23 Nov 2019

How we managed to mess up China's plans to open a huge media centre in London

We take a look back at what happened in the year since we filed a complaint against CGTN in the UK


One late Friday evening last year, a flurry of urgent messages went round China’s state broadcaster CCTV’s headquarters in Beijing (pictured). The recipients were being called in that very evening for a crisis meeting that would go on for the entire weekend.

Something had happened in the UK that could seriously disrupt its plans to launch a massive European division with a brand new state-of-the-art  headquarters in London.

That something was an official complaint against the Chinese Communist Party's TV mouthpiece filed by British businessman and former journalist Peter Humphrey to UK broadcaster watchdog Ofcom with support from Safeguard Defenders just hours before on 23 November 2018. The complaint was based on the broadcast by CGTN of footage of him giving a forced confession after Chinese police had drugged, shackled and caged him. 

CGTN had broken British broadcasting standards so it should lose its license, we argued, in just the same way Ofcom had revoked the license of Iran's Press TV for a similar violation several years earlier.

We can’t reveal what else the source inside those frantic meetings told us, but what is certain is that our complaint had sparked desperate efforts by the Party’s propaganda station to save its UK license.

It appears that until a few days ago CGTN had stopped broadcasting forced confessions since that complaint (although CCTV inside China continues to air them). At least one of its shows, China24, aired a segment on 21 November of former UK consulate worker in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng's forced confession. 

CGTN has also struggled to open its new London offices. The initial fanfare about a grand opening -- with a plan to recruit 350 journalists -- was delayed by almost a year and now, according to a number of sources, less than half of that number, around 120 to 150 people, have been hired. It looks like the station is worried it may lose its license.

Our action against CGTN sparked interest from other groups and individuals who are now looking to file similar complaints against the broadcaster in the US.


What are CGTN forced confessions?

Media and public around the world were shocked as, starting in 2013, one after the other, China’s state media CCTV (and its English language channel CGTN) broadcast detainees, even some foreigners, delivering forced TV confessions, in a style reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

There were angry op-eds, critical media coverage and Safeguard Defenders even came out with a report, Scripted and Staged, in 2018 showing how police used torture and threats to coerce detainees into making filmed confessions, written and directed by the police with the cooperation of CCTV and other media. Safeguard Defenders' database on more than 100 of these victims can be downloaded here.

Click here to buy Scripted and Staged as A4 and full color book, on AmazonClick here to buy Trial By Media on AmazonIn late 2018, we published Trial by Media which brought to life the terrifying conditions under which victims were pressured to make these confessions, violating domestic law on the right to a fair trial.

But no one actual did anything about the illegal and abusive practice of airing forced confessions.

CCTV’s foreign arms – CGTN (English) and CCTV4 (Chinese) – continued to freely broadcast their propaganda and lies overseas unpunished. CGTN even planned to a new European news hub.

That’s why we got together with victims of forced confessions last year to hold CGTN and CCTV4 to account, beginning a campaign, as our founder Peter Dahlin argued, to get the West to start regulating Chinese TV.

We want these overseas mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party to stop airing illegal and human rights abusing practices and lies extracted through torture and threats.


23 November 2018 – the start

British businessman Peter Humphrey with the support of Safeguard Defenders files a Fairness and Privacy complaint against CCTV/CGTN with the UK broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

You can read a redacted version of the complaint here.

Mr. Humphrey had been forced to make two confessions that were broadcast on CCTV and on CGTN in the UK in 2013 and 2014, while he was detained in Shanghai. He was given no access to a lawyer and in 2013 had been drugged prior to the recording, placed in a cage and locked into a chair while journalists recorded.

In his complaint to Ofcom, Peter argued the Chinese state broadcaster had committed “multiple violations of the Broadcasting code” and “gross human rights violations.”

Specifically, the complaint accused CGTN’s forced confession broadcasts to have violated sections of the broadcasting code dealing with crime, disorder, hatred and abuse; impartiality and inaccuracy; fairness; and privacy.

On account of the seriousness of the accusations and the fact that Mr. Humphrey was imprisoned for two years in China, the complaint urged for the normal 20 day limit from the date of broadcast be waived.



