China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced the recipients yesterday of the first WMS Global Awards for Excellence. Drawing a blank are you?
“WMS” stands for World Media Summit, an ostensible non-governmental association China started ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as an initiative to enhance its “soft power,” which then-President Hu Jintao had prioritized in his 2007 political report to the National Party Congress.
Although the WMS was, according to Chinese state media, “co-launched by Xinhua News Agency and other major media organizations around the world,” the event has always been solidly China’s prerogative, and these “major media organizations” have A) refused to acknowledge any clear institutionalized involvement in the WMS, and B) done no reporting at all about the summit itself, which only China has loudly touted.
The World Media Summit is hosted in Moscow in July 2012. Photo: Xinhua
After Xinhua reported in October last year that the host of the 2014 WMS would be the New York Times — whose chairman, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., was in China that month as a member of the summit’s supposed governing body, the “presidium” — the Atlantic approached the Times to ask about the nature of its participation in the WMS.
The response from Eileen M. Murphy, the Times‘ vice president of corporate communications, revealed both how nebulous the WMS was organizationally, and the primary motivation of participating media organizations — namely, access to the China market.
In an email interview, New York Times Vice President of Corporate Communications Eileen M. Murphy said governance procedures for the WMS are “just beginning to be developed, but we think it’s in the interest of free press issues for us to be part of the process.
“We have no illusions about China’s motivations in creating the World Media Summit,” she said, “but we believe that it is important to engage with China on many levels and the WMS is one opportunity to do so.”
Murphy added that the Times was hosting the 2014 WMS “precisely because we believe strongly in promoting press freedom around the world and we feel there is no better way to do so than to invite members of the world’s media, including China’s media, to engage in a dialogue on our home turf.
The plans for the New York Times to host the WMS in the United States seem to have flopped. There has been no news whatsoever about the “third World Media Summit” or the WMS presidium since Xinhua first reported news of the plans agreed by the presidium in Hangzhou on October 10, 2013.
The global news awards that were decided — again, according to Xinhua — at the Hangzhou meeting of the presidium apparently have gone forward, however. (For a list of all recipients of the WMS awards, see this Xinhua report.)
But the dribble of global coverage the awards have received suggests the WMS is not gaining traction, nor is it getting any real public support of any kind from global media organizations. According to Xinhua, the recipients of this year’s inaugural awards were decided by a “panel of judges in China,” many sent by global media organizations.
Who exactly were they? According to Xinhua, because of course we have no other source, the judges included: Ted Anthony, director of Asia-Pacific News for AP; David Schlesinger, former editor-in-chief of Reuters News; and Jack Gao, former senior vice president of News Corporation.
The WMS Global Awards for Excellence seem to be plagued by the same problem that has harried the WMS all along — nobody cares. That is, nobody cares except to the extent that the process puts them in close proximity to powerful Chinese who can assist their business ambitions in China.
The following list is the sum total of all news reports so far about the WMS Global Awards for Excellence, followed by the source of the news content:
The bottom line: Only 10 articles in the entire world mention this year’s inaugural WMS Global Awards for Excellence, and according to our estimate 87% of the content in these 10 articles is from the official Xinhua News Agency, sponsor and creator of the WMS.
Only one report, from The Hindu, is original writing copy (not pulled directly from Xinhua), and that report attributes the news to “the release” from Xinhua.
I don’t at all doubt the merit of the recipients of this year’s prizes, or the rest of the 400-odd submissions from media around the world. And it doesn’t at all surprise me that, as Xinhua reports, Ted Anthony was “struck by the quality of the work submitted.”
There is also some merit to the rest of what Anthony says:
I do believe that journalism has the potential to make the world better and help us to look toward a better world.
The notion of an award like this helps bringing people of the world together to understand each others’ stories, and that is an opportunity for better relations and better communication among different cultures.
That, I suppose, is the right attitude, the principled one, to have when your media boss packs you off to Beijing to take part in the selection process and butter up your Chinese counterparts.
The problem comes when you step back and look at the larger backdrop of the World Media Summit. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a professional organization — or even primarily a professional gathering. It was created by the Chinese state, through its official news agency, with the express purpose of expanding China’s influence over global media.
Li Congjun, the president of Xinhua News Agency and “WMS executive chairman,” told his own news agency that “the creation of the awards has epoch-making significance.”
It encourages all people working in the media sector to keep developing their professional skills and pursue excellence, while inspiring media setups to work with the times in the spirit of innovation, and to actively carry out social responsibilities and the mission of public welfare.
We can’t forget — we shouldn’t forget, anyhow — that China’s leaders don’t at all view the role of media as being in the “public welfare.” Media serve the Party. And when President Xi Jinping drove the point home to propaganda leaders last year that they must “show their swords” and be bolder in controlling the press, it was WMS founder Li Congjun who wrote in the Party’s official People’s Daily that Xi was right, and that the Party needed to “firmly grab the initiative in public opinion.”
Li meant, of course, that the Party needed to actively defend its agenda through media controls at home, and to take the fight over global public opinion to foreign media. Consider that and it puts Li’s talk of the “spirit of innovation” in quite a different light — for it was precisely in the Party’s own spirit of innovation (of its agenda-setting machine) that the WMS was created in 2008.