~by: Howard Lee~
Pole positions of the media
When I spoke to Viswa Sadasivan about his views from the Singapore Press Club’s forum on media coverage during the elections, he spoke at length about the historical establishment of the right and the re-emergence of the left through online media.
But it would be simplistic of us to immediately assume that online media is a mouthpiece for the political opposition, just as it is wrong of us to accuse traditional media of being PAP’s loudhailer. In fact, we are better off looking at traditional media as the protector of right wing ideals of stability and the status quo, from which it will derive the most benefits.
Similarly, online media champions left wing ideals of change, and this position is understandable. The online world has never been part of the nexus of governance by symbiosis that typified the right. It derives no benefits from it, and sees no reason why any part of it cannot be challenged.
Viswa indicated that it is the nature of “the emerging form of media to support emerging trends. And emerging trends usually involve people who challenge the status quo, which is not necessarily the same as pro-opposition.”
So we have a situation of traditional media co-existing with online media. If we examine the historical development of both media in light of Viswa’s left-vs-right concept, we might not be that far off from saying they represent the polar ends – not by political affiliations, but by principle of existence. In that sense, the argument that online media has ‘polarised the country’ is incorrect, although we might argue that without online media, the natural polarity in our nation would not have become obvious. If that were true, have those positions changed in 2011?
We might be inclined to think that the boom of online media leading up to the 2006 and 2011 elections has increased voter affiliations with the political opposition. The popularly coined term ‘Internet elections’ comes to mind, and given the serious vote swings to opposition parties in 2006 and again in 2011, we might be inclined to give in to that belief.
However, that is only part of the story. Voting is an absolute – by casting your vote for one party, you have summarily denounced support for the other(s). But a vote cannot account for the full range of perceptions and valued judgments that voters go through as they head for the ballot boxes.
Indeed, Viswa suggested the slow dismantling of the entrenched right wing and the emergence and growth of the centre right – people who want stability, but could be willing to support anything else that works around it. I would even go as far as to suggest the growth of the centre left – people who will challenge anything that they perceive it to be wrong unless it affects stability, but are not yet ready to accept the kill-or-be-killed thinking of the extreme left (if that position still exists).
The exact percentage shifts from the extreme into the moderate centre, and in particular how they voted, would likely be speculative, but it was clear that there is a sizeable population that no longer subscribe to the extremes, clearly believing that there is some give and take in between. In fact, Viswa suggested “a revolving door between the centre right and the centre left”, where people move between positions depending on their comfort level with the proposed changes to policies.
Similarly, this attitude of give and take begins to filter into how people approach their media consumption, allowing for greater acceptance of contrarian views that upset the status quo. Beliefs determine consumption, contrary to all you have heard that says consumption determines beliefs.
As such, we are seeing the creation of a new readership that clearly discerns the quality of their media and are willing to take arguments from diverse positions, possibly even from the extreme ends. What concerns this new readership, however, is not the division of disparate viewpoints, but the convergence of viewpoints towards a workable solution to solve problems in society.
Placing media into the convergence
Fitting into this new readership landscape is a challenge that both traditional and online media need to sort out for themselves, given their historical roots. Viswa felt that traditional media has been moving slowly into the centre since 2006. While rank and file reporters have hankered for greater freedom, he believed that the move could be a sanction or agreed pact between the political elite and the conglomorates’ management. “Since 2006, the government realised that there is a surge of people towards new media, and the only way they can offset that is by beefing up their own channel, take away some of the constraints and let them have a lot more critical articles.”
At the heart of it is also commercial interest. Traditional media realised that advertisers are looking for eyeballs on advertisements to justify their investment, and the fact is that their readership growth rates have gradually decreased over the years. With the gradual shift in the population towards moderate views, traditional media risk losing a sizeable number of eyeballs unless they have content to keep them interested.
By comparison, online media is not bound by the stakes of right wing interests, and to a lesser extent by commercial interests. But they are also constrained by the need for readers, otherwise the labour of love is simply not worth sustaining. Online media can choose to veer whichever way to quickly attract the most eyeballs, as long as it continues to distinguish itself from traditional media, even if that means courting the extreme left.
But to Viswa, there is some readership risk in making that move. “The new media is playing to that role (of a left champion), and I don’t think that is healthy, because it adds fodder to the government’s argument that the new media is left. And the moment you are labeled left, you actually lose the support of the centre (majority).”
