By Chen Ping-hung 陳炳宏
Sunday, Jun 14, 2009 Taipei Times
A report in the Chinese-language Apple Daily suggests that at around the time of the anniversary of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) inauguration, local newspapers and TV stations carried a large amount of paid-for “news” about the government’s achievements.
Certain ministries are alleged to have contracted out the responsibility of keeping the public informed to marketing companies; these firms organize a number of campaigns each year to fill a quota of newspaper space and TV programming with news about their clients.
This trend represents a revival of embedded marketing by government institutions. Actually, “revival” is too mild a word considering just how rampant this kind of placement marketing has become. “Ubiquitous” might be more appropriate.
The ministries are not alone. Even Premier Liu Chao-shiuan’s (劉兆玄) newspaper interviews are paid for. If those at the top set a bad example, their subordinates will follow suit.
Unless the Ma administration expressly forbids government departments from paying for embedded publicity, bureaucrats will continue to use taxpayers’ money in this way to claim false achievements and cover up their incompetence.
The question most often raised in this regard is: Can news media be relied on to monitor the government if they take cash to report news on the government’s activities?
A cornerstone of democracy is that the press should act as the Fourth Estate.
But how can the public be confident that the media will perform this duty when they take their orders from those in power? At election time, viewers may not be able to tell whether news is information gathered to monitor the government and inform the public or undeclared advertising paid for by candidates and other politicians.
If even on-the-spot news can be bought, how can the public believe anything in a news bulletin?
Sadly, those voicing concerns about this issue have little effect. Civic groups and academics have for years reminded the media of their responsibility to monitor the government.
They have pointed to the harm that embedded propaganda brings to Taiwan’s democracy. What more can be said or done when those in power turn a deaf ear to these warnings?
The harmful effects of government-funded embedded marketing go beyond those mentioned above.
For example, government officials get accustomed to not having to take responsibility for policies. If the government can buy news segments, then officials need not worry what people will think or say about them.
When bureaucrats devote part of their budget to buying media time in the guise of news, it blunts the media’s willingness and ability to criticize. If officials are allowed to employ the media to improve their image, then they will go ahead and do just that. With the media at their beck and call, officials will not be accountable for their policies.
What you end up with is a bunch of incapable bureaucrats who answer to no one. Regardless of what happens, they will hide behind the manufactured image of achievement embedded in the media.
I can’t say for certain whether the Ma administration needs civil servants like these, but the public certainly does not.
An assistant to a government official once told me that the main reason ministries buy media time and space is not the possible influence it will have on public opinion.
Rather, they use TV and press reports as tools to convince officials higher up the chain that they are working hard.
In other words, lowly ranked bureaucrats use the media to inform — or hoodwink — their superiors in order to protect their jobs. If what my informant said is true, it can be surmised that ministries pay for embedded reports to hoodwink the Cabinet, and that the Cabinet buys slots to fool the president.
Do ordinary people realize that officials are using taxpayers’ money to fool each other and everyone else? If so, and if they find this acceptable, then Taiwan is in real trouble.
I have a modest request for those in government: Please stop using embedded marketing to paint over the cracks in your policies. Civil servants should be willing to answer for their performance. The media, for their part, should remember their proper role, and media workers should ask themselves what became of the ideals they had when they chose to work in the industry.
Otherwise, there will come a time when the public loses faith in the media altogether. The democratic system will be weakened and everyone in Taiwan will suffer the consequences.
Media workers should not sell their souls in this messy potage, and media outlets should consider more than just the bottom line.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Mass Communication at National Taiwan Normal University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG