“Yes, I absolutely feel threatened,” said Ben Richardson, the latest high-profile departure from Bloomberg News amid disclosures that editors there spiked a story for fear of political ramifications in China that could compromise Bloomberg's financial data business in the world's second-biggest economy.
Richardson had in the year prior worked on a report that probed ties between top Chinese leaders and China’s wealthiest man, Wang Jianlin. Though senior executives at Bloomberg News have insisted the story was held because it simply wasn’t ready, a November 2013 New York Times report strongly implied that Bloomberg brass feared its publication might sour business relations with China. (It would not have been an unreasonable fear: After Bloomberg News ran a 2012 story exposing the family wealth of Communist Party President Xi Jinpig, sales of Bloomberg financial terminals in China declined.)
Shortly after the Times report ran, projects and investigations editor Amanda Bennett resigned from Bloomberg News, and Mike Forsythe, who also worked on the Wang Jianlin story, was suspended, to be later hired by the Times. Richardson, who explained to The Atlantic’s James Fallows that he timed his resignation to ensure he would receive his annual bonus, agreed to an email discussion with the International Business Times about the tensions at Bloomberg and the future of investigative journalism in China.
IBT: What more can you tell us about the story that Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler is presumed to have spiked?
Richardson: We don't know that Winkler spiked it, although as editor-in-chief you wouldn't be wrong to assign the responsibility to him. [Bloomberg Executive Editor] Laurie Hays has said that the decision to "hold" the story was made by her and her alone. But what really took place? Certainly I was in no position to know. Given what I do know and what I witnessed, I don't find the official version of events or justifications credible, but I can't divulge details for legal reasons.
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IBT: How do you reconcile Bloomberg’s denials that a story was killed for fear of political ramifications with Bloomberg LP Chairman Peter Grauer’s recent comments that Bloomberg should not have deviated from business reporting?
BR: I don't see how they can be reconciled.
IBT: How much of the tension stems from the prize-winning work that Bloomberg produced on President Xi's personal wealth? Besides the denial of visas to Bloomberg's China correspondents, any other ramifications -- threats to local staff, other consequences?
BR: It's almost all from there, but I think a bust-up was going to be inevitable at some point anyway because Winkler's ambitions to become the most influential news organisation had meant we were always pushing ourselves to do more, dig deeper, look wider, aim higher. And that evolution was changing the company, from the Chinese government’s perspective, from a relatively benign financial news provider into something altogether more threatening.
IBT: The outside world now wonders whether we can depend on Bloomberg for probing, quality journalism on China and specifically the ways in which high level CCP officials have abused positions to enrich themselves. Now it seems that the financial data business interests make this impossible. Is it? And is it inherently unrealistic to expect that a company with this kind of financial interest could be relied upon for objective investigative journalism?
BR: David Schlesinger, formerly a senior Reuters journalist, was pointing out the other day that Reuters relies on its trust principles to counter political pressure. I've heard this from other senior Reuters people who deal with the Chinese government they make a point of always reiterating the principles in meetings with officials. As Schlesinger said, they do it in a similar way that China always trots out its core positions on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, etc.
So no, it's not inherently unrealistic. As for Bloomberg's probing, quality journalism: Colleagues inside the company say the message is confused, but that at least parts of senior management in news are insisting the mission hasn't changed. I'm just not sure they'll be pulling the filings and other documents that you need to do the kind of story we had been working on. The problem I have with this is that journalists can write gripping stories about victims of pollution, land grabs, inequality, even petty corruption, but they're descriptions of symptoms not a diagnosis of disease. The root cause is the political system and its fundamental conflicts of interest. And the fact that you're under pressure not to report on it should be a signal that this is exactly where you should be looking.
IBT: The Chinese government has shown little sign of softening in dealings with Bloomberg and the New York Times. How will this play out? Will the Communist Party eventually yield? What does the future look like?
BR: That was a topic we discussed a lot while I was there, and no one really had a clue. The key thing to remember [is that] anyone who tells you they know what's really going on in China is either deluded or a liar. Whether this sensitivity is a temporary thing while Xi Jinping consolidates his power and clears out his opponents, or a more structural issue because the party's legitimacy depends on graft and enrichment only being exposed in the dealings of fallen political opponents, their associates and other assorted scape goats, only time will tell.
IBT: With resources so limited among news organizations these days, who do you think is in the best position to continue to pursue investigative reporting in China?
BR: The New York Times has staked its place pretty firmly. Hiring Mike Forsythe was about as clear a signal as you could get of their intent. And they have made some other fantastic hires. But the Wall Street Journal and Reuters are also pretty well stocked and adding editorial staff [and] the Financial Times has good people. It really just comes down to a matter of willpower. For a big organization, what's even a million dollars a year? That's all it would take if they dedicated an entire team to it. What we really want is for [more] media to pull off some big stories.
IBT: Do you expect to see an increase or a decrease in the amount of government intervention with outside journalism?
BR: You've got to think there's a limit to the Chinese government’s appetite for butting heads with the foreign press. If China wants to be taken seriously at the table of global discourse, it has to accept certain rules of the road: one of which is equitable treatment of foreign journalists. Greater transparency and acceptance of scrutiny is part of the price they must pay.
IBT: Do you think we can expect to see more departures from Bloomberg?
BR: I'd prefer not to comment.
IBT: What issues do you think the Chinese government is most concerned with keeping from appearing in the news?
BR: The administration has staked its legitimacy on battling corruption so they can't lose control of the narrative because it may easily turn around and bite if the current leaders are tainted. I suspect they may also become sensitive if too many stories reveal that core policies -- like battling pollution, expanding health coverage and the urbanisation push -- are enriching vested interests linked to party officials who haven't fallen from favour.
IBT: You are the more vocal among the three recent departures (Forsythe, Bennett) who were involved in investigative journalism on China. You’ve mentioned that you are tied to a nondisclosure agreement and have refused to answer some questions specifically. Are you concerned about legal action from Bloomberg for speaking to reporters at all, or do you feel you are protecting yourself by avoiding discussion of some particulars?
BR: They've gone to great lengths to make me aware of my legal obligations to keep quiet. When you take a new job, you're not really in a position to refuse the legal declarations that human resources departments put in front of you. Refuse and you lose the job. And in any case, who takes a new job imagining they're going to end up where we've all found ourselves? It was only when I got into conflict with the company that I reviewed my legal obligations that I'd signed in 2001, including a very hefty "core guide."
In any event I'm very keen to move on from discussing the details of what happened, and prefer to focus on the bigger issues that the incident raises...
IBT: What’s next for you?
BR: Researching the viability and sustainability of an Asia-based and Asia-focused public-interest journalism group. If you think the global media is under-resourced and under pressure, take a look at the local industry. Investigative journalism should be a fundamental component of a society's fabric. We can't rely on intermittent interest from news desks in America or Europe to deliver the consistent scrutiny needed to make governments in the region more accountable to their people.
The above interview has been condensed and edited.
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(Note: Bloomberg.com website photo by Shutterstock.com.)