Posted by: Frederik Balfour on March 24, 2008
In the latest example of ham fisted public relations management by Beijing, the government reportedly plans to ban live film coverage from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics, leaving international broadcast companies including NBC without one of the city’s most photogenic backdrops. What’s next? Putting the kibosh on stand up commentaries from the Great Wall?
According to an Associated Press story carried by the New York Times, it seems the city elders are taking no chances during China’s big coming out party this August where protestors might take advantage of the media coverage to press their issues in front of the global media glare. The Beijing Olympic Committee declined to comment on the motives behind the move. I can’t say I’m surprised? During my own reporting of ambush marketing around the Olympics, the public relations committee indicated that the turnaround for official media queries could take several days at best.
But in a way, announcing the ban is a way of admitting that China’s overt and secret police do not have the security situation as firmly in hand as they would like. Clearly the repression of Tibetan protests that has caused dozens of deaths in Lhasa and perhaps elsewhere in the country has been extremely untimely for China during a year when it’s trying to show its best face to the world, but by forbidding foreign journalists from traveling to Tibet, it has gone back on its promise to give the media unfettered access to the country during the lead-up to the Olympics.
I wonder if the ban will be extended to video camera toting tourists and cellphone users too? While protesters may not be able to reach as broad an audience as they might from network coverage of Tiananmen, impromptu demonstrations will likely still find their way onto the net via Youtube or other user-generated content sites.
And it’s also worth pondering what kind of coverage other media will give to the announcement itself? If I were the head of a network, I might find it tempting to use the news as a peg to roll old footage of PLA tanks rolling down Chang ‘An Avenue on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 1989. Editors like nothing better than running stories about their own industry, especially when it involves attempts at media censorship.
Let’s hope that Beijing reconsiders its position. The attempt to clampdown could well backfire and become another public relations disaster for China which has already had its fair share of embarrassments during the leadup to the August Games. The decision by Steven Spielberg to withdraw his services as an artistic consultant to the organizers of the opening ceremonies in protest over the country’s role in Sudan was the a nasty snub for Beijing, as was the decision by Ethiopian world champion marathoner Gebresalassie to not compete because of health fears about pollution, despite Beijing’s promises that the city will be smog free by the time the Olympic torch arrives.