turn. There are about 30,000 of us now. And you know, even in the hotel where we're staying, every other room is taken up by reporters and camera crews from all sorts of various news outlets.

SWEENEY: Well, of course, three weeks of the Olympic games, so it's a very long learning curve. Do you get the sense, though, at the beginning of these games that the Chinese authorities really are able to cope with this huge influx of numbers of media?

RAO: They seem to be able to cope, certainly. It's not the most refined of handling of media, though, because they're just not used to this. This is the first time that Beijing has ever had to open its doors to the world like this. And therefore, to all the cameras being trained on it.

So yes, I mean, we are certainly under constraints at ever turn. And you know, we've got licenses and passes and accreditations. And you've got to have every single one of them on you at all times because you will be stopped and you will be asked to present these or else.

You know, China is just not accustomed to this. Of course, the great hope amongst, you know, many outlets is that this will be the start of a major turning point in the way that China learns how to deal with foreign media in the future after the cameras are gone away at the end of the Olympics.

SWEENEY: And you know, in the West, there has been quite a bit of focus on arrests and detentions in and around Beijing and the run-up to these games. Do you think perhaps that there's been an over emphasis on that from where you're actually sitting? Or do you get a really sense of a joyful mood as you've been describing in the days leading up to the opening to the games?

RAO: I wouldn't call it overemphasis. I mean, the thing is that there have been a number of instances in recent weeks where China's authorities have responded to journalists in a less than favorable fashion. And they've done it while the cameras are running. So the whole world has been able to see instances such as when a camera crew from Germany's ZDF Television were filming and had permission to film on the Great Wall a couple of weeks ago. The authorities there just did not want them to be there at all for whatever reason and demanded that they leave. A bit of a fracas ensued, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

A week after that, Hong Kong's cable television had a news crew out. They were permitted to be where they were, and were firmly shut down. And things just all kicked off.

Again, a sort of a pushing and shoving match ensued between the journalists and the authorities who were on the ground. So you know, China's higher ups have said we will respect press freedoms in - during the games. Whether that's actually trickled down to the lower levels of security personnel here doesn't necessarily seem so. And that's definitely a shame, but it is something that one hopes will change as China becomes more accustomed to it.

From a personal standpoint, though, I haven't felt constrained or restricted in any way. So far, so good.

SWEENEY: In Beijing, Anjali Rao. Have a good games and thank you very much indeed.

Well, the next few weeks will show whether the issues surrounding human rights and press freedom will overshadow the spirit of competition. On the big question, whether China will meet its commitment to allow full access to the media, journalists are testing Beijing's pledge of openness, pressing China when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. We've been discussing the Beijing Olympics and the media. A condition of staging the games, China had to be more open with the press. The Olympic charter states the IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

Well, China's pledge to meet that requirement has come into question recently. Officials this week apologized for the beating of two Japanese journalists by police in Western China. At the same time, as it told news outlets, they would need advanced permission to report from Tiananmen Square.

So with the world watching, how will China cope in the media spotlight, especially if the news isn't positive? I'm joined from New York by Mike Chinoy. He's the former chief of CNN's Beijing bureau and the network senior Asia correspondent. He's now a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy and author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

Here in the studio is John Sweeney, reporter with the BBC's Panarana program. And he recently traveled to China to test the country's pledge of openness towards the media. Also with us is Bingchun Meng, media lecturer with the London School of Economics.

Mike Chinoy, you've recently returned from Beijing. Is China living up to its policy of openness towards the media?

MIKE CHINOY, SENIOR FELLOW, PACIFIC COUNCIL ON INTL. POLICY: No, I think it's very clear that the Chinese pledges to allow the media to operate freely are largely not being honored. I think there are several reasons for this. And one is the extreme level of uptightness on the part of the Chinese government concern that anything might happen that would mar the Olympics. I think also the Chinese system in general, even if at a very high level, the leadership says we're going to be more open in an authoritarian political system. And that message doesn't filter down. And so, a lot of reporters, not only in Beijing, but elsewhere in the country, are running into local officials, who have no awareness that the central government did in fact issue instructions last year, allowing greater access for the media.

