After 3 years of unwillingly watching 東張西望, a 30-minute prime-time wideshow (綜合資訊節目) boasted as ‘the society’s mirror’, I have made several interesting (or critical) observations about its reporting formula, structure, impact, agenda, and the socio-political reasons that contribute to its popularity. And I would like to create multiple posts to summarise my thoughts. In fact, from my relentless exposure to《幫港出聲》,《東方日報》and Youtube videos by KOL100, I believe these critiques are equally applicable to most conservative media - less for liberal ones; and if found valid, are handy in deconstructing propaganda.
To give some context to non-TVB viewers:《東張西望》was first aired on 2005, but it was not until 2015 that it went beyond celebrity gossips and covered daily trivia and news. In its own words: “緊貼追蹤社會大事、趣聞逸事......追蹤即日熱門新聞；專題環節，深入探討大眾關心的時事、社會及民生問題，並訪問相關的專家”. Although there are no concrete figures, based on Youtube viewerships and real-life reactions, the show does seem to attain great popularity, especially among middle-aged and old viewers.
Gradually after 2019, it has coalesced with the wider pro-CCP narrative and echoed the views of the blue-camp under a depoliticised cloak, self-proclaimed as the ‘voice of the mass’. Much in line with the current conservative trend, it has slowly become more critical of Carrie Lam’s leadership and the ‘AO Bureaucracy’, but, no doubt, it has remained highly supportive of the overall structure, and of ‘law and order’.
This show has intrigued me so much because it is a crystal of present-day conservative media, condensed from the over-saturation of information and narratives placed by all interested parties: the government, the developers, the growth factions - you name it. It is a perfect mosaic of bullshit, propaganda, sensationalism, and consumerism. It is an elusive and futile attempt to comprehend the reality, a daily dose of morphine to gratify one’s ego and a circus show of others’ stupidity; a channel for blame-shifting to divert grievances away from those in power; and finally, a stabilising blue pill in the world of liquid modernity, of fear and anxiety.
This series helps the interested few and the many accidental viewers to see the show in a new light.
#2 The Media is the Message
On the show’s format.
Each 15-minute section is greeted and concluded by bite-sized instant news or trivia: daily COVID infection rate, recirculation of today's viral videos on Facebook and LIHKG, or expression of lament or excitement over today's weather and tomorrow's holiday. Next, stitch together celebrity gossip, TVB and government promotion, news, and almost template-like street interviews to capture reactions to recent policy changes - all squeezed into an 1 or 2 minute segment. Except: the 'investigative report' in the second section that usually lasts for 10 minutes. Then back to the 2 hosts - wearing an amnesiac and cheerful smile over the ‘miserable’ reality it has just reported - looking forward to another sunny tomorrow.
Personally, its many transitions between segments reminds me much of Facebook and Instagram feeds. Information jumbles and flows, flooded by flashy and easily consumable soundbites, oscillating between images and sound, long and short, shallow and deep, delight and seriousness. The eye becomes a wanderer, not a reader. ‘Instances’, instead of ‘phenomenon’, are captured. In this sense, it is a digital Monet’s Sunrise that aims to evoke a stream of emotions. The task of registering a still reality is not its central task.
It would be better if all segments are either news or entertainment, but a mix of both have complicated the scene. The segments per se serve different purposes and interests: commercial, institutional, civic, etc. By weaving them all in one seamless flow, one forgetful tone and context, the show signals they are chooseable, of equal urgency and relevance. It dissolves the line between public and private affairs and devalues, to a certain extent, whatever is discussed into 'just another thing happened'. Dilution is the strategy.
Don’t get me wrong: serious matters can be funny (see Taiwan and US late night shows!) and 東張西望 does raise public awareness. But just as Twitter’s 150 word count enables Trump-style soundbite-ful tweets, the show is destined to impair the viewer’s vulnerable focus.
To quote McLuhan, ‘the medium is the message.’
#3 Vertical Journalism
When width replaces depth, apathy trumps empathy. Viewers acknowledge, but are no longer forced to witness, respect, question, and understand.
Every day comes the carpet bombing of reports on fraud, obnoxious neighbours, squatters, pet abusers, negligent drivers, dishonest landlords, etc. Yet, despite some case-by-case tweaks, most stories actually sound the same - if not formulaic.
They were essentially echoes of the same structural problems. Inadequate consumer protection, insufficient support for the aged, the poor, and the mentally ill, bureaucracy and red tape, lack of pedestrian-friendly street designs: a neoliberal and managerial governance.
It runs a public exorcism of private ghosts, but the vindication of individual justice is no way near the purge of collective vices - and in fact, makes the structural evil less visible.
The expense of running a Mon-to-Sun show, the implication of knowing too much, is to press one's head down to ‘now and then’; while being utterly confused about what has come before and after them.
With its panoramic and fragmented reports, it is truly a show that celebrates「東張西望」.
#4: The Panopticon
Public fear is the show's capital. Everyday life is portrayed as risk-prone and perilous: Crazy neighbours breed cockroaches! Your domestic helper will steal your money! You will get COVID and die! Scammers are everywhere!
Fear and anxiety are evoked in the viewer's mind. Once you are hooked, it is a daily dose of opium to quench your thirst - confirming what and why you should be afraid of.
Satre summarises this aptly: ‘Hell is other people’. The show is a modern day witch hunt that puts everyone on everyone’s alert.
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see how narrow the categories of 'possible threats' are. It is always the South Asians, the domestic helpers, the homeless, the mentally ill, the outliers. They are the deviant Others against a law-abiding 'We', anomalies to stability and order.
