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China on the warpath over BBC spy drama Spooks

Posted by Author on November 11, 2010

The Guardian, UK, Nov 11, 2010 –

The BBC is used to China’s disapproval. Its Chinese language service has long been blocked and last year it annoyed officials by sneaking Kate Adie into the country.

But BBC executives say they could never have predicted the latest programme to send Chinese officials on the warpath: the corporation’s far-fetched spy drama Spooks.

Several episodes of the latest series, which finished on Sunday night, have featured Chinese agents engaged in nefarious activities: trying to kidnap a scientist and threatening to detonate a bomb in London if anyone interfered; working with Russians to hack Anglo-US cybersecurity; and stealing the blueprint of a genetic weapon.
The Guardian has learned that Beijing is so unhappy at these unflattering portrayals that government officials have ordered TV companies not to co-operate with BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s international commercial wing.

Officials were thought to be particularly enraged at the timing of the broadcasts, coming as they did so close to David Cameron’s visit to China earlier this week.

“It blows hot and cold for us in China – however, it is usually BBC News or a documentary that causes an issue,” said one senior BBC source. “The issue is always if content strays, or is perceived to stray, into the area of politics. It is the nature of doing business in China. No one would have even thought about Spooks [offending anyone] and the timing [with Cameron’s trip] is just plain bad luck. It is not the first issue and it won’t be the last.”

Asked about the row by the Guardian, the Chinese foreign ministry said it would look into the matter.

Spooks has not been widely viewed in China, with only a few episodes uploaded to video-sharing websites. But episodes the Guardian was able to watch from China yesterday were not subtitled and had not been viewed many times, suggesting that the offence comes from a perceived besmirching of the country’s reputation abroad rather than at home.

However, Spooks devotees may well suspect that the Chinese government has not been glued to the programme since its first episode, way back in 2002. If they had stuck with the show throughout its nine series, they would have realised China is far from the only country to have its name dragged through the dirt.

And yet Vladimir Putin has not apparently complained about Spooks continually depicting Russians as double-crossing, psychotic maniacs – the episodes that raised Beijing’s hackles also include a Russian FSB officer-gone-bad. Barack Obama has also apparently turned a blind eye to his countrymen being mostly portrayed as traitors, bossyboots and dunderheads interspersed with the odd good guy. A string of other countries could find cause for complaint in the latest series; there have been assassins from Syria, Colombia and the French Foreign Legion, and there was also an Israeli negotiator who tried to blow herself and the US president up.

The only people who can’t complain are the people of terrorist-central Azakstan. And that’s because it’s fictional. (An old Spooks trick – just attach the suffix -stan for an instant terrorist country).

The broadcasting cold war, if it lasts, could hurt BBC Worldwide, which handles both the sales of co-productions and BBC programmes. The operation, which made record profits of £145.2m in the year to the end of March, is responsible for selling shows and formats such as Top Gear, Doctor Who and the international version of Strictly Come Dancing.

It has been expanding aggressively, not least because of the pressure the BBC faces at home over the licence fee. And China offers enormous opportunities for money-making.

BBC Worldwide ran into similar problems last year, when Chinese broadcasters halted dealings following Adie’s documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. She had filmed it undercover while on a tourist visa, having previously been refused entry.

In that case, BBC sources confirmed they had heard firms were told not to co-operate with BBC Worldwide, but a spokesman added: “BBC Worldwide has not received any official notification of a ban.”

Other media organisations, including Disney and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, have clashed with the Chinese authorities as they tried to build businesses in the country. Murdoch’s Asian satellite broadcaster, Star TV, stopped carrying the BBC World TV news channel in 1994 after protests from officials.

The Guardian

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