And so, you have a kind of collision between reporters and the Chinese state and the Chinese security apparatus, which has gotten more and more uptight as the approach of the Olympics has come.

SWEENEY: Presumably, John Sweeney, you recently did a panorama program on your visit to China. You would agree with Mike?

JOHN SWEENEY, REPORTER, BBC PANARAMA: Yes, it's like driving a car, what you Americans call a gear shift or whatever, gear shift. And you never know what gear you're in. Sometimes you think you're in first or second, and you're actually in reverse. And you do not know what the consequence of the question or the consequence of chasing the story can be.

On some stories, we found in the province there's no problem. On the environment, on the economy, okay, our mind - not all journalists these days have a mind. But because we were following the torch, we were (INAUDIBLE) the five weeks we had a mind from the state administration.

SWEENEY: But you weren't necessarily just following the torch. I mean, you...

J. SWEENEY: Well, we were criss crossing. But we talked to people. I mean, our story was the reality of modern China. And so, that meant that we also talked to people who were critical of the government.

There's a big thing here. There is the government of China controlled by the communist party. And then there's the people of China. And they're not the same. There is a difference. And when you try and talk to people that are critical of the communist party, fine, you're in reverse gear. You're going backwards quickly.

SWEENEY: But I'm just wondering in your bid to cover the torch as it went through China, did you have to give advance notice of the Chinese authorities about that? Did they think you were specifically there to do that?

J. SWEENEY: Yes, well, we gave up advance notice. We negotiated with them, but our bottom line was we're doing a film about the realities of modern China, not just the realities of modern China the Chinese government want us to report.

So when we started talking about Tiananmen Square where the guide lost his legs there...

SWEENEY: Pen Cheng (ph).

J. SWEENEY: Pen Cheng (ph), our minds had popped up can we skip this bit, please? This is sensitive.

Now how that squares with openness, I don't - it doesn't square with openness. And the same when we went to the earthquake two weeks on the question. It's not well done for the army for rescuing people immediately after the earthquake. The question is why have so many schools fallen down? How many school children died? Who built this school? Were they honest? Were they corrupt? And the moment we saw to (INAUDIBLE), those questions are mind came in and stop people from talking.

SWEENEY: Bingchun Meng, as a media lecturer, albeit at BLFE, I'm wondering being Chinese whether you sense that perhaps the Western media have too high expectation of Chinese openness towards the media in general at this stage in China's evolvement?

BINGCHUN MENG, MEDIA LECTURER, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, I probably wouldn't frame it as the issue of whether having higher or lower expectation. But I do nowadays especially with, you know, overwhelming coverage of Beijing Olympics sometimes I do get a bit tired of the pre- existing notion about what's wrong with China. And especially for Western journalists who would go there with more or less preconceived framework...


MENG: ...of how they are going to report on issues in China. I mean, I think the Olympics in this sense provide a great platform for Western journalists when they go in China and when they actually try to understand this big complex country.

They are a lot more going on their besides the human rights and freedom of expression issue. So I think in that sense, I would say on the optimistic side, this is a good platform for Westerners to get to know more about this complex country.

SWEENEY: I'm just wondering, John, to pick up on that, did you go there with a preconceived notion about China's openness?

J. SWEENEY: Well, I only worked for the BBC. And the Beece (ph) and for broadcasting. And the point is it's not narrowcasting. It's not just talking about the things that the government wants us to talk about.

But also, there's a thing about journalism. Now I don't get out of bed to say listen everybody, the sky is blue, the weather's nice, and the economy's booming. That's boring. That's not journalism.

Journalism is about taking people to account. People in power to account. And that means that the Chinese government say we're going to be more open, we're going to make progress with democracy and human rights, as they did, then the moment that starts not happening, it's a story.

So to be honest, the story that was most fascinating wasn't all of the skyscrapers and the big cities, but it was the extent to which ordinary Chinese people were prevented from talking to us by our state minder.

