David Bandurski, project researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, posted translated excerpts from this fascinating editorial by Oriental Morning Post deputy editor Chen Jibing (陈季冰), which appeared in the China Youth Daily on 27 March. The upshot: Chen's diagnosis for the ethical ailments which plague the Chinese media isn't governmental regulation and oversight, but rather civil society--stronger non-governmental associations capable of setting their own ethical guidelines.
The most basic reason why we cannot establish effective "norms" in many sectors is that we lack the necessary social "communities". Academic freedom needs to be supported by an "academic community", and journalistic norms need to be supported by a "media community". Of course, these sorts of communities are different from the government in that they are not backed up by legal force (the power to restrain under the law). Nevertheless, anyone who challenges the authority of the community will automatically lose their credentials as a community member, and owing to the internal operation of mutual acknowledgement and censure within the community, the community works as a strong binding force.
Chen goes on to cite as an example European football associations, which he says work their ethical suasion even without legal teeth.
What I'm arguing is that journalistic norms are the precondition for freedom of speech, and the creation and protection of journalistic norms relies upon the emergence of a "media community".
Some boiler-plate caveats follow: this is the China Youth Daily, after all.
I don't mean that we should give the work of propaganda offices entirely over to a news media association. And I'm not saying the government should not control [the media] from here on out. What I'm saying is that because the functions and resources of the government and industry communities are different, they should have different spheres of management. In light of China's national realities, propaganda authorities should be responsible for questions of guidance in the ideological realm of media.
Despite this, there's meat in the message, and I'm sure everyone agrees that it's a nice idea: peer censure, and not government regulation, is the basis of a responsible media in those geographies where one can be said to exist. But let's be realistic here. Civil society in China is embryonic, feeble, and exists in China at the pleasure of Beijing. It's allowed to develop when it serves the interests of the state. Chen argues that those interests are indeed aligned:
Media professional associations should be charged with ordering market competition, professional principles for journalists and other questions belonging to the "social" sphere. Once this pattern of assuming respective roles and working together emerges, "freedom" and "regulation" will complement one another.
But I wonder whether a public sphere professional media association in China could be expected to circumscribe its activities to "ordering market competition" and urging "professional principles for journalists." How long would it be suffered to live? Any better suggestions?