It’s not every day a journalist finds themselves on the other end of the microphone.
But it’s a familiar feeling for foreign reporters covering major political meetings in Beijing.
There are only a handful of Australian journalists working for foreign media in the Chinese capital.
Several are Chinese Aussies, but the rest of us stick out as foreigners. And that attracts local reporters eager to get a quote on what the foreign media thinks of the Communist Party’s congress.
These quotes invariably end up in articles for outlets like the China Daily.
“The 19th National Congress of the CPC has attracted worldwide attention thanks to its openness, according to journalists and observers,” one article read this week.
It quoted a reporter from Russia’s state media saying “China’s role in international affairs is becoming more important in all directions”.
It then quoted a journalist from Georgia as saying China had opened its door to the world and “showed its power and humanity”.
Only certain types of quotes though seem to make the cut.
What was said v what was reported
As the ABC’s China correspondent, I was interviewed by five media outlets.
After attending the Tibet delegation’s media session, two reporters asked me what I thought.
I said the officials painted a positive picture of economic development, but questioned how I could know, given that foreign journalists are banned from independently travelling there without permission.
An official listening in then told them to ask me what I thought of the transparency of the press conference.
Pretty good I replied. After all, I got to ask a question, although didn’t get a clear answer.
Another reporter from a Communist Party-owned outlet asked me what I was most paying attention to at the congress.
I was honest. I wanted to know if China’s powerful leader Xi Jinping would appoint a successor.
The congress, after all, is more about a twice-a-decade power reshuffle rather than a forum for policy announcements.
The reporter cut me off before I finished my answer and said he wanted to ask me about policy rather than personnel changes.
I told him I was paying attention to rule of law issues, as I’d reported on some recent cases.
A few days later the reporter published his article for the Communist Party’s discipline inspection media outlet.
“Early in the morning, Bill Birtles from Australian Broadcasting Corporation rushed to the Great Hall of the People to prepare to cover this grand meeting,” it read.
“This foreign journalist, who lived and worked in China for four years, has witnessed the historical changes happening in China over the past five years.”
“He said China in recent years has made great achievements in the fields of politics, economy, culture, science and other aspects, and he believed China will make fast progress after this congress.”
Talk about a misquote!
A lesson for foreign journalists
I noticed the topic of who was getting promoted and demoted appeared to be off limits for China’s media.
Up until the new leadership line-up was announced at the end of the congress, the censors kept cutting the international cable TV feeds anytime correspondents mentioned it.
Divergences in what the Western and Chinese media focus on are nothing new, but the differences flared up again during the week.
The English-language state broadcaster CGTN and a jingoistic Party-owned portal Global Times launched an attack on BBC reporter (and former ABC China correspondent) Stephen McDonell over a TV piece he did.
He sought to approach and ask delegates about China’s relationship with North Korea, but mostly got rebuffed, saying “It’s bad enough to try and talk to these delegates at the best of times, but when we’re asking about the delicate question of falling out with an old ally, then it’s even harder”.
A presenter for CGTN, Liu Xin, responded with a video:
“The reputation that many Western journalists have in China is one of bias and negativity. Even if the delegates would have an answer, they wouldn’t want to share it with a foreign-looking journalist sticking out his microphone randomly.”
The Global Times then trawled through McDonnell’s Twitter feed, selectively translating comments from anonymous trolls to claim Australians agreed that he was biased.
As the week wrapped up, President Xi addressed the world’s media, but the BBC wasn’t invited to send a reporter.
Nor were the New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist or the Financial Times.
For everyone else who was there, Mr Xi heralded the “new era” of Chinese power by giving some advice:
“We do not need lavish praise from others, however we do welcome objective reporting and constructive suggestions.”
Lavish praise from foreign voices clearly though is very much in demand at these events.
So perhaps it’s good to take advice from one of the Chinese media’s own — Liu Xin:
“When you cannot understand the intention of the journalist, it’s wise to stay tight-lipped”.