Media business

Assessing the media's victory over FoxConn


Following FoxConn's decision to reduce its claim from 30 million to 1 yuan and include China Business News as a defendant in its lawsuit over what it claims is a false report about oppressive working conditions at its electronics factory, media outcry has pretty much died down, helped no doubt by the ban on press coverage handed down late last week. Here are a few interesting bits of post-game analysis of the flap.

In Southern Metropolis Weekly's Life edition this week, Xu Xunlei analyzes the 1993 memo on libel cases, and concludes that changing a comma to a period in that document would close a legal loophole that allows libel suits against journalists. As currently written, the memo states (in rough translation),

When suing only the author, then the author is listed as defendant; when suing only the news publisher, then the work unit is listed as defendant; when suing both the author and the news publisher, then the author and work unit are both listed as defendants, but if there is a subordinate relationship between the author and the news publisher, the work comes out of the author carrying out his job duties, so only the work unit is listed as a defendant.

As it stands, says Xu, the restriction is limited to the final case, i.e. a journalist and a publisher can both be named as defendants only if there is no formal contractual relationship, but a lawsuit can still be brought against either of them individually. Changing the comma before "but if there is a subordinate relationship..." to a period would make the restriction apply to all suits, regardless of the target, and thus publishers rather than journalists would be listed as defendants in most cases. It is unclear whether this would help the CBN journalists, whose professional relationship with CBN is not strictly defined.

On Thursday, Beijing Times news editor Zhang Rui posted a commentary on the affair on his blog, in which he questions whether FoxConn's retreat is truly a victory for Chinese journalism, or if the newsmedia has overstepped its bounds in this episode.

A victory for everyone in Chinese media? Sorry, please don't include me!

by Zhang Rui

FoxConn reduced its claim to 1 yuan, and included China Business News in the suit; Weng Bao said this is a victory for everyone in Chinese media.

Sorry, please don't include me among the victors. I am not one.

First, this is not a victory.

FoxConn is only trying to advance by retreating, and conveys an even tougher, more hard-core claim: I am suing over libel, over the facts of the report; I don't care about anything else.

FoxConn is also using this to taunt the news-media's ignorance, bias, and lack of reason.

Previously, countless media entities and special guests spouted off in newspapers, on TV, and online, saying that FoxConn was bullying weaker parties, or that there were problems with the legal procedure, a storm of bullets that was completely condemnatory. In an instant, FoxConn became an enemy of the people, sucking the people's flesh and blood, arrogant in its grab for power.

I don't know whether FoxConn has a past checkered with misdeeds, but after this affair began, several of us sat down to talk about how to get involved in the problem. However, as we talked I had a growing feeling that there aren't any perceptible problems with FoxConn on a legal or procedural level. Laying all else aside, let me talk just of two problems: the strong criticism from the media and that from all types of saints.

1. Is there a problem with the target of FoxConn's suit? According to the explanation in corporate law, in cases of libel, reporters may be listed among the defendants. There are people who say that the principle defendant should be China Business News, but this is just a case of criticizing something that's not to your liking; whether FoxConn lists CBN as a defendant, as the principle defendant, or as a secondary defendant, is FoxConn's own right and freedom. Using this to demonstrate that FoxConn is bullying the weak while avoiding the strong may be passable, but to say that FoxConn is bullying individuals, bullying reporters, is nonsense.

2. Is there a problem with FoxConn's claim? As is known to everyone, the most important element is the 30 million total claim. Some people cried "absurd," and others came up with citations in an analysis of the six problems that existed with FoxConn's claim. Whether large or small, to the claimant, what is important is to evaluate whether the claim represents the claimant's estimate of its losses. Since the revelation of the affair, people online have put up "Boycott FoxConn" posts, so this loss is hard to measure (not hard to imagine), FoxConn's decision to seek a mammoth compensation I believe is related to the personality of this person Terry Guo. The person who does not understand the law and who does not know the inside story but rushes to to claim that FoxConn's suit is absurd is actually the absurd one. What's more, a libel claim for 30 million is not an uncommon sight in this world, and is not even the first example in China.

If we can clear our brains a bit, we will discover that the two widely circulating condemnations described above are in fact the key links of this case. This key link in this case is that FoxConn believes that a journalist's report was in error, and for this reason it sued. The outcome of media hype is that FoxConn quickly stripped off the above trappings, named CBN as a defendant, changed its claim to 1 yuan, and leapt naked into battle, fighting over the core question of whether the report was misleading. I noticed that at the end of FoxConn's statement there was the line, "6: This affair is purely a legal matter. We do not wish for the facts to be casually twisted and misdirected, so we ask our reporter friends to respect the facts, respect the law, and report reasonably. This is our humble entreaty." This line appears "humble," but it actually fits in with Terry Guo's "wolf" nature - all that stuff you're buzzing about I'll suffer for the time being, bring it on, let's suit up, draw blood, and fight it right here!