SWEENEY: Mike Chinoy, if I can bring you in. There does seem to be a distinction to be made between what I often glean in the Western media of headlines of being bad news and what authoritarian states, and you know, former communist states always wanted only good news. And somewhere maybe the truth lies in between.

CHINOY: I think the situation in China is multiple shades of gray. There's no question - I first visited China in 1973 when everybody was wearing a blue or gray jacket. Everybody had a little pin of Chairman Mao on their lapel. The state controlled where you were, where you lived, whether you could travel, who you married. It was a suffocating totalitarian system.

If you go to China today, the degree of personal freedom as opposed to political freedom that ordinary people have is absolutely astonishing. It's greater than at any time since the Communist party took power in 1949. That is an astonishing, almost revolutionary, change. And it has really improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese.

The problem is that this is not a simple transition. It's messy. It's complicated. There are internal tensions. There are winners. There are losers. And for journalists to try and report that, as John points out, it's the right thing to do, but that brings you into conflict with a political system and a ruling party, which even as it's allowed its remarkable internal change to happen, still has very strict and rigid notions about how it wants to be presented, especially at this sensitive time of the Olympics. And so you have a clash here.

SWEENEY: When you mention sensitive times, Mike, I'm wondering do - have you noticed that there's been greater sensitivity of late? Or have we just been happening to hear because there are more journalists in China at the moment of arrests and detention of people and of journalists and the need, for example, for a (INAUDIBLE) now to get into Tiananmen Square?

CHINOY: Well, there are a couple of elements. The context, don't forget, in March, you had riding in Tibet, you had attempts to disrupt the Olympic torch relay outside China. I think this really unsettled the Chinese government. And I think it fueled this sense of paranoia and it provided an opening for the security apparatus to flex their muscles. And they're now driving the decisions.

And in China, any but - it's political suicide, professional suicide for somebody to challenge the judgment of the security apparatus. So I think there - the anxiety about presenting a perfect Olympics was exacerbated by what happened in the spring. And the other thing is this is not a system that's equipped to deal with thousands and thousands of inquisitive foreign journalists, asking difficult questions. It's not the way it works in China. So you do have a clash. And I think that's going to result - has already and will continue to result in uncomfortable and unpleasant episodes throughout the Olympics.

SWEENEY: Bingchun Meng, would you agree? I mean, who will be the winners and losers? And what will determine who within China are the winner or the losers dependent on foreign media coverage of the Olympics?

MENG: Well, I'm not sure I can give a specific forward answer to that question, because...

SWEENEY: China...

MENG: ...I do agree that given the context of what happened especially during March and April during the torch relay, it really exacerbates the extent of security that you see nowadays.

And another thing I want to add to that is that if you think about how other Chinese people considered this whole issue, how they perceived this within the context of the - what happened during the torch relay. And I think if something goes terribly wrong during the game at the end, I would say one of the outcomes would be that Chinese - that it would further fuel up this very nationalistic sentiment of Chinese people, which you know, they - it will be further reinforce the idea that we are against the rest of the world. The West doesn't want a strong China.

SWEENEY: And what would be the repercussions...

MENG: Which I don't think...

SWEENEY: China then?

MENG: a very positive thing.

SWEENEY: What would be the repercussions for China and inside China if that were the case?

MENG: Well, I think, you know, nationalistic sentiment, I am always kind of being suspicious toward that kind of sentiment. And I don't think that it's a very healthy psychological condition if China really wants to join the world, and be a major player in the global arena.

SWEENEY: Briefly, if I may ask you, have you noticed being based here in London, what are the differences you notice between Chinese media coverage of any given event and Western media coverage?

MENG: Well, to take the Tibet and the torture relay issue as an example, there is such drastic contrast between what the Chinese side of the story and what's the Western side of the story.

SWEENEY: And what are your thoughts about us?

