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Beijing propaganda chief hatches plan to combat age of internet news

China’s propaganda officials are experimenting with a revolutionary new policy to manage their message in the age of the internet: reporting the news as it happens.

The move marks an important shift for the ruling Communist Party, which is accustomed to deciding what will be reported and when.

However, far from being a move towards freedom of the press, the aim is to maintain control of the information available to China’s 1.3 billion people.

The order came straight from the desk of China’s propaganda chief, Li Changchun, one of the nine members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee who, faced with a bewildering array of media now available to the public, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep control of information.

“Let us use the method of providing news as the way to control news,” a well-placed source quoted Mr Li as saying in his recently issued directive.

The new approach is aimed at ensuring that ultimate control of at least the most sensitive information remains in party hands. The source told The Times: “The principle is to report an incident as soon as possible without the need to inform the leaders in advance.”

Already this has streamlined official reporting of some events.

In the past, major news would be allowed into the public eye only after careful vetting by senior officials. The source said: “In the past, when something happened the usual practice was that a senior person would hold off and say he would report to the leadership. And once something was reported to the leadership then they would issue an order for a media blackout.”

When a provincial television station reported the discovery of slave labour in brick kilns last year the main government television station was allowed to air the story, but was silenced after a few days.

Restrictions remain in place, with the goal of ensuring that sufficient information is released to satisfy a hungry public while holding back details that could prove incendiary in a country whose leaders are deeply fearful of public unrest.

The source said that the propaganda chief had indicated that the new approach to news would reduce wild gossip, particularly on the internet, where rumours and speculation are rife and wildly inaccurate reports gain credence in the absence of an official version, given the low credibility of state-run media.

Mr Li’s directive is intended to keep the news in party hands by ensuring the news agenda is set by propaganda organisations rather than investigative reporters.