War in the Balkans: Chinese Media - Murdoch TV service is anti-Nato cheerleader

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH'S Chinese television service has inserted itself at the forefront of the anti-American, anti-Nato hysteria that has gripped China since the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade earlier this month.

The irony of a television station owned by an American being even more vociferous in its anti-American campaigning than the official media has not been lost on observers in Peking. With greater speed than the official television stations, Mr Murdoch's Phoenix channel, a joint venture with Chinese partners, "turned itself into a 24-hour Chinese propaganda channel", said Simon Twiston-Davies, the editor of Asia Cable and Satellite World. "They were more Chinese than the Chinese," he adds.

Recently, Phoenix went a step further and organised a televised concert in the southern city of Shenzhen under the slogan "The Chinese Can Say No". According to Lily Chan, the spokeswoman for Star TV, the Murdoch- controlled parent company of Phoenix, "it was one way to say we are sorry that the bombing happened". She added: "It's just a gesture to say we are very supportive."

The reasons for the scramble to appease the Chinese authorities are not hard to find. Just before the bombing, the authorities announced a crackdown on illicit distribution of satellite television broadcasts.

Most Phoenix and Star viewers receive the stations via illicit cable distribution services. The government generally turns a blind eye, but in the run-up to the sensitive tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre it has been keen to shut off all non-state controlled information coming from the outside.

It seems likely that the move against illicit cable stations was not aimed at Mr Murdoch's operations but at a Taiwan channel that had been broadcasting pornography and news. However, the consequences for Mr Murdoch are profound. Mr Twiston-Davies says that plans had been laid for the flotation of Phoenix at the end of the year. "If this can happen, it will frighten off investors," he said.

Initial reports suggested that some 50 cable systems carrying Phoenix had been closed down, but since the bombing they appear to have gone back on air.

Ms Chan says that the company "does not rule out loss of distribution" but equally does not think "it will have any significant effect". Phoenix claims it can reach 45 million homes in China.

Mr Murdoch's News Corporation has been on the fast track towards rehabilitation in China. Gareth Chang, a well-connected American-Chinese businessman, was installed to run Star TV and, in March, News Corp became the first Western media company to open a representative office in Peking.

News Corp is the only Western company in China to have actually boosted its profile since the bombing; most others have studiously kept their heads down. Paul McNeill, the Hong Kong-based regional account director of Carat Asia Pacific, which books a lot of advertising in China, says that the officialmedia has been ordered to remove advertisements for American brands.

"Campaigns have either been scrapped or put on hold." he said. However, "Phoenix is quite well loved because it's very much pro-Chinese, so pretty quickly it got back on."

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