SARFT reminds you to avoid celebrity scandals



Mainland Chinese media is reporting today that the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television handed down a notice in mid-April ordering television stations not to sensationalize celebrity scandals.

The “Notice restating the ban on sensationalizing celebrity scandals, salacious news, and misdeeds” is thought by many in the industry to be a direct response to the video interviews Gillian Chung gave upon her return to the entertainment world after last year’s “sexy photo-gate” scandal involving Edison Chen.

From the Shanghai Morning Post:

SARFT’s ban notice strictly bars arts, entertainment, and interview programs from discussing society news and gossip about celebrity scandals or the private love affairs of entertainers. Any radio or television station found to be broadcasting this type of content will be held responsible, starting with the program planner. The notice also strictly stipulates that administrative departments and broadcast agencies shall investigate all programming under their jurisdiction to ensure that “scandal-blemished celebrities” will not pollute the airwaves and misguide the viewing and listening audience.

An industry insider disclosed that the Administration’s ban was very likely motivated by Gillian Chung: on April 16, a satellite station sent an urgent notice to the media saying that a special feature on Gillian, which one of its programs had produced in Hong Kong in March, had been “postponed” from an original air-date of mid-April. The program team’s public statement said, “Since shooting on the next installment has not yet finished, out of concern for completeness and continuity, we have decided to postpone it. When filming is entirely finished, it will be broadcast at an appropriate time.”

The ban order points its knives at “scandal-blemished celebrities,” the program was scheduled for mid-April, SARFT’s notice was issued on April 13, and the station announced its postponement on the 16th, so the timing matches perfectly.

Is “no talking about celebrity scandals or the private love affairs of entertainers” an across-the-board rule, and will all incidents involving “problem celebrities” be barred from the screen from now on? Yesterday, producers and personnel involved in celebrity programming spoke on this issue.

Xu Jing, producer of Family Studio, which has made a name for itself in Shanghai by featuring celebrity families, said in an interview, “The concept of so-called negative celebrities needs to be carefully thought over. Every celebrity has a lengthy personal history, full of ups and downs, so if a universal standard is applied, then lots of people will be unable to appear on-screen. Yesterday we just finished a program on Kenny Bee. Does his bankruptcy count as a negative? In the studio, he talked a lot about his personal history and actually brought up lots of positive information.” Xu disclosed that local celebrity programs in Shanghai had always been rather mainstream in their choice of guests, but they could still try to use celebrities like Kenny Bee who could ultimately end up having a positive effect on the audience. Of course, material that is too edgy or sensitive would have to be avoided. She also said that the station had always had a strict review system that was taken very seriously starting with topic selection, and for that reason local celebrity programs are fundamentally in a safe position.

Entertainment news programs are the other major focus of the ban order. Yesterday, a manager connected to a well-known entertainment news program said that celebrity news would not follow a one-size-fits-all policy; major figures and significant events could still be done, but they had to be done with care: “Malicious sensationalism is one technique to get ratings, but looking for the truth of the situation, giving the audience the information they need, and guiding them in a positive direction is a technique as well. The key is having a sense of proportion.”

This apparently doesn’t apply to online entertainment journalism: the Netease repost of the Shanghai Morning Post piece ran underneath a promo for the Hunan TV interview with Gillian Chung alluded to in the article.

TV stations are already supposed to be avoiding celebrity gossip: this is merely a “restatement” of existing regulations. Writing on, commentator Guo Wenjing points out the problems with simply re-releasing a set of rules and hoping that people will really listen this time:

In a rule-of-law society, the normal state should be for orders to be carried out. Continual “restatements” will only continue to undermine your own authority. For this reason, we have to ask: why weren’t SARFT’s previous orders carried out? Why do they need to be restated? Were they unable to be enforced, or were they never meant to be enforced in earnest in the first place? If they weren’t meant to be enforced, then this “restatement” is just for appearances, to dupe the public. If they are not enforceable, then we need to reflect on why, and then issue “supplemental rules” rather than a simple “restatement.” A simple restatement is essentially lazy administration.

Only SARFT can answer the question of whether or not it really intended to enforce previous ban orders, and it ought to provide that answer. But looking at the notice, this writer has found that it is indeed unenforceable, with at least two ambiguous terms. The first is “celebrity”: there’s no standard for what sort of person counts as a celebrity. The second is “sensationalize”: at the moment there is no way to judge what sensationalism is. You may say that defining “celebrity” is splitting hairs, but without an accepted standard for “sensationalism,” the ban order is no better than a blank piece of paper.

Why do we need a clear definition of “sensationalism”? Because this is an issue related to the media’s right to report and the public’s right to know, so we must be careful. A typical definition is “An individual or group using the media to carry out controversial or meaningless criticism, praise, or exposure of an individual or event through fabricated, exaggerated, speculative, or other abnormal reporting techniques.” This definition appears to take into account motive, distinguishing features, and methods, but in terms of “salacious secrets and scandals,” what distinguishes “reporting” from “sensationalizing”? This is critical if SARFT wants to enforce the ban order.

SARFT’s ban on another scandal-troubled celebrity is still in effect: all shots of blacklisted Lust, Caution star Tang Wei were cut out of the mainland broadcast of the Hong Kong Film Awards last week.

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