On Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s last day of a week-long visit to China — a week in which he had done his best to be a gracious guest and not say anything remotely controversial about the dictatorship that was hosting him — Trudeau said something rather remarkable.
It may even be historic.
Speaking on Chinese soil, in the presence of several members of China’s obsequious state media, he said that reporters play an essential “challenge function.”
He told his Chinese hosts that “traditional media” — a traditional media which, in his own country, has been, at times, harsh, unfair, and ungenerous to him personally as well as to his own government — he said traditional media play “an essential role … in the success of the society.”
In the age of Trump and #FakeNews, this is heady stuff.
It is to Trudeau’s great credit that he said these things and said them in China!
He was not delivering prepared remarks on the value of journalism to grad students at a Canadian university.
He was speaking off the top of his head, from his heart, in response to a question put to him in the midst of a 45-minute press conference in a communist country where independent-minded journalists go to jail.
Trudeau was prompted to make these comments about the value of an independent and free press because a reporter had asked him if his Chinese hosts had intimated that criticism of China in the Canadian press was making it difficult for his government to advance talks on a Canada-China free trade deal.
If the Canadian media was a thorn in Trudeau’s side, he refused to say so. Instead, Trudeau clearly indicated that this was not only the price he was willing to pay, if that was, in fact, true, it was a price he was happy to pay.
“Allow me to take a moment to thank members of the media,” Trudeau began. “You play an essential role: a challenge function, an information function. It’s not easy at the best of times. These are not the best of times with the transitions and challenges undergoing traditional media right now and I really appreciate the work that you do.”
But he was not done. He acknowledged that the spin masters in any political operation from any party these days are set up precisely to make the job of an independent and free press harder.
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“We make your job difficult,” he said, acknowledging his complicity, as a successful politician, in trying to manipulate journalists for his own political gain.
I want to underline, once again, that this acknowledgment came on Chinese soil, in a country where the government’s spin — the government’s propaganda — is the only thing one can read in a Chinese newspaper or see on a Chinese television broadcast.
“External factors make your job difficult,” Trudeau said. “But it’s an essential role that you play in the success of the society. That is my perspective. That is a perspective shared by many and it’s one that I am very happy to repeat today.”
Trudeau began his week with an event at the headquarters of Sina Weibo, the operators of what is often referred to as the Chinese version of Twitter.
Twitter, along with Google, Facebook and a host of other sites, is blocked by the government-run Great Firewall of China. Weibo survives — and prospers — because it allows itself to be heavily censored by China’s government. Trudeau’s presence at Weibo’s headquarters could be seen by some as an unfortunate endorsement of this sorry state of affairs.
But Trudeau’s closing statement at the end of the week — “our system works better” when journalists play “an essential role” in “the success of the society” — easily redeems his Weibo appearance.
And in an age when our allies in the United States, Turkey and elsewhere have as much as declared war on independent journalism, the unequivocal endorsement by a G7 leader of the broad mission of journalism — to challenge and to inform — is vital, important and, sadly, all too rare.