The Want Want China Times Group, which includes the Chinese-language daily China Times and other print and electronic media, provoked a public backlash recently after its news outlets used false connections and smears to suggest that Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), a researcher at Academia Sinica’s Institutum Iurisprudentiae, paid students to take part in protests against the group’s acquisition of cable television services owned by China Network Systems.
Several senior editors and reporters working for the group were so unhappy about this that they quit their jobs, and more than half of the independent members of Want Want-owned CtiTV’s ethics committee have since resigned.
Thousands of students, teachers, artists and writers have employed various ways to denounce the group for harming the journalistic profession. They have lodged an official complaint with the National Communications Commission (NCC) over the group’s failure to regulate itself and are calling on the group to apologize and abide by professional journalistic standards.
Despite these, when the NCC held on Wednesday last week a review of the principles CtiTV follows in reporting matters that concern its own interests, it focused on analyzing the quantity of news reporting by various television stations. The commission said that CtiTV and Next TV — which is not a member of the Want Want group — had run too many reports on the allegations against Huang, while ETTV, TVBS and other stations had not reported on the issue at all.
The implication would seem to be that for those stations that did not report the story, there was less of a question of reporting about a matter concerning their own interests. This really is an absurd conclusion to draw, because it ignores the influence wielded by cable TV system operators.
When considering how news media report stories related to their own interests, it is not enough for the commission to merely analyze the number of reports. It should also consider whether the reports breach the standards of journalism and the norms of self-regulation.
At the same time, if other media did not report on the story, it does not necessarily mean that there is no problem. It could be that these other media outlets are keeping quiet out of fear. This factor would be an even more alarming indication of the current state of Taiwanese media.
In fact, the main reason why there have been so many protests over the past year against the Want Want group’s plan to acquire 11 cable-television operators is such a merger could cause news sources to be intimidated into keeping quiet.
Any system that channels television programming to millions of households will surely hold a lot of sway over interests, such as which stations get assigned cable channels and how much they get paid in royalties. The Want Want group’s acquisition proposal involves the biggest sum of money of any such deal in Asia in the past six years. It is the biggest-ever deal of its type in Taiwan, and it has been drawn more protests longer and by more people, including media personnel, teachers and students.
Next TV, whose application for a cable channel was earlier rejected, has been closely reporting on the Want Want group’s acquisition plan. Of course, this has something to do with the case’s influence on Next TV’s own interests, but the buyout plan is also a major issue that threatens media diversity.
The sad thing is that, with the exception of CtiTV, there have been precious few reports about the issue on other cable television news channels. It would be interesting to know how the NCC interprets the fact that these other channels have not reported on the case at all.
Is the failure of these media outlets to report on the issue simply a choice based on professional news considerations? Or is it a case of self-censorship arising from their fear of offending cable-television operators? If it is the latter, then it is also a matter of covering, or not covering, matters related to their own interests and it shows the monopolistic influence that giant cable operators can have over opinion expressed on TV. The NCC is in charge of ensuring the healthy development of the local media environment, so should it not take the initiative in investigating this issue? Will this case lead the commission to recognize the huge influence that cable system operators wield?
Academics have long been calling for the commission to draft a law on cross-media monopoly, and NCC Commissioner Howard Shyr (石世豪) has written articles advocating diversity. Shyr recently said that the commission currently has no basis for restricting concentration of media ownership and control. That being the case, is it not time for the commission to stop just sighing about it, and to actually get down to the business of drafting a law on cross-media monopoly?
Flora Chang and Lin Lih-yun are professors at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism.
Translated by Julian Clegg