It's time for Taiwan to have serious political debate shows

It's time for Taiwan to have serious political debate shows

The government has a PR problem. Ever since President Ma Ying-jeou came into office six years ago, upping the media game has been one of the main missions of his Cabinet. Given the unpopularity of the president, the government has yet to crack that nut.

But as TV series "The Newsroom" opined in its last episode, you have a PR problem because you have an actual problem. From the outset, the Ma administration - and probably most politicians in Taiwan - interprets public relations solely as a salesmanship practice, a one-way street on which the government tries either to convince the public to accept its decisions or to placate them by handing out niceties it thinks the people like. Understanding - both the government's understanding of the people's true desires and its efforts to let the public understand its plans - is never a target. Such an approach leads to spectacular failures. The government manages to annoy even when it is trying to appease.

The Executive Yuan's decision in October to make Jan. 2, 2015 a national holiday - lengthening the New Year holiday into a four-day weekend - should have been a surefire people-winning policy. Yet the lateness of the announcement and the decision to make Dec. 27 (a Saturday) a workday to cover the extra Jan. 2 holiday drew public anger. People holding events difficult to reschedule - such as wedding banquets - on Dec. 27 suffered from the government's sudden announcement. It is a classic example of how failing to walk in the public's shoes can make intended gifts look more like an annoyance.

Public officials often vow to "listen to the people," yet it is possible that they won't know where to start even if they really wanted to do so. Many in Taiwan still hold the outdated worldview that the government is a "grown-up" that takes care of the public. The anachronistic term "father-mother officials" is still often used in the media to describe local government heads.

In many modern Western democracies, government officials are tasked with explaining public policies to the people. They appear on radio shows and political debate shows on TV, answering difficult questions from journalists, experts, well-prepared programme hosts and members of the public. The officials mostly stick to their positions and do not change their minds, but the fact that they get to explain complicated issues in a meaningful manner (instead of via soundbites taken out of context in five-minute news slots) and to listen to questions in person helps them both to promote their policies and to improve them.

Taiwan has one of the world's most democratic and noisy media scenes, yet its government officials seldom appear on such shows. Taiwanese officials in many ways still act like imperial mandarins, loyally executing their boss's decisions and offering themselves up for resignation when things go bad. Actively defending their policies in public is mostly not in their job description.

The culture of the government, however, is only part of the problem. The Taiwanese media's dedication to "entertainmentize" the news is also to blame. The nation has no lack of political shows, but most of them are populated by talking heads with little credibility.

Media companies rationalize their approach as a business strategy that caters to a market less interested in serious public issue debates. While this sadly ratings-oriented strategy might have made sense in the past, the world has changed greatly after the 2009 global financial crisis. The general public is increasingly engaged in the policy-making process. In Spain, a weekly current affairs programme featuring sober debates, "La Sexta Noche," has become one of the hottest shows on TV. Politicians are eager to appear on it, even if that means subjecting themselves to public scrutiny, because a good performance on the show leads to higher popularity. Even government officials who used to ignore the show, labeling it a left-wing mouthpiece, are now getting themselves booked for an appearance after they realise its impact.

There is no reason similar programs cannot succeed in Taiwan. Both the government and local media should consider this "PR" format, after all, the term means to have a relationship with the public.

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