The broadcast media has been in the spotlight recently, with the debate over embedded marketing, ERA TV’s unsuccessful bid to renew its variety channel’s license and the amendments to the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法). The common thread has been concern over the healthy development of the media. The accusing finger has been pointed squarely at the government, but I believe the crux of the matter lies with the media’s failure to regulate itself.
Much of the fault lies with the new party-state that has grown under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Ma is both the head of state and chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). His premier is a former journalist and the secretary-general of his party is a media studies professor, hardly a normal choice of talents for a president to surround himself with.
Ma himself has a reputation for reneging on campaign promises, earning him the moniker “king of the bounced check.” He has also been behind controlling the media through embedded marketing, commandeered the Public Television Service, forced out the chairman and several board members of Radio Taiwan International and brought the Central News Agency into line with the party-state system. With these constrictions on press freedom, Taiwan is slipping on the global rankings for press freedom.
That said, we wouldn’t have embedded marketing if nobody was willing to provide it. In that sense, it resembles vote-buying and so all involved should be investigated. When news outlets pocket cash in return for broadcasting whatever the buyer wants, both are guilty of conning their audience and compromising their own credibility. They are both doing themselves a disservice. News providers naturally need to make a profit, but they should also be mindful of the fact that they provide a public service. They cannot place profit before ethics. They are just looking to turn a fast buck and will not even turn away advertising from China or embedded marketing, both of which are illegal.
The main reason given for revoking ERA TV’s variety channel license was that it deliberately mixed commercials with program content when these programs were supposed to be informative. This is still embedded marketing, albeit with businesspeople paying. It is deceiving the audience and it’s bad for the broadcaster, too. One would think that renewing the license was a simple matter of approving it or rejecting it, with the condition that the review process conforms to procedural justice. ERA TV has attempted to make this into a wider debate on free speech. Despite the fact that they are not without supporters on this, they are tenuous at best and, one suspects, disingenuous of them, too.
Similarly, the Children and Youth Welfare Act is meant to act as a curb on the excesses of a press ignorant of where the line should be drawn. It is needed when certain outlets consistently report news in an overly melodramatic or sensationalist manner, or in a way which involves gratuitous nudity or showing corpses. Even WHO regulations on reporting suicide cases are often disregarded here. It is not that the media in Taiwan is devoid of self-restraint, it’s just that there are so many examples of broadcasters or publishers which show a distinctly mercenary side, or who think themselves above the law.
Five years ago, there was a public furor over the suspension of the license of ETTV News S channel (東森新聞S台). The management tried to fall back on the same pretext of looking out for the interests of the public. That argument didn’t wash then and it probably won’t work now, either. After all, if you cry wolf too many times, who will listen?
Lu Shih-hsiang is an adviser to the Taipei Times.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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