“They drugged me, locked me to a tiger chair, and placed me and the chair inside a small metal cage. China Central Television (CCTV) journalists then aimed their cameras at me and recorded me reading out the answers already prepared for me by the police. No questions were asked.”British citizen and former journalist Peter Humphrey on his first forced TV confession in China.






30 December 2018 – complaint no. 2

Angela Gui, the daughter of Swedish citizen and Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai files a similar complaint against CGTN with Ofcom.

Gui, who was kidnapped by Chinese security agents from his holiday home in Thailand in 2015, and then, after he had been partially freed inside China in 2018, was again abducted on a train to Beijing in front of Swedish consular staff, has appeared in no less than three forced confessions.

Angela’s complaint refers to two CGTN broadcasts of Gui forcibly confessing in 2016.

Gui remains disappeared by the Chinese state until today.


8 May 2019 – first win

It takes more than five months, but Ofcom eventually accepts Peter Humphrey’s complaint and launches an investigation into CGTN’s broadcast of his forced confessions.


9 May 2019 – second win

Ofcom accepts Angela Gui’s complaint and launches an investigation into CGTN’s broadcast of forced confession footage of Gui Minhai in 2016.


7 July 2019 – CGTN’s ‘hidden hands’

Media report that within weeks of Peter Humphrey filing the first complaint against CGTN with Ofcom, the Chinese state broadcaster’s European operations had hired a former member of Ofcom’s board.

Nick Pollard, employed as a consultant, had been at Ofcom just seven months earlier, where he would have been part of a group that made decisions on complaints just like the ones filed in this case.

The appointment showed that while CGTN had been quiet about the complaints, behind the scenes it had been working hard to quash them.


18 September 2019 – CGTN loses its ‘inside man’

Nick Pollard steps down from his CGTN consultant post, reportedly over his concerns about the broadcaster’s biased coverage of the Hong Kong protests. One source inside CGTN says that they considered Mr. Pollard like a 'godfather' for the organization, due to his standing in journalism. They are frantically trying to replace him, and a former Al Jazeera person is being considered, but they have still not managed to hire a replacement yet. 

Pollard’s departure deals a blow to CGTN’s credibility and capacity to handle the Ofcom investigation.



23 September 2019 – CGTN under yet more scrutiny

Ofcom reveals it is investigating 4 new complaints against CGTN over whether its Hong Kong coverage broke impartiality rules. Unlike the two filed complaints by Mr. Humphrey and Ms. Gui, this time  it is a "standards complaint'"initiated by Ofcom itself.



23 November 2019– One year since 1st complaint 

Since our first complaint against CGTN one year ago, the European arm of the CCP's TV station appears to have stopped airing forced confessions, although it has broadcast staged and likely coerced “interviews” with inmates of its mass internment camps for Muslim minorities and on 21 November one of CGTN's news shows China24 aired the forced confession of Simon Cheng, a former employee of the UK consulate in Hong Kong. The latter took place  almost on the 1 year anniversary of their weekend-long emergency meeting following that first complaint against them. 

There is evidence that China is moving away from using forced confessions on state TV for high profile human rights defenders and towards new platforms such as short video platforms, microblogs and targeted screenings.



So what’s next?

Ofcom are likely to make their decision on these two pending complaints in the very near future. Follow our twitter account and check our website for the latest news. Another complaint is now being prepared related to Simon Cheng's forced TV confession broadcast by CGTN.

What we’re hoping for is for CGTN to lose its UK license to hold it accountable for broadcasting lies and human rights violations in which it knowingly participated.

There is precedence for this.

In 2011, Ofcom revoked the UK license of Iranian broadcaster Press TV for airing a “forced confession” with (now British) journalist Mazier Bahari while he was being held in a Tehran jail. (That penalty was later downgraded to a fine, possibly for political reasons.)

We are also currently in the process of filing similar complaints against CGTN and CCTV4 with the Federal Communications Commission in the US for the known and intentional distortion of facts and clear lies, with the purposes of benefiting the Chinese Communist Party by broadcasting forced confessions.


Order the first book that exposed the reality of China's forced TV confessions, and the role played by Chinese media in collaborating with police to extract, record, produce and broadcast them.