Media 'revolution' is no easy task

By Ku Er-teh顧爾德  / 

Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 8

Lately, the two most popular mass media personalities, apart from the popular TV host Hou Pei-tsen (侯佩岑), have been Chiang Hsia (江霞), newly-appointed general manager of the state-run Chinese Television Systems (CTS), and Government Information Office (GIO) Director-General Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍). While the popularity of Hou, who is liked by men and loved by women, is a matter of individual preference, the popularity of Chiang and Lin involves public interest.

Chiang's appointment is a source of trouble for the government's supporters and a matter of joy for its detractors. Mass media scholars, hoping that President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) government would resolve the issue of the three old TV-stations' decades-long monopoly are feeling both ill at ease and angry, while those who want to perpetuate the special privileges that come with a monopoly rejoice -- if someone tries to get rid of them, they can now cry out "green terror" and "political persecution."

When Lin, who was transferred from being the Cabinet's spin doctor to becoming director-general of the GIO, took up his new post, he was immediately faced with the problem of extending the broadcasting licenses for China Television Company (CTV) and the Broadcasting Corporation of China (BCC). The two media corporations were taught a lesson, which naturally was interpreted as being aimed at the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

From a power perspective, the dissatisfaction with Chiang and Lin all makes sense -- why should they come out on top? Or, turning it around, why should we be the victims? The reason is that they are holding the power, and others have reason to believe that they are abusing that power. In particular, Chiang has admitted that her appointment was a "political reward," and her views of the TV-station's development do not sit at all well with a development towards establishing an independent public service corporation. As the blue camp is launching an all-out attack at Chiang, it is very difficult for the green camp to come to her rescue.

The problems of extending licenses and turning stations into independent public service corporations that Lin faces are more serious. It is an indisputable fact that CTV and the BCC for a long time have been given access to more public resources than anyone else. When the GIO requested that BCC return its license, the company could not do much else than comply; although they believed the announcement was a result of the power struggle between the green and blue camps, they also knew they didn't have a leg to stand on if they were to refuse.

And when the major CTV shareholder struck out at Lin, saying that he was causing the company's share prices to drop, the question that really should have been asked might have been, "Who was it that let CTV go public in the first place? Were the decision-makers at the time guilty of administrative or legal oversight?"

In the political power struggle, Chiang lost the first round, while Lin defeated the BCC. But that battle is not over yet. The blue camp thinks they are, after all, in opposition now, but once they are back in power, they will have learned their lesson from the current government and take it all back, lock, stock and barrel. This is a struggle for political power that is not directly connected to the public interest.

At this point we are faced with the problem of clarifying the line between public and political interests on the one hand and the political and public spheres on the other. What is even more important, however, is to realize the difference between liberalism and radical social democracy.

Liberals do not trust those holding political power. They worry that power corrupts and harms civil rights. They will not believe that the government wants to turn the media into independent public service corporations, but rather that the government wants to use them as an opportunity to weaken the opposition and monopolize power.

Radical social democrats believe that, in addition to politics, there is a public sphere that belongs to the citizenry. They believe that turning media into independent public service corporations is different from nationalization; the interests and will of society should be neither controlled nor represented by political forces.

Liberals sneer at this in the belief that it is but a myth invented by a political mob to encourage populism, and that turning media into independent public service corporations is inferior to the market mechanism.

Academics proposing that media be turned into independent public service corporations have noted the experiences of other countries in order to prove that there are successful examples of such a transformation. It is very difficult for them to make sure that these opinions reach the main group whose rights they want to protect -- the TV audience.

Lin believes that an attempt should be made to turn TV-stations into independent public service corporations, and that if it fails, at least people won't be able to say he didn't try. Academics in favor of the creation of public service corporations should push the government into organizing a public television foundation built on idealism, vision and able management. They should also encourage public participation.

If the "revolution" fails, we can join the likes of US economist Milton Friedman and let market forces supervise politics. If we do not, we have to quietly accept yet another Chiang Hsia.

Ku Er-teh is a freelance writer.

Translated by Perry Svensson