Western broadcasters taking pains to smooth China experience


Cautionary tale for foreign journalists

Fifth in a monthly series of 12 articles dealing with the international media's preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the cultural and practical challenges facing thousands of producers headed to China's capital in 2008.

Certain horrifying prospects come to mind as the West gets ready to descend on Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympic Games. Imagine someone like "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David ending up in Beijing stumbling through one social gaffe after another like he does on his home turf of Los Angeles in the award-winning series.

OK, so that's a worst-case scenario, but among the world army of TV producers now in the throes of preparation for next year's visit to the Orient, there are substantial, if lesser, fears. Even those producers who have covered multiple Olympics know this is going to be different. Some are prepared to do battle with the Beijing authorities to protect their journalistic freedoms if need be.

At least one major broadcaster is set to bring its own medical team, hire hundreds of translators -- even supply its own drinking water.

Andy Kay, executive producer of sport for Australian broadcaster Seven Network, reckons that the best Olympic event next year will be watching 17,000 wide-eyed Western media folk arrive at the Beijing airport.

Although Seven is one of the most experienced Olympics broadcasters, Kay says that experience will count for nothing in Beijing.

"It's not like anywhere else," he says. "The more you go, the more things you find that need to be dealt with, but the more you go, the more you become familiar with the place as well."

For a start, it will be the first Olympic city where almost no one speaks English. That little problem is one that the more studious of Seven's 300-strong Beijing team are trying to overcome by taking Mandarin language lessons -- unsuccessfully, Kay adds. So just in case, he will employ about 100 translators from Beijing's universities or a 60,000-strong volunteer corps.

Health issues also are near the top of his list.

Seven, Kay says, has never had an Olympics without many members of its broadcast teams suffering a variety of ailments. These will be more pronounced in Beijing, Kay expects, with reactions to unaccustomed food and water likely to be commonplace. Seven is taking its own medical team, armed with a complete medical history of each employee. It also has a hefty budget for drinking water.

Similar precautions are being put in place by major broadcast groups worldwide -- particularly when it comes to cultural issues and the great Olympic sport of staying out of trouble in a faraway land.

"Cultural sensitivity" training will be required for German reporters and crew from pubcaster ZDF before boarding the flight to Beijing. The training will include practical tips for working with Chinese authorities.

A series of flash cards with key Chinese phrases like "take me to Stadium X" is being designed by ZDF for journalists to use with taxi drivers and Chinese Olympics personnel.

"All our reporters speak English, but we are working on the assumption that most people we will encounter on the streets in Beijing won't," says Eberhard Figgemeier, head of Olympics programming at ZDF.

ZDF also has produced a condensed, German-language version of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee's 450-page document of guidelines for foreign broadcasters, working closely with the committee.

Dealing with the authorities while actually on the ground in Beijing is very much on the mind of Trevor Pilling, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s executive producer of the Beijing Games. He stresses the value of learning the lay of the land in China and hiring local "fixers."

"There's not a lot of decisions that get made quickly in China, and that's often frustrating for people in North American TV," he says. "So you need to learn about how people do business over there."

Shadowing Pilling is Qi Ma, a former CCTV executive and now the CBC's senior researcher, who advises on all preparations for the Beijing Games. Qi has hired a team of local facilitators to direct the CBC coverage before and during the event.

The CBC also has hired a team of Canadian expatriates in China to advise on all pre-Olympics excursions.

Much of the pre-Olympics preparation involves convincing the Chinese that the CBC aims at fair coverage of the Games, widely seen as a coming-out party for the Asian juggernaut.

But while everybody is intent on not offending and keeping the authorities as calm as possible, broadcasters say they will stand firm on issues of journalistic integrity while in China. The influential BBC is quite determined in that regard.

With more than 2,750 hours of programming planned -- 300 of which will end up on the U.K. flagship channels BBC1 and BBC 2 as well as on BBC Radio -- the Beeb likely will be the biggest international broadcaster stationed in Beijing, says BBC Sport head of special events Dave Gordon.

"It is a huge financial investment for the BBC, and we are probably doing as much if not more than any other broadcaster covering the Games," he says.

The pubcaster will have about 400 reporters, presenters and producers in Beijing, but the cultural issues remain more complex than those of simple etiquette.

"The BBC has a problem because the Chinese authorities block our Web site and BBC World, and there is still a great deal of suspicion about Western society," says Gordon, who insists that nonetheless the BBC will not limit itself to coverage of the sporting events.

"It just makes us doubly determined to maintain our coverage. We won't fight shy of news about human rights or environmental coverage," he says. "If there are issues or problems or demonstrations during the Games, we will reflect that in our coverage. We guard our reputation for honesty and truth very fiercely."

Figgemeier says ZDF plans to do all it can to ensure that its team doesn't offend the locals during the Games. But he has no intention of changing his channel's typically aggressive approach to reporting.

"Our journalists are used to door-stepping people, getting the view of the man on the street, and so on," Figgemeier says. "We aren't going to change that in Beijing. We are counting on the hospitality of the Chinese, that they will tolerate these crazy foreigners for the duration."

Says the CBC's Pilling, "We have journalist principles and need to uphold them."

The CBC had a run-in with Beijing in November when it received protests from Chinese diplomats in Ottawa and Toronto and was forced to edit a controversial documentary that probed Falun Gong persecution in China.

The CBC will be in Beijing above all else to cover the Olympics, Pilling says, but will not "shy away" from covering spontaneous protests over Tibet, the Falun Gong or any other hot-button issue -- in China or Canada.

He adds that the CBC has received assurances from Chinese authorities that they will lift journalistic restrictions during the Beijing Games.

All of the major international networks are in continual communications with the Chinese authorities, and all the staffers are getting the kind of advice that hopefully will ensure smooth sailing when their teams arrive.

Pip Bulbeck reported from Sydney; Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne, Germany. Mimi Turner in London and Etan Vlessing in Toronto contributed to this report.


DO Be patient. If you lose your cool and abuse a Chinese person, you will find things that could take five minutes suddenly take five hours.

DO Hire both a facilitator and translator. If you don't have a translator, try using preprepared flash cards in Chinese for drivers with such instructions as "take me to stadium X" or "take me to X hotel."

DO Always be polite and patient.

DO Count on major traffic delays.

DON'T work without a journalist's visa. Several Chinese news assistants have been jailed for less in recent years.

DON'T get drunk with your hosts.

DON'T take photos of security people (army, police, security guards).

Men, DON'T walk arm in arm with a local female. A Western male walking arm in arm with a Chinese woman will be viewed with derision.

Aside from Western hotels, DON'T expect the restrooms to be like Western facilities.

DON'T ignore signs that indicate certain areas are off limits.

DON'T assume that Chinese officials will understand how other governments deal with the media.