Every now and then, a truly misrepresentative news headline catches the eye. You scroll down the news website in question, catch something that would seem to be ‘breaking’ or important, gasp audibly, and open the article only to find that the truth of the matter is quite different to what the dramatic header would have you believe.
I experienced just such an emotional rollercoaster ride today thanks to The Australian. It went something like this.
I opened up the homepage of The Australian, as I tend to do once a day or so here in Beijing just to see what particular episode of political mud-slinging I might be missing back home. My eyes ran down the “Breaking News” section of the page and widened when they came across this headline: “Chinese activists including artist Ai Weiwei, sent to labour camps”. Ai Weiwei, king of political detainees, off to a Chinese gulag? Just days after his disappearance? Without so much as the illusion of a trial or a charge? The horror, the impending diplomatic crisis, the protestors on the streets!
My eyes snuffled down the page like a pair of well-trained truffle pigs. Important details leapt out – “two activists to labour camps”, “charged a veteran dissident”, “Hua Chunhui and Wei Qiang”, “Zhu Yufu, 59, was formally charged”, “at least 18 including artist Ai Weiwei have ‘disappeared’ into police custody”, “foreign ministry has said Ai is under investigation”. I read through once more. 2 activists + 1 veteran dissident = 3 people named in the article. Hang on, where does Ai Weiwei come into this? Well, he’s mentioned of course. What piece of journalism would not mention the man in reporting upon such matters at this time? He’s an icon for events occurring in China as we speak. But is he in a labour camp? Let’s use the mysterious power of logic to find out.
The headline tells me this: More than one Chinese activist has been sent to a labour camp. One of those activists is DEFINITELY Ai Weiwei.
The body of the article tells me this: Hua Chunhui and Wei Qiang, two Chinese activists, have been sentenced without trial to “re-education through labour”. Another dissident, Zhu Yufu, has been charged with inciting subversion. At least 18 activists have been picked up and are in police custody. One of that at least 18 is Ai Weiwei. China’s foreign ministry claims Ai Weiwei is under investigation for “economic crimes”. We have no bloody idea where Ai Weiwei is.
I scrolled back up to the by-line. AFP. An Agence France-Presse wire service piece. I grabbed a few lines of text and chucked them into Google. A few pages of results came back, all of which were exactly the same story, word for word, re-published by various newspapers and online news providers, in Australia and around the Asia-Pacific. This is to be expected of course, it being an AFP product. The Australian was (predictably) joined by its News Limited brethren, including the Courier Mail and Herald Sun, in badging the article with its own brand of misleading headline.
However, no other websites that came up in my search used that title. Other publications almost universally used “‘Jasmine’ activists in China labour camp: group” (see here, here and here). Does this suggest that this may have been the original header provided by AFP? I don’t know. What editorial fancy might have prompted someone at News Limited (probably news.com.au, I’m guessing, considering all stories were published on the News Limited sites at exactly the same time) to select that particular incorrect header for the article’s publication on their websites? A misreading of the content is certainly possible but it’s an appalling oversight nonetheless.
To assure myself that we are absolutely none the wiser as to Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts, I went to the source of the news itself: a statement from the Chinese Human Rights Defenders that is specifically attributed in the article. Unfortunately, I got confounded by the Chinese firewall (despite my best efforts). Maybe you can check it out for yourself and let me know. At the very least, the Chinese authorities still don’t want to me to know what Ai is up to.
In sum, I think we can all sleep easy for a little while yet, despite the bold assurances of The Australian and others at News Limited, safe in the knowledge that we haven’t got the foggiest where Ai Weiwei is and nor, presumably, does anybody else.