Chinese state television broadcaster, CGTN, has hired a former director of Ofcom, the media watchdog investigating whether it fell foul of UK regulations by airing forced confessions.
Nick Pollard, who most recently sat on Ofcom’s board for more than two years, joined CGTN as a consultant and advisor last December, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Around the same time, a string of complaints against the state broadcaster were made to Ofcom, which has since begun investigating whether CGTN breached privacy and fairness clauses in UK broadcasting code.
Hiring Mr Pollard – who chaired Ofcom’s content committee, the body that advises on complaints against broadcasters – could help CGTN navigate greater scrutiny, dodge hefty fines and avoid being stripped of its broadcast license.
Mr Pollard left Ofcom in May 2018.
“The extraordinary step by CGTN shows just how seriously they are taking this process – and they should considering what is at stake," said Peter Dahlin, director of civil rights group Safeguard Defenders, which is helping to coordinate the complaints.
Mr Dahlin filed his own complaint against the Chinese state broadcaster in January. He was detained in China for several weeks in 2016, and recalled being told to memorise answers that were later filmed in the presence of a dozen state security officers, with the lead interrogator directing retakes, asking him to change his phrasing, tone and posture.
Another came from British private investigator Peter Humphrey, who said he was drugged, strapped to an iron chair, and locked in a cage while being filmed and forced to confess to crimes.
In total, he was jailed in China for two years, along with his American wife. Angela Gui, the daughter of abducted Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, who now studies at the University of Cambridge, also filed complaints on behalf of her father’s forced confessions.
He continues to be held by Chinese police after being kidnapped in 2015. A similar one was received from Lam Wing-kee, another kidnapped Hong Kong bookseller.
The Ofcom investigation comes at a time when CGTN has invested heavily in the UK and abroad, boasting 10,000 employees and 70 bureaus around the world. CGTN’s new European broadcast centre is in West London’s Chiswick Park.
A plethora of job ads have been posted recruiting journalists to fulfil the organisation’s aim “to provide objective, balanced, and impartial news and current affairs content, reporting the news from a Chinese perspective.”
Activists have called for the Chinese state media outlet to be stripped from UK airwaves, saying it doesn’t report balanced stories. Chinese leaders themselves have before described CGTN and other state media outlets as the “eyes, ears, tongue and throat of the Communist Party.”
Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has also made note that “both state and privately-owned media are required to follow the [Communist] Party’s instructions, which include instructions on the vocabulary to use when covering ‘sensitive’ subjects such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Tiananmen Square massacre, corruption, social unrest and dissidents.”
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“Ofcom is carrying out independent investigations into fairness and privacy complaints about programmes broadcast on CCTV News and CGTN,” the regulator said in a statement.
“We’ve had no contact with CGTN or anyone connected with the broadcaster on these investigations, other than through our transparent, established procedures.”
There’s no problem in hiring a former Ofcom board member or employee “in principle,” said Trevor Barnes, an independent broadcast compliance consultant, provided that person “has been on an appropriate period of ‘gardening leave’ after quitting Ofcom and does not impart any confidential information.”
Ofcom has revoked only a few licenses in the regulator’s 16-year history.
In 2012, Iranian state broadcaster PressTV, which was also accused of airing forced confessions, was stripped of its broadcast license after Ofcom found its practice of running editorial oversight from Tehran breached broadcasting license rules.
Ofcom revoked a license for Iman FM in 2017 after the radio station broadcast hours of lecture by an alleged al-Qaeda cleric, finding it was not “fit and proper.”
The regulator also revoked the license for Ausaf last year, an Urdu language channel, ahead of its UK launch, and has also taken adult pay channels off air. Mr Pollard and CGTN didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.