MENG: I think I would say both are biased. But I think that the fact there is an opportunity now for us to confront - to have a confrontation and to have this clash, and in a sense, I would say dialogue is a form of communication. And the clash and confrontation maybe is also a form of communication.

And I would only hope that the end of the day, something positive can be produced from this.

SWEENEY: A final question to you, John Sweeney. In - when you went to China, did you go there to test this system with a preconceived idea? And were you surprised or otherwise by the outcome?

J. SWEENEY: Well, I'd never been to China before, China proper. And I wanted to see what it was like. But I was also there to do my job, which was the whole people in power to account. I have to say ordinary Chinese people were fantastic. I mean, rather too many Manchester United fans for my taste. But other than that, people were incredibly open and friendly and welcoming.

Chinese people were. But they weren't the people. It was officials of the communist party who said where's your passport, you can't do this, who followed us around in sinister cars. Not ordinary Chinese people. So there is I say - made the same point again, but there is a mismatch between the Chinese people and the communist party that rules China. And we were there to do our job, which is - ask the Chinese Communist party who says we're not free to report? You?

SWEENEY: And interesting few weeks ahead. Mike Chinoy in New York, thank you very much indeed. Bingchun Meng here in London, also John Sweeney, thanks.

Now million dollar babies, the Hollywood stars who earn fortunes on their family photos and the magazine who locked in battle for the rights. We take a look at the new baby boom.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. A super model once said she didn't get out of bed for less than $10,000. Now it seems Hollywood babies don't even need to do that to bring in the cash as the long awaited photos of the Jolie-Pitt twins prove.

This week, the magazine's "Hello" and "People" published the pictures. They reportedly paid the mother and father $14 million for the rights.

CNN's Phil Black takes a look at a potential goldmine for celebrities who open their family albums to the world.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "Hello" magazine calls it the biggest exclusive of the year, photos of the Brangelina twins, Knox and Vivienne, just three weeks after birth. "Hello" has the international runs. "People" magazine in North America. Together, they're said to have paid a record $14 million.

DARRYN LYONS, BIG PICTURES PHOTO AGENCY: The babies don't look very impressed.

BLACK: Darryn Lyons calls himself Mr. Papparazzi. He's made millions selling unofficial photos of Brad and Angelina Jolie. He's not shocked by the cost of their latest family snaps.

LYONS: They are the number one celebrity couple in the world. And the world wants to see those babies.

BLACK: But it's not just Jolie and Pitt who command big money from magazines to access to their children. Jennifer Lopez reportedly received $6 million from "People" for photos of her twins. For new dad Matthew McConahuey, it was $3 million from "OK" magazine. Proud mom Jessica Alba, $1.5 million. And even Britney Spears younger sister Jamie Lynn got away with $1 million for pictures of her child.

Darryn Lyons calls it the new celebrity baby boom.

LYONS: Hollywood is manipulating their kids. And you can't scream privacy really when you're throwing your newborn in front of a lens that doesn't even really know what's going on.

But I'll tell you what. Those babies are serious new cash these days.

BLACK: Brad and Angelina have done this before with their other children. Once again, they're giving all the magazine money to charity. But public relations experts say the couple still profits indirectly.

MARK BORKOWSKI, CELEBRITY PUBLICIST: What a publicity coup. The only controlled images from controlled messages, but you're doing some good. And every celebrity A lister knows that their brand has to be seen to be doing good.

BLACK: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes didn't take any cash for pictures of baby Suri in "Vanity Fair." But Nicole Kidman recently declared she won't be doing any deal for photos of her daughter Sunday Rose.

But it's not a new moral challenge for famous parents. This little guy is Desi Arnaz, Junior, the son of entertainment legend Lucille Ball. He was on the cover of the first edition of America's "TV Guide" back in 1953.

More than half a century on, the market in celebrity baby photos has become very big business.

Phil Black, CNN, London.


SWEENEY: Check out our website if you want to see that story or any part of the show again. You'll find us at And while you're there, you can view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. The address again,

Well, that's all for this edition of the program. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.