On Monday, veteran reporter Huang Je-bing (黃哲斌) resigned from the newspaper where he had worked for more than 16 years. If a journalist wants to quit his job, who is to stop him? Normally such an event would be no more remarkable than a rain shower.
However, Huang’s announcement of his resignation stirred up a big commotion only a day after he posted it on his blog, which registered nearly 100,000 visitors. The story was also quoted and reposted countless times. Why? Because Huang told the truth when few journalists would have dared to do so. Huang’s heartfelt explanation of why he resigned reads as follows: “Taiwanese newspapers are ahead of the world trend for paid promotional news. Since my ideas about this job seem outdated, I am resigning and going home.”
The first thing this media veteran did after quitting the service was to start a start up a petition against the practice of government at various levels spending public funds to get policies promoted in the news media.
Within one day, 1,078 groups and individuals had signed the petition. Among the signatures can be found the names of Taiwanese media studies department heads and professors. There are also media studies students worrying about their first job, media workers and many, many readers, viewers and listeners.
“How is this different from the communist system they have in China?” “Government manipulating the media … that’s really going too far.” “What’s the difference between the government buying media outlets and election candidates who pay for votes?” “When will I be able to stop having to guess what’s news and what’s advertising in the papers?” “If the media can’t survive without selling out, let them go to the wall! The way they’re going is a complete distortion of its reason for existence.” “I’ve been upset about this for a long time.” “Why do we need to sign for something to be done that should have been done long ago?”
These are just some of the great variety of comments people have posted along with their signatures. Some are puzzled, other angry, but what they have in common is a modest, but determined, voice demanding that news reporting should not be for sale.
Freedom of news reporting and a duty to monitor the government — these notions are the basic ABCs of the news. However, these concepts have long since given way to a cozy symbiosis between government, business and the media.
When government buys space or slots in the news, it is even more harmful than when business does it, because in doing so it gets a monopoly on the opportunity to talk about public policy, while shrinking the space for discussion of other viewpoints. That gives it influence over how people make political decisions. You can’t have a real democracy when people have the wool pulled over their eyes.
In some respects, political information may be considered beneficial to the public, and it is hard to prove that government has bought over the media. Probably for these reasons, while departments responsible for overseeing the media have in recent years imposed many fines for embedded marketing, the content in question is nearly always commercial product promotion, and there has never been a case of punishment for policy promotion by the government.
The heartfelt words of a veteran media worker have once again shown up the collective degenerate state of Taiwanese media and politics. This incident has once more exposed the difficult position in which media workers find themselves.
Once more it has provoked dissatisfaction among the reading and listening public, and once more it has shown the power of the Internet as a channel of communication. But how can this power be turned into a remedy that can make things better?
Apart from signing petitions, we need to call on the media’s conscience and press those in government to keep their promises. Let’s not forget that in 2008, during the campaign that led to their election as president and vice president, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) signed a pledge to oppose embedded marketing. What has become of that promise now?
Perhaps the way to fix this problem for good would be to follow the example of the US, Canada and other countries by passing legislation that clearly prohibits governments at all levels from setting aside inappropriate budgets for buying over the media.
Hung Chen-ling is an assistant professor at the National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Journalism.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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