So I say that by reducing its claim to 1 yuan and adding CBN as a defendant is not submission on the part of FoxConn; on the contrary, it is a master stroke of advancing by retreating. A victory for everyone in Chinese media? Funny stuff!

Pulling even further back, even if FoxConn amending the demands in its suit makes for a glorious victory for journalism after it has endured such hardships, well sorry, please leave me out of this one, too. This is a shameful victory, a victory of the strong bullying the weak.

To date, FoxConn's suit has followed normal procedure within the current legal framework. If you say that its suit against the individuals Weng Bao and Liu You is a case of the strong bullying the weak, then the media, under the drum-beating of a few experts and scholars and the whines of those involved, became an even stronger, broader "Holy Alliance." Back during the Sun Zhigang Case, this Holy Alliance revealed the strength of popular will and the prestige of public opinion. But in the Huang Jing Case that followed, this Holy Alliance was already showing its naivety, and in today's FoxConn Case that involves its own interests, the irrationality, arrogance, and unreliability of this Holy Alliance has been laid bare! They totally cast aside the core matter of whether the CBN report on FoxConn was in error, did not shrink from making trivial condemnations; and as interested parties who wouldn't shut up, they did not hesitate to agitate with cries like "This is a burning shame for journalism" - if the final verdict finds the report in error, and if we do not immediately off ourselves, that would be the burning shame.

If we truly cherish the long-suffering word "news," then we must first cherish truth, cherish facts, and not let our fragile minds be seduced by tumultuous cackling; if we truly cherish the integrity and rules of the news profession, then please do not leap to demonize the target of our criticism when the facts are still unclear. If we truly follow the rules of "balance and objectivity" of media practice passed down to us by our journalistic predecessors when they departed amid hardships, then please give FoxConn the right and the space to speak.

To tell the truth, after I read the CBN report, my first feeling was that this was a problematic report. Two-party interviews is the first course after journalism students enter the media, but in this report, there was no verification or confirmation of basic facts - it was a slipshod piece. I do believe that there are definitely exploitative working conditions at FoxConn, and the Apple report confirmed this, but the CBN report provided no relevant documentation, and even lacked the standard methods, logic chains, and evidence chains that typify clear, precise investigative reports. As for reports on FoxConn's mammoth claim, to date, apart from this report in Southern Metropolis Daily, the majority speak only on one side, present no documentation, and are published relying only on the spoutings of two or three experts.

After the FoxConn affair broke, I maintained silence, first because I myself did not understand, and second because I had already fallen into a "spiral of silence." However, it was mostly because I was concerned about the standard of our media operations - according to the level of reports, there is no way at all to confirm the truth of FoxConn's oppressed workers.

Looking at the original intention of Weng Bao, Wang You, and CBN, they perhaps are impartial. But from the report, they are biased, and have serious technical problems.

Unfortunately, what the court looks at is the report, not your pure intentions.

For two more responses from journalists, see ESWN.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Assessing the media's victory over FoxConn.

Comments on Assessing the media's victory over FoxConn

Zhang Rui makes some good points - given the press's notorious carelessness with facts, the plaintiff very possibly may have a legitimate gripe - but he doesn't address two points that I think elicited some justifiable indignation. Both of these are less errors of the plaintiffs than errors of the Shenzhen court in being too eager to please a locally powerful company.

First, the Shenzhen court should not have accepted the naming of the individual reporters as defendants. There is a Supreme People's Court directive on this issue (quoted in the Danwei post here) that is quite clear on this point. Perhaps you can't blame the plaintiffs for trying, but you can blame the Shenzhen court for letting them succeed.

Second, even if the individual reporters could properly have been named as defendants, it was overkill for the Shenzhen court to freeze all their assets. Doing this kind of thing without giving the defendants any notice or an opportunity to contest is an extreme measure that should be reserved for cases where there is good reason to believe they might flee the jurisdiction, taking their assets with them. This just doesn't seem like that kind of case.

As usual in "arguments by media" rather than arguments by facts or any objective standard, this is a confusion of two issues:

1. Are Chinese libel laws used to bully and intimidate rather more than their equivalents elsewhere, and has their application sometimes been breathtakingly unjust? Yes, and yes.

2. Does Chinese journalism, collectively, need a lot of work on basic journalistic skills like fact-checking? Yes, obviously.

While seemingly connected in this case, these two issues are actually quite different, with different steps required to advance each one.

Observations need to be kept on Foxconn. We buy from China and practicaly all our clothes, shoes, and furniture and electical goods come from some factory in China but we hardly stop to contemplate the bullying that these poor boy's and girls, men and women who work in the factories are suffering. Long hours, long day's, few holiday's, over cramped dormitories and poor pay and to top it all beatings and bullying which we have read about in the media. The western world must act to put an end to the sufferings of all factory workers who if it wasn't for them working so damm hard we in the western world would not be so well off.

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