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The now-deleted article and disclaimer running on the NZ Herald (image: screenshot)
The now-deleted article and disclaimer running on the NZ Herald (image: screenshot)

MediaNovember 22, 2022

NZ Herald pulls paid Chinese government-linked propaganda after reader backlash

The now-deleted article and disclaimer running on the NZ Herald (image: screenshot)
The now-deleted article and disclaimer running on the NZ Herald (image: screenshot)

A glowing sponsored story spoke of a historic poverty reduction. But reader feedback to the Chinese Communist Party-linked story has seen NZME pull it down and reassess its policies, reports Duncan Greive.

Under the subheading “Relocation & revitalisation see 100m people lifted out of poverty” sits an unambiguously positive story about the Chinese government’s role in raising incomes and living standards in China. It contains lengthy quotes from the Chinese president Xi Jinping, and notes that he “has taken a personal interest in alleviating poverty, having visited almost all the most poverty-stricken areas in China since the 18th national congress”. 

It goes on to quote citizens speaking passionately about their jobs growing fruit (“The apples grown here taste nice and are popular nationwide”) and making other extremely on-message statements (“Compared to before, life is considerably better”). It is basically a boilerplate example of the kind of propaganda routinely created by authoritarian regimes to illustrate their excellence.

And it ran on the website of the NZ Herald, New Zealand’s most popular newspaper. The NZ Herald, like most media organisations in this country (including The Spinoff), runs stories from partners who pay to be placed on their sites. Some of these will be crafted by a journalist at the organisation, others simply supplied and posted unaltered.

This piece of content had an unusually explicit level of distancing involved, with a disclaimer included as a boxed image at the top of the story.

Disclaimer at top of NZHerald post about poverty in China
The disclaimer at the top of the now-removed article (Screenshot:

It said the story “has been produced and published by the People’s Daily who take sole responsibility for the content” and goes on to underline that “the New Zealand Herald does not necessarily agree with or endorse any opinions which may be expressed here”. This is the most full-throated distancing I’ve seen on a story, far more aggressive than the simple “sponsored by” which accompanies most stories of this nature.

When I contacted the NZ Herald, it pulled the story down within hours of the email landing, and a spokesperson supplied a statement explaining why. “This came out of a commercial agreement that sees us host a very small amount of sponsored content online, which is clearly labelled as sponsored. It’s made clear that the advertiser takes full responsibility for the content, and that the NZ Herald doesn’t necessarily agree with nor endorse any opinions contained within.

“However, following reader feedback on this particular advertisement, it has now been removed and we are reviewing this type of sponsored content arrangement moving forward.”

How is this different to any other piece of sponsored content? The most crucial difference is that the People’s Daily is not just any other client. It’s a newspaper group owned and controlled by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – China’s most powerful elite leadership group. It is headed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping – he is functionally the publisher of the story which quotes him so admiringly. 

While the story has been pulled, many others remain. NZME calls it “a very small amount” of sponsored content, but there are more than 30 stories on a dedicated homepage, going back months. A scoop earlier this year from Critic – Te Arohi noted a similar practice at the Otago Daily Times. In it, journalist Denzel Chung noted that he had approached other news organisations, including NZME, to ask whether they had similar deals. NZME did not reply. When contacted, NZME rival Stuff confirmed to The Spinoff that it had no current deal with the People’s Daily.

Some of the content from People’s Daily Online that has been republished on the NZ Herald

So what’s the problem?

Gavin Ellis, former editor of the NZ Herald, pointed out that there should not be anything stopping the Herald publishing stories of this nature, “but if it does, it should contain a fact-check panel. That if there are facts contained in there which are verifiably untrue, it should say so”.

He pointed out that China is fundamentally a different kind of government to our own. “It’s coming from an increasingly autocratic state, it should be treated with great care, in the interests of their readers.” Additionally, he pointed out that the People’s Daily is “not just another newspaper”. Its status as the mouthpiece for the Central Committee of the CCP means that by publishing its work you are publishing the views of the Chinese leadership. 

Ellis believes that because that link is not made clear on the stories, it runs the risk of violating an Advertising Standards Authority guidance note, which states that “advocacy advertising must clearly state the identity and position of the advertiser”. A spokesperson for the ASA told The Spinoff that it had “have dealt with complaints about advocacy ads in this space” but that they “don’t comment on the likelihood of code compliance for specific ads, in case we get a complaint.”

This is not uncomplicated. Tourism New Zealand is a massive advertiser, in and out of this country, while also being a Crown-owned entity. This is not noted on its ads or content, and nor would anyone expect it to be. But China is committed to a giant global propaganda campaign which aims to burnish its reputation and undermine that of Western democratic states. 

A major Guardian investigation said that “China is trying to reshape the global information environment with massive infusions of money – funding paid-for advertorials, sponsored journalistic coverage and heavily massaged positive messages from boosters. While within China the press is increasingly tightly controlled, abroad Beijing has sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the free press to its advantage.”

Most of the previous stories published in the series are less explicitly political. They talk about the potential of 5G to fuel economic growth, driverless taxis and “fish robots” – the future-gazing heart of many sponsored stories the world over. Yet the ultimate motive of this advertiser is very different. With its identity obscured, it’s not at all clear that the average reader would know exactly what they were reading – or why.

Keep going!