Projecting forward, traditional media and online media would most likely operate on diverse ends of the political spectrum, but weighing heavy towards the politically diverse centre, with some potential for overlap and cooperation (see diagram). It is an uneasy truce, but not that bad an idea, provided both media are clear that they do not have to be adversarial towards each other, and respect these to be the boundaries set by our evolving socio-political landscape.
But we only speak of media. I have already made clear that power structure premeditates media directions. Similarly, power structure will also have an impact on how this evolving media ecosystem can be realised. Would the power elite be keen to promote this evolution?
Poor position of the power elite
Perhaps the question is not if they are able to, but how quickly they will perish if they don’t. According to Viswa, the PAP might not have the necessary disposition to take on the task. “If you were brought up conditioned in a certain way, and then exposed to a completely different condition, and to survive you need to give up everything you have been conditioned with, can you do it? Your instincts to survive will be there, but you have no experience to survive, so you will try to put up a fight. But you are conditioned so differently that the fight you put up and the methods you use will be ridiculous.”
The predictability and comfort that the years of being in the right wing has cultivated could not stand up to the onslaught of the online world, to the extent that the response to adversity is often inadequate, and just as easily made a mockery of in the environment that it tries to control. It explains the many hesitant steps, fumbles, and flat-faced falls that the PAP has encountered in its foray into online media, but also in how it has obstinately tried to engaged traditional media in terms that favours the status quo.
The response, however, should not be to control or fight against it. “One of the key concepts they need to go by is partisan perceptions,” proposed Viswa. “You have to look at things from the partisan viewpoint, develop a strategy from that viewpoint, immerse yourself in that viewpoint, and start feeling the way the other feels. Move away from conspiracy theories and try to find out where they are coming from.”
“If you don’t take pains to understand where the other party is coming from and their motivations, you will miscalculate and respond to a miscalculated perception. My sense is that they see online media as trying to topple, disgrace and embarrass the government. They see your motivation as wanting to discredit and destroy them. But I think your real motivation is for the common man’s voice to be heard, and plant the seed for important social change for Singapore’s betterment. And for that to start, you necessarily have to highlight all the negatives, and it is then natural for a banter to take place. The incumbent can then put forward their position, and the online world can then choose to agree or disagree, and you have a sparing, which is healthy. It doesn’t have to become pugnacious or adversarial.”
Building up this evolving media environment is important to the political elite – it has to, or it will not survive the evolution. For Viswa, this has to be done on both traditional and online media fronts. It needs to empower traditional media by removing both visible and invisible barriers, such as the Newspapers and Broadcast Act and editorial manipulation, and then constructively engage online media, rather than create new platforms that are viewed as propaganda machines. It needs to engage in open debate with unbridled players on everyone else’s turf but its own.
“We need to move towards a new new normal, which is a willingness to accept each other’s point of view that is contributing to the whole,” said Viswa.
The power elite needs to realise that it cannot choose the battles it wishes to fight in this new world, without alienating a public that has grown increasingly aware of issues and demanding of fair play. It needs open engagement, and a willingness to change policy. It is not for populist reasons, but for the progress of this nation, a goal which even the opinionated online world shares.
“When Workers Party becomes the next government, will TOC still write good things about it?” a friend once asked.
I had no answer. I can’t even be sure that TOC will write good things about WP now. But with all my heart, and encouraged by Viswa’s analysis, I dare say online media will give WP their fair share, should they become the new right and be found incompetent or complacent.
The question, of course, did not use “if”, but “when” WP, or any other party for that matter, becomes the government. In the natural order of things, PAP cannot hope to be in power forever. Nevertheless, the right wing will always remain, it being only a matter of who sits at its apex. And ironically, as long as the incumbent remains unchallenged, it risks retardation similar to what we have witnessed from 2006 to 2011.
The silver lining, if the incumbent chooses to see it that way, is that before any other political party can take over, the warnings would have already been sounded loud and clear by an emboldened traditional media and the ever-contrarian online media. The question is, would they see this, take advantage of an increasingly open public sphere and encourage this future media model?
I guess we will know by the next general elections. But for the sake of this nation, I hope we don’t have to wait that long.
Part 1 HERE.