Asian media vows to make western media cry

Imagethief was tickled to read today in Xinhua an article from the Boao Forum for Asia, an annual Chinese talking shop, on how Asian media will rise up to challenge western media juggernauts. It seems that Asians take umbrage that they are 96.2% of the world’s population and yet produce only 0.3% of its international media. Or something like that.

The article makes many serious points:

“The world is not flat actually,” Liu Jiang, deputy editor-in-chief of Xinhua News Agency, said at the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), which was held over the weekend in the south China town of Boao.

“The world is in reality a slop [sic] on which information flows downward from developed countries to developing countries and regions,” Liu said.

“The World Is Flat” by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been frequently quoted to prove an alleged “magic power” of globalization by Bill Gates and other lecturers at the conference.

The book figures out ten driving forces to grind the world flat, in each of which media play an important role.

“Developed contrives, which have one seventh of the world population, have dominated two thirds of the total information flow,” Liu said. “However, globalization does not balance a horizontal world when it is grinding the world.”

“Why do Asian media always yield to Western culture?” Felix Soh, deputy editor-in-chief of The Straits Times headquartered in Singapore, questioned in his speech at the sub-forum discussing globalization and the media.

Imagethief has lived in Asia for over a decade and is a fan of Asia and things Asian. So he will try to address Mr. Soh’s question as delicately and constructively as possible.

It’s because on average Asian media suck. Especially news media.

Now this is not an entirely categorical statement. There are fine Asian newspapers and magazines, and, heaven knows, gifted Asian filmmakers and writers. But in general –and I am truly sorry for purely selfish reasons that this is the case– Asian commercial media is a desperate wasteland that teeters perpetually on the precarious knife-edge of irredeemability.

Mr. Soh himself heads up one of the blazing test cases for the failed potential of Asian media. Imagethief needs to tread carefully here because he is really good friends with several Straits Times journalists, and they are hardworking, smart, talented people. But friends are honest with each other, so here it is: the Straits Times took the last train to dullsville and fell asleep in its seat and missed the stop. I know. I subscribed for years.

The tragedy of this –the great, majestic, swooping tragedy– is that if any country was going to produce a credible pan-Asian newspaper it would be Singapore. It’s in the right place, it’s got the right people, and it speaks the right languages. It really is a regional hub. But it will never happen.

I blame government. Governments, by and large, should not involve themselves in media. But Asia’s governments cannot, for the life of them, keep their grubby mitts off the media. And damned if they don’t have a near mystical talent for boiling the life out of it.

I realize you can argue both aspects of the government involvement equation. The government-run chartered [see note below -WM] BBC, for its troubles, is one of the world’s great news gathering organizations. Too little government supervision of media and you get dangerously irresponsible or corrupt media.

But too much government involvement and you get soul-destroying headlines like…well, just for fun, let’s see what the top story on the Straits Times website is right now:

Need for S’pore to focus on sustainable construction: Grace Fu

THERE is a scope to reduce the stockpile release price for granite from May onwards, Minister of State for National Development Grace Fu said.

Gadzooks! And for good measure here’s the number two headline:

Extraordinary govt, talent keep S’pore ahead, says MM (MM= Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew)

Good gosh, two government headlines in a row. And this is typical. Back in Singapore we used to joke about what the above-the-fold government headline of the day would be.

Arguably, this is what is important to Singaporeans (although this kind of stuff drives my Singaporean wife up the wall, but she married me so she’s probably deranged). And I realize it’s unfair to dump so much on the Straits Times. But if the editor is going to ask rhetorical questions about the subservience of Asian media, perhaps he should look close to home for the answer.

This story is rewritten across the region. As long as Asian governments manage their news, censor their films, and interfere explicitly in culture then their newspapers will be treated as propaganda, their most talented artists will flee overseas and their people will wolf-down tawdry but lively foreign culture.

So my recommendation for the governments of Asia is this: if you want a louder voice in the world, if you’re tired of being walked all over by imperialist western media, if you think you are being misrepresented on the global stage, then back the hell off. Set your own media free. It will probably rise to the challenge, and, I suspect, do it better without you breathing over its shoulder.

But that’s a pipe dream. Here’s the end of that article:

High level forums and meetings have been raised by media groups from China and members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). An agreement of cooperation on communication signed by members of the Non-aligned Movement at Kuala Lumpur in 2005 has shown the developing countries’ strong willing to speak louder in the world.

Delegates of Asian media attending the BFA conference reached the consensus that Asian media should shoulder a responsibility for broadcasting “a harmonious Asia” with “a harmonious Asian image” and provide a value of “harmonious region” to tell the world a real Asia.

A “harmonious Asia”? Oh dear. Pass me the Financial Times.

Note: I do give a tip of the hat to Singapore’s Chinese language daily, Lianhe Zaobao, which is popular in China.

Update: Charlie (in comments below) [comments no longer available – WM] and another reader (by e-mail) have pointed out the important distinction between publicly funded media, such as BBC or NPR in the US, and state-managed media. I should have made that distinction clearer in the text. The BBC is, thus, probably used incorrectly as a positive example above. Unfortunately that kind of bottoms out the list of exceptions to thegovernment involvement = bad rule.

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