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'Pursue the truth'

Reuters has moved quickly to re-affirm commitment to its Trust Principles following an incident that reveals differences between the news agency and its largest client.

The ethos of independence, integrity and freedom from bias forged in time of global war in 1941 is the standard by which Reuters measures the work of its journalists.

Ironically, it is being tested by the terminals and data business that was originally a part of Reuters.

Now called Refinitiv, it has bowed to Chinese government pressure and removed from its Eikon data terminal in China Reuters stories about the 30th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Reuters reported that the online censor Cyberspace Administration of China had threatened to suspend Refinitiv if it did not comply with its demand to pull articles that mentioned the 1989 Tiananmen events.

In a statement, Refinitiv said, “As a global business, we comply with all our local regulatory obligations, including the requirements of our license to operate in China.”

“We have spoken to Refinitiv and expressed our concern…” Michael Friedenberg, Reuters president, and Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief, told staff in a joint memo.

“In today’s world the Trust Principles have never been more important and be assured that they are the foundation upon which Reuters is built. We urge you all to continue reporting as you always would: to pursue the truth, without fear or favor.”

The Principles were adopted across the combined business when Reuters was acquired by Canada’s Thomson family in 2008. But when they sold off a controlling interest in the financial and risk division to a group headed by private equity investor Blackstone last year, the rebranded business did not buy into the Principles, even though Thomson Reuters continues to own 45 per cent of the restructured business.

Under the terms of the $20 billion deal, Refinitiv agreed to pay at least $325 million a year for 30 years to access Reuters news, making it the agency’s largest customer.

In a separate public statement, Friedenberg and Adler said: “Reuters reports around the world in a fair, unbiased and independent manner, in keeping with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles, and we stand by our China coverage.

“We believe that financial markets need trusted news, information and data to operate efficiently, and we provide that service to all our clients worldwide. We continue to provide Refinitiv with the same scope of content that we always have, including stories relating to China, and Refinitiv’s decisions will not affect the breadth or quality of our coverage. We remain committed to telling the stories that matter.”

They deflected further discussion, saying “Eikon is a Refinitiv product so any further questions should be directed to Refinitiv.”

Refinitiv said it was operating in accordance with its licence in China. 

“Refinitiv is a financial markets news and data provider in China. We are proud of the role we play in the world to facilitate transparent and efficient financial markets,” the company said. “As a global business, we comply with all our local regulatory obligations, including the requirements of our licence to operate in China.”

Reuters continues to provide Refinitiv with content, including stories relating to China, and Refinitiv’s decisions will not affect the breadth or quality of coverage, it said.

Some journalists took to social media to comment. 

“So, if you’re a Refinitiv user, experiencing your partial Eikon experience for the first time ever this week, I apologise as a Reuters reporter,” Cate Cadell, who covers China, wrote on Twitter. “We reported these thinking you could access them.”

David Schlesinger, former editor-in-chief and former chairman of Thomson Reuters China, wrote on Facebook: “Now without its own means of distribution, other than its own website, Reuters has no control over how its customers (including what was once the flagship Reuters Eikon terminal) chose, select, edit, re-edit, change or, yes, censor, its reports. To see this happen on what was Reuters house publishing arm, the terminal, is a shock... but not surprising. Refinitiv itself, now that it is clearly not a journalistic organization in any way and hasn't signed up to the old Reuters Trust principles, had no recourse against the Chinese request - the choice was certainly stark: censor or begone.”

Journalist Peter Graff said the China move was always predictable and predicted. “Blackstone had a choice, either to take Reuters News and its bolshy journos with them when they unwound the Thomson-Reuters merger, or leave it behind. They chose the latter route. Reuters is now a somewhat random appendage of the legacy Thomson businesses, the news wire arm of a Canadian-owned Eagan, Minnesota-based legal publisher. Since Refinitiv is no longer in the news business, by design, it is free to censor news written by any of its suppliers. And that's an obvious competitive advantage in China…

“The question is: will Refinitiv users outside China actually care? The answer is, alas, probably not. In any event, here at Reuters that's just no longer our problem.” ■