What’s Exactly Wrong with Taiwanese Media?

Written by Ti Wei.

Image credit: 媒體亂象 by tenz1225/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Taiwanese media has been widely and severely criticised for more than thirty years. Indeed, this problem can be traced back to the second half of the 1980s. This was when Taiwan was transitioning from martial law. In other words, it was an era of liberalisation and democratisation. The ‘freer’ press, particularly the newly released 24-hour cable TV news channels launched in the 1990s, provided sensationalist and low-quality news and talk shows. The era was thought about in terms of the media ‘losing control.’ Moreover, this loss of media control due to media disorder has been considered one of the key factors causing social disorder in general since then.

Around the late 1990s, the term “media disorder” (or media chaos, 媒體亂象) was created and widely used to depict the related phenomena. To explain the origin of this disorder, many commentators and scholars argue that it was a consequence of neo-liberalism. This economic system was implemented and promoted as a main monetary policy and political ideology in the West since the late 1970s and spread around the world thereafter. Furthermore, they stress that the Taiwanese government adopted neo-liberal media policies such as complete deregulation of the ownership restrictions on broadcasting and cable TV service and formerly privatised state-party owned TV stations. In this context, the media became market-driven and led to a saturation of chaos in its field, as we see in biased reports, gossip and sensationalist news [1]. 

On the surface, Taiwanese mediascapes after lifting martial law in 1987 were indeed a manifestation of Western neoliberal ideology. Most of the media sectors were under deregulation, liberalisation, and marketisation. As the director of the GIO (the Government Information Office, the authority of media and public affairs before 2006) at the time, Shao Yu-Ming recalled lifting the press ban (解除報禁), “no one from the party, the government, and even the military, gave me one single instruction,” he said, “I had only one thought in my mind: open everything up.” [2] (Emphasis added)

However, there are blind spots in applying this explanatory framework to the case of Taiwanese media. One of the obvious questions would be why the media situation in Taiwan has been much more out-of-control than in other countries? A simplistic appropriation of neoliberalism would obscure real problems and their solutions. A more historical and dialectic perspective, I will argue, would be necessary to re-examine the transformations of Taiwanese media.

A historical and dialectic re-examination

As we know, Taiwan turned from an authoritarian regime to a democracy in the mid-1980s, and the process is still ongoing. In contrast, Western societies have been democratic for hundreds of years before the introduction of neoliberalism around the same time, which was a substitute ideology for the welfare state system and the Keynesian economic policy in the post-war era. In other words, the related changes, such as the deregulation of media ownership, were happening within an established democratic system. Of course, this was a serious problem and disappointed those writing from a leftist point of view, who became concerned about neoliberalism in the media realm, as influential American media scholar Robert W. McChesney argues. But the problem was still relatively controlled because the laws, the regulators (e.g. the FCC), the congress, and the NGOs were functioning and negotiating with each other.   

In contrast, when the Taiwanese government decided to abandon its role in governing the media, the process of democratisation also began. Furthermore, the rapid withdrawal of state power from the media sector without a systematic balance provided by the legal system and civil organisations pushed the media into a brutally competitive market jungle. The substitute of the GIO, an independent press regulator, the National Communications Commission (NCC), was established in 2006, 19 years later, since the lift of martial law. It demonstrates that there was no better governance framework to replace the old one in a democratising society for a long time. Obviously, however, society as a whole was still learning how to build new rules.  

While on the media’s end, not like their counterparts in the US or Europe, where there are long-term and clear rules in the interactions among the media, the state, and the society, Taiwanese media experienced a quite different process under the influence of the neoliberalism. On the one hand, Taiwanese media enjoyed extremely limited freedom and were not even close to the public broadcasting in Europe or the free press in the US. But on the other hand, when the democratisation process began, the media and the state and society tried to figure out the appropriate roles for themselves and their relationships in a democratic system.

On the other hand, the pressure of survival came so suddenly and strongly that they did not have time and energy to solve the previous problem. In the authoritarian era, Taiwanese media were already very profit-oriented and commercialised, but only in a conditional environment set by the state. The state not only supervised them but also protected their market status. Therefore, neither the media knew how to play an appropriate role in the democratic system, nor did they have enough knowledge of being viable in a free market. That partially explains why Taiwanese media were so anxious and vulnerable when they faced the Next Media (壹傳媒) competition, which landed in Taiwan from Hong Kong with its successful model of selling popular and sensational content after the year 2000. Most local media could only copy the model in a more awkward and incompetent way.

In short, this “media disorder” in Taiwan is not caused by neoliberalism but by the immaturity of the democratic system. This is particularly the rational relationship between the state, the media and the people, and the local media sectors’ lack of competitiveness and market adaptability. When state influence decreased, the media sectors were not mostly taken over by capitalists like in the Western countries but fell into a chaotic situation and got out of control.

Secondly, based on the criticism of neoliberalism in the realm of the media, some media reformers strongly suggested the publication of the media (媒體公共化) to correct the “media disorder.” However, as mentioned above, the problem of Taiwanese media was rooted in the entire democratic system and the economic and organisational practice of the media. Therefore, simply transforming the media’s ownership from private to public, even though the idea itself is right, will not solve the problem appropriately.

Thirdly, the strong rise of transnational social media and digital platforms in recent years has made the survival of Taiwanese media even more difficult. Therefore, maintaining a democratically and economically viable media system is more urgent and necessary than ever.

To solve the Taiwanese media problem, the first step is to recognise that the problem is unique and not like any other case in the world. Moreover, this problem could not be explained by any Western theories. Therefore, we need to carefully clarify and re-examine the nature of the problem and study society and the audiences thoroughly. Then, based on the re-acquainted knowledge, we may draw a new and reflective plan for rebuilding the media system. The only thing for sure is that it is neither commercial nor public in the Western sense. In addition, the latest development of media platformatisation and the new audience generation should be considered. The task is tough, but any endeavour to pay should be worthy when we think of how much hardship Taiwanese media have been through.

[1] For example, see Lo, Shih-Hung (2008). “Who Pays for Free Press? Reconsidering Media and Democracy in Taiwan.” Mass Communication Research, No. 95, pp. 213-238.

[2] Quoted in Shao, Yu-Ming (2008). “The Background, Process, and Influence of Lifting the Ban on the Press.” In The Fall of the Key Power: Twenty Years After the Lift of the Ban on the Press. Taipei: The Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award, p.4.

Ti Wei is a Professor at the Department of Communication and Technology, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. His research interests include the political economy of media and cultural industries, visual cultures, and media policy. He is currently working on re-writing the history of Taiwanese media.

This article is published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Media Landscape.

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