The past week has seen a number of surveys, reports and comments blasting Taiwan's media. Media organizations were told not to try to generate interest in their news stories by using catchy headlines or being sensational. Such practices, some warned, would create a "culture of smearing" in which human rights would be threatened by spurious allegations.
This line of reasoning is a welcome reminder of how low a caliber of person it takes to make a politician. Taiwan's media is considered one of the most free and vigorous in the region, and for good reason. For example, the BBC's online country profile for Taiwan notes: "The media environment in Taiwan is among the freest in Asia, and extremely competitive. There are hundreds of newspapers, all privately owned and reflecting a wide range of views."
Politicians and academics may find tabloid-style journalism distasteful -- and often libelous -- but that is a fact of life for any public figure. If someone is caught walking out of a love hotel with his or her companion after an extramarital tryst, then he or she is fair game for the pages of certain magazines and newspapers. If the allegations are untrue, the victims can take legal recourse. But there is no use whining that a news item made you look bad.
More importantly, if a public official's graft or malfeasance is uncovered and publicized by a media organization, then that organization has performed a very real public service. The name of the game is accountability, and independent means of oversight are crucial in that regard. If politicians merely want a forum in which they can distribute their press releases, then they should hire a public relations firm.
The truth -- here as anywhere else in the world -- is that the vast bulk of politicians make their careers through backroom maneuvering and playing dirty. Such characters need a rabid pack of media hounds nipping at their heels to keep them honest -- or catch them in their lies.
Media organizations are businesses, and as such they must try to generate interest in their product -- the news. Who wants to read boring stories?
Even so, scrupulous organizations adhere to ethical standards in an effort to weed out biased or mistaken reporting. But the beauty of the system is that it does not rely on an organization's ethical purity. It relies on a far more certain standard: self-interest.
Every media organization has an interest in making its competitors look incompetent, untruthful or foolish. Thus, by having a diverse and broad set of interests investigate an issue, something close to the "truth" can be approached.
The problem with the media in Taiwan is not lack of regulation, as some officials appear to believe. It is the opposite -- too much government interference, and a culture of complicity that exists between many in the media and the political elite. Reducing government interference is quite easy. Simply ask: Why does Taiwan need the Government Information Office (GIO)? Many experts could offer glib explanations about the importance of oversight and the need to distribute "accurate" information, but that does not answer the basic question: Why does Taiwan need an agency whose purpose is to allow the government to interfere with the news-gathering process?
Of course, the GIO is hardly some Brazil-esque Ministry of Information. But it is enough of a nuisance and a throwback to the days of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authoritarianism that the current administration, when it came to power in 2000, called for the GIO's dissolution. President Chen Shui-bian (