LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The UK's media regulator has pulled Chinese state-backed television channel CGTN off the air, a decision that's set to deepen tensions with Beijing.
China Global Television Network's license holder, a company called Star China Media, didn't have editorial control over broadcasts in the UK, according to an investigation published by watchdog Ofcom on Thursday (Feb 4).
CGTN had asked for its license to be transferred to an entity called China Global Television Network Corporation, but "crucial information" was missing from the application, and the new owner would be disqualified from holding a license as it would be controlled by a body ultimately directed by the Chinese Communist Party, Ofcom said.
In a statement, CGTN said it was disappointed and expressed "strong opposition" to Ofcom's findings while defending its record as a "professional" media organisation.
The broadcaster said it complied with all local laws, adding that it would "continue to promote understanding, communication, trust and cooperation." While the Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the decision, last year it accused Britain of obstructing reporting by Chinese media in the UK.
On Thursday, shortly after the Ofcom decision, it complained about a recent video report by the BBC on the pandemic, and has asked the broadcaster to apologise. The BBC stood by the story, saying it rejected "these unfounded accusations of fake news or ideological bias."
Tensions between China and the UK have risen in the last year, in part due to the pandemic.
Although the UK had been seeking to enhance trade ties with China after leaving the European Union, last year Boris Johnson's government banned Huawei Technologies from its next-generation wireless networks amid security concerns and a political backlash over Beijing's handling of the coronavirus.
After China imposed a new security law on Hong Kong, the UK offered residents of the region a path to becoming British citizens, a move that further inflamed relations with Beijing.
The UK has also been outspoken about human-rights abuses in China and is trying to use its position as host of the Group of Seven summit this year to build an alliance of 10 major economies to promote democratic values.
"It is likely China will respond harshly to this," said Peter Dahlin, co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, an NGO that lodged the original complaint with Ofcom.
"It cannot be stressed enough how important CGTN is in the China Communist Party's planned expansion for soft power and influence in Europe, which with the deterioration of relationship with the US has only gotten more important."
The proposed new license holder CGTNC didn't agree that it was disqualified under British law, according to its representations shared by Ofcom.
"We have given CGTN significant time to come into compliance with the statutory rules," Ofcom said in the statement.
"Those efforts have now been exhausted."
CGTN said it "provided detailed explanations to Ofcom in a proactive and cooperative manner" and called the decision "political."
The broadcaster had been targeting more international viewers and hired dozens of staff for a London hub opened in 2018.
The channel reached 892,000 people over the last four weeks measured, totaling just 1 average daily minute of viewing, according to data from the UK's Broadcasters' Audience Research Board.
However, the restrictions will not apply to CGTN's digital distribution channels like its Facebook page, which has 114 million followers.
Earlier this week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had sought to move relations with the UK onto "firmer footing" in a keynote address hosted by Chinese and UK business groups.
"No matter how the regional and international landscape may evolve, China's commitment to its relations to the UK remains as strong as ever," Li said.
Ofcom is required by law to prevent bodies whose goals are mainly political from becoming or remaining TV license holders. Last year Ofcom found CGTN breached impartiality rules in its coverage of Hong Kong protests.
Peter Humphrey, a British corporate investigator, and two others had submitted complaints about CGTN to Ofcom, alleging the channel had aired their forced confessions.
In 2020 Ofcom found CGTN's actions toward Humphrey breached fairness and privacy rules, and was considering sanctions against CGTN which could have included a ban. It's close to announcing verdicts for the other two cases.