Beijing-based blogger and PR flack Imagethief has weighed in with a very meaty essay relating to the light argument between myself and Bingfeng last week.
… Bingfeng is half right. There is “collusion between media and business [that] has evolved into more sophisticated forms that influence/manipulate the public.” We call that public relations, and it’s what I do for a living. But no matter how distasteful you might find it, it is not necessarily corrupt, and seems not to have undermined civil society in most of the rest of the world.
The origins of the transportation claim notwithstanding, blaming MNCs and PR companies for corruption in the Chinese media is absurd. Complicit though they may sometimes be, it’s like blaming vultures for the death of your horse in the desert. This argument is the reframing of a victimization theme I often see wielded against foreigners and multinationals when discussing problems in China. It plays well on nationalist sentiments and often does a really good job of deflecting attention away from serious, underlying issues worthy of scrutiny. The Chewbacca defense, as Myrick pointed out.
Furthermore, to suggest that a cleaner media will lead to fewer restrictions on free speech is, quite simply, to put the cart before the horse. I believe the exact opposite is true. Free speech and a less fettered press are much more likely to be effective weapons against corruption.
There’s a lot of great info and argument in the post on the nature of Chinese media. Do read the rest.
I will note that on the ‘transportation claim,’ Will makes a reasonable point.:
In case you are wondering, although I think it’s a bad idea, I don’t feel that the transportation claim is corrupt. Media corruption thrives in the dark, when its influence is hidden. The transportation claim is completely matter-of-fact and auditable. You can follow the trail, from our cost estimate for events to our invoices to clients to the list of exactly which journalists showed up at a press event, and their sign-in signatures. It’s never guaranteed us good coverage, or even attendance at events. Frankly, I think it’s a desperate waste of money, and it will be a good day for the maturity of Chinese media when it is abolished. But that will only happen when the Chinese media decide for themselves to abolish it, or when all companies with PR efforts in China, both local and foreign, decide to abolish it together. It would take a company with a large risk appetite indeed to unilaterally decide no longer offer the transportation claim, especially while their competitors still did.
I expect that the ‘transportation claim’ is so widely done here that it is expected by some local journalists. I further believe that it does not guarantee positive coverage, but that failing to offer cash could cause the reverse. I still consider it payola, but an argument could be made that it is now so common it is more like institutionalized extortion.
I have a lot of respect for many of the local media I have encountered - there are many good journalists here, especially in the business press. I also know many PR flacks who are helpful and earnest. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone is corrupt as an individual, but I do see this as a corrupt institutional practice.
Barring the emergence of trend-setting leadership, solutions to the payola problem will indeed require a serious joint effort on the part of businesses, PR firms and media managers.
The latter could try a code of ethics and boosting local reporters’ salaries. Higher salaries, as Lee Kwan Yew would argue, deter people from accepting bribes. I also imagine that expected cash from ‘transport claims’ is priced-in to salary offers by local media operations. If a media company were to forbid reporters from accepting such cash, it would have to offer legitimate compensation.
Better still, government could simply outlaw the practice. That would save on promotion costs for local and foreign firms, spare PR firms an ethical dilemma and would likely cause quite a bit of upset among local hacks (which may, in turn, encourage a more critical and independent press).
UPDATE: Ian Lamont discusses the issue from a Taiwan perspective.
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Mao: The Unknown Story - by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday:
A controversial and damning biography of the Helmsman.
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November 2nd, 2005 at 10:36 am
Thanks for the good words and hearty reccommendation. And the comment.
David Wolf, an ex-colleague of mine who has been in China for many years and now runs his own consultancy here (and the Silicon Hutong blog at http://tinyurl.com/duzf5 ), feels much the same as you. He feels pretty strongly that the “transportation claim” demeans us all and should be abolished.
Fundamentally, I agree. Now, if we could just figure out how to get this particular genie back in the bottle…