The culprit is always an individual, because to go further will require a systemic examination, to see who is really in power.
This is a Panopticon on display. For viewers unconsciously accepting the norms set by those in power, disciplining themselves to behave and not fall foul; while simultaneously, unable to see who is central, those with de facto power. This is the tactic of the powerful few watching the powerless many. The Big Brother's secret manipulation behind the screen.
In this sense, fear is both the tool and key to imprisonment.
#5: Panoptic Synopticon
Foucault’s Panopticon is a metaphor for how power operates in modern society. Within a confined space, be it the clinic, the prison or the school, a discourse is established to categorise individuals, in defining and segregating the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. Individuals are not forced to accept this categorisation by brute force. Instead, it is by creating an atmosphere of omnipresent surveillance, either physically through direct gaze by others, or mentally via intense routinisation, intricate scheduling and rule-setting; that results in one’s unconscious conformity. From ‘I am watched so I must behave’ to ‘I should behave’, an internalisation (or normalisation) of power by the individual.
One way to substantiate and broadcast these discourses, of what should be regarded as ‘dangerous’, ‘uncivic’, ‘nuisance’ and ‘fearful’, is through media. The powerful few exerts their surveilling gaze upon the powerless many.
But on an additional level, 東張西望 (and media in general) is also playing the game of letting the many to watch the few, a reversal of the Panoptic tactic. It is a public display that exaggerates ‘small risks’ into ‘total threats’. In the existing Panopticon, selected groups of people are dragged onto the central open space, whilst the warden hidden in the central tower orders a public execution. Everyone imprisoned to their cell watches - and in effect - resentfully gazes at the minority. The majority’s gaze forms a silent declaration, ‘you are on our guard, behave!’, leading to the minority’s self-discipline.
This is the concept of Synopticon proposed by Thomas Mathiesen. This method of directing the public gaze towards a selected focus is in fact commonplace, if we recount architectural designs in the Colosseum, Tiananmen Square, or even nearby churches. This is the strategy of singling out, zooming in, and labelling.
A better interpretation of the show’s power mechanism, thus, is to view it as a Panoptic Synopticon. It exerts a double control: the invisible power directs the majority’s selective gaze upon the minority, and simultaneously, subjecting the majority to his own gaze.
#6 Liquid Security
Magic runs on misdirection, so does conservative media. The media, through spoken spells and unspoken settings, shapes an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Then magic happens: by dilution, by horizontal journalism, by synoptic gazes, reality vanishes in mid-air, and actual power is preserved.
But why are we willing audiences to this magic trick? Why are we spellbound by fear and anxiety?
To Bauman, the answer is ‘liquid modernity’. One central feature of liquid modernity is the fear of bodily security: physical assault, economic fraud, and mental distress. It is such a popular worry because, Bauman argues, this is the (only) dominant issue politics can and will concern in current times.
Neoliberalism since the 1970s had governments relinquished their control over individuals. Privatisation turned numerous aspects of life into a matter of free choice. From the music we consume, the career we do, to our life-course, religion and values; all enshrine this market principle: you choose what you like.
But the state’s recession also cripples collective identity and norms. The loss of nation-wide values produces, perhaps less of an anomie, but citizens with more differences than similarities. Anonymity fuels the fear of others.
Yet politics have lost its power to intervene. Under the maxim of minimal intervention, politics can only facilitate, not direct. Politicians today are managers of a public arena named 'society' where each individual conducts their own life. Like a security guard in your apartment, he is only here to keep you safe. He is either disinterested or without power to solve your personal problems or improve the well-being of all residents.
Bodily security is hence the last refuge of politics, with public fear as its capital. Its vision: a society smoothly run and risk-free. Its demand: to remove all potential hazards - squatters, fraudsters, lawbreakers, mental patients, etc. Its strategy: anti-immigrants, gated communities, more policing, regulation, and surveillance…
#7 Individuation in the times of Liquid Modernity
In an oft-cited quote Margaret Thatcher declared, 'there is no such thing as society, but 'individual men and women…no government can do anything…people look to themselves first.'
Big Brother has been an outdated nightmare (save for our neighbour). Today's problem is having too much - not too little - to choose. Market force has unleashed immense individual freedom. But for unlimited possibilities come unlimited uncertainties. What follows is the growing ache of ‘not knowing what to choose’ and the anxiety to pick the best option.
In a world of instantaneous technology, every next second we may encounter a new piece of information that thwarts this moment’s understanding, a new accident that pales any delicate plan. Look no further than COVID. And in a world of open borders and free flow, every next second we may meet a foreigner that contradicts our values, practices, and worldviews.
This time of perpetual instability comes with the task of lifelong self-determination. Collective goods and norms are no longer under the state's mandate, the classic notion of social contract has been reformulated. With few stable anchors, life equals navigation on a choppy sea with a vague map that has a one-month shelf life. The liberty to conduct our lives becomes a double-edged sword, where the individual is forced to juggle competing knowledge claims, and bears the ultimate burden of shaping one's life. Hence the popular saying「條路自己揀，仆街唔好喊」.
Kierkegaard once appreciated anxiety as ‘freedom’s possibility’; but judged retrospectively, it appears to be a mixed blessing than a silver lining.
Instead of coexisting with a world that is unstable, risky, and conflicting; the conservative strategy is avoidance, segregation, and lockdown. The more one tries to be safe, the more anxious one becomes.
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