Bogus stories and half-baked conspiracy theories are surging through the internet.
The UK’s broadcast regulator says it is revoking the licence of Chinese news network CGTN after finding its state-backed ownership structure flouted British law.
Ofcom said on Thursday the current licence holder, Star China Media Ltd, had failed to show that it had editorial oversight over CGTN. And it ruled that a proposed alternative was ultimately tied to the Chinese Communist Party.
“We have given CGTN significant time to come into compliance with the statutory rules. Those efforts have now been exhausted,” Ofcom said in a statement.
“Following careful consideration, taking account of all the facts and the broadcaster’s and audience’s rights to freedom of expression, we have decided it is appropriate to revoke the licence for CGTN to broadcast in the UK.”
Ofcom added that it would conclude an ongoing investigation into alleged breaches by CGTN of impartiality, fairness and privacy requirements “shortly”.
The English-language satellite broadcaster has long faced criticism for parroting the Communist Party line in its global broadcasts.
In the United States, CGTN is one of seven Chinese media outlets that have been designated as state-sponsored actors, rather than independent media.
Shortly after the UK regulator’s announcement, China’s foreign ministry said it had lodged “stern representations” to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over what it said was “fake news” coverage of COVID-19 and urged the broadcaster to publicly apologise.
In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that the BBC had recently “linked the pandemic to politics” and “rehashed theories about covering up by China”.
Beijing routinely threatens retaliation against Western countries for acting against its media operations, which have grown in sophistication and reach down the years, warning of sanctions in turn against groups such as the BBC in China.
There was no immediate comment from CGTN, which opened a state-of-the-art European headquarters in London just in 2019.
Last July, Ofcom said it was considering sanctions against CGTN after upholding a complaint brought by a UK national who says he was forced to make a criminal confession aired by the broadcaster.
Peter Humphrey was jailed for more than two years by a court in Shanghai in 2014, in connection with a corruption case involving pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
After his release, he complained to Ofcom about two news reports on the case aired on the then-CCTV, which was later renamed CGTN.
CCTV justified its reports to Ofcom on public interest grounds, arguing it had obtained Humphrey’s consent and was not aware of mistreatment.
Humphrey accused Chinese authorities of drugging him and locking him in a chair inside a small metal cage to conduct the confession to illegally obtaining and using personal data.
The programmes included footage of him appearing to confess to a criminal offence, and reported his conviction and an apology. He was identified in both but his face was blurred.
Ofcom has the power to impose fines on UK-licensed broadcasters for breaches of media rules on impartiality and fairness. Overall, the law states that they must not be controlled by political bodies.
So the regulator has taken the ultimate sanction against CGTN after finding that its controlling entities were in breach of that requirement.
“Our investigation concluded that Star China Media Limited, the licence-holder for the CGTN service, did not have editorial responsibility for CGTN’s output,” it said.
“As such, SCML does not meet the legal requirement of having control over the licensed service, and so is not a lawful broadcast licensee.”
Moreover, Ofcom said it could not transfer the licence to a replacement proposed by CGTN, called China Global Television Network Corporation (CGTNC).
“This is because crucial information was missing from the application, and because we consider that CGTNC would be disqualified from holding a licence, as it is controlled by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”
In 2012, Ofcom revoked the licence of Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster’s English-language outlet, for failing to transfer general editorial control to London from Tehran.