A government-controlled media is superior to a free media?


By Benjamin Cheah

On the 11th of December, the TODAY newspaper published an article titled “Social stability is key: Poll”.

On first glance, it seems to support the view that a government-controlled media is superior to a free media.

Indeed, its main message seems to be that public media organisations are more accurate than private media companies; most Singaporeans do not think that it is important for ordinary people to have a say in issues reported in the media; and social stability is more important than media freedom.

This article does not show popular perception; rather, it simply reflects the media, political, and legal environment of Singapore.

It does not even cover the local media environment in those countries. Therefore, it does not consider their effect on press perceptions in those countries.

The countries involved

Consider the countries named in the article: the USA, Germany, Britain, India, and Singapore.

In the United States, every major media corporation is privately owned and funded. The publicly funded ones are generally dedicated to culture and public affairs, such as the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network.

The ARD and ZDF networks, both of which are publicly owned and funded, dominate German television, while German newspaper companies are privately owned.

In Britain, broadcast media is dominated by the BBC and Channel 4, both of which are public firms, though they face competition from the privately owned ITV, Five, BSkyB, and Virgin Media Television. British newspapers are privately owned.

As for Singapore, the major newspapers are controlled by Singapore Press Holdings, and MediaCorp owns the major broadcast news programmes. Both firms belong to Temasek Holdings, whose Board of Directors are appointed by the Ministry of Finance. Therefore, Singapore media is indirectly publicly-owned.

India is a curiosity. It has a public television station, Doordarshan, whose flagship channel, DD National, is the most widely available terrestrial television channel in India. At the same time, DD is considered inferior to privately corporations because of its poor quality. Privately owned ETV Network has the largest news-reporting network in India, at the grassroots level.

India’s sheer size and large number of languages also gives rise to a large number of private regional television stations, each vying for dominance. While Indian radio has a multitude of operators, only one network, All India Radio, operates nationally and broadcasts news. It is also publicly funded.

Closer look at the statistics

Now, look at the statistics. People in Germany, Britain and Singapore believe that publicly owned media reports the news more accurately, while Americans and Indians think private media is more accurate. But, in Germany, Britain and Singapore, media spaces tend to be dominated by public media; while in America, public media is miniscule compared to private media; and in India, the sole public media organisation must compete against dozens of regional media companies with low-quality broadcasts.

It seems to me that the poll simply reflects the current media environment in those countries.

Even if it does not, we need to re-examine the numbers cited. In each of the countries cited, none of the percentages add up to 100%. The total for each nation is 58% (USA), 55% (Germany), 57% (Britain), 121% (India), and 74% (Singapore). What does this mean? Did, in the case of India, people decide that both public and private media organisations are better than each other?

The answers can be found in the poll here. In reality, the statistics actually show the performance rating of public and private media corporations, not whether one was better than the other.

Specifically, they show the percentage of people who rate the accuracy of both corporations as four or five out of five. So, it could simply mean that the people of India think highly of public and private media corporations, for example, or that Americans do not think that their media, both public and private, is accurate.

This error shows that the first part of this article’s message is false: people do not think that government-owned media corporations are superior to privately owned media organisations.

The Singapore context

Let’s look at the second part. The poll says that 47% of Singaporeans do not think that it is important for people to have a say in what is reported.

This, in itself, must be seen in context. 64% of the people do not think that the press is free, according to the poll; this suggests that many people do not think that personal views are important, because they will be disregarded anyway, as the press is not free.

Almost half of the population thinks that social stability is more important, so letting personal views influence media reporting may lead to social disorder. More Singaporeans believe that public media organisations are accurate in reporting than private media corporations, so let the public media firms decide what is to be reported, which incidentally was the second choice for this question.

The second part of the article’s message is simply a knock-on effect of its third part: there is a greater need for social stability than media freedom.

48% of the people believe that ‘social harmony and peace are more important’ than freedom of the press.

It must be remembered that the question that derived this result has three answers: freedom of the press is important to ensure a fair society, even at the cost of ‘unpleasant debates or social unrest’; freedom of the press is important, but social harmony and peace are even more so, which means there must be sometimes be control of what is reported for the greater good; and ‘don’t know/not applicable’. We must also consider this result in the light of history.

There is no free media in Singapore

The government has always been an advocate of media controls. The government indirectly controls the media through Temasek Holdings. It has always eschewed Singapore’s low press freedom rankings, saying that other factors are more important to Singapore.

It has always emphasised that political and social stability is more important for the greater good than personal freedoms of speech and assembly -- which also extends to the media.

The government has undertaken legal action against media organisations that allegedly defames any official figure, like the case of Singapore v. FEER. The Sedition Act, Broadcasting Act, Films Act, and other regulations set down by the Media Development Authority restrict media freedom in the name of public morality and social stability.

Crucially, there are no indigenous media companies that report the news, have a large following, and are independent of the government in Singapore; and the local media is seen as subservient to government interests.

What we see here is a mixture of government propaganda, legal action against nonconformists, and lack of choice. Such an environment would shape the perspectives of Singaporeans to believe that social stability is more important than media freedom. This is in spite of the fact that a free press has not caused any social friction in Singapore -- because there is no free press.

So what does the poll really mean?

It shows that the local environment shapes the perspectives of Singaporeans with regards to the media.

Government control of the media, government statements that social and political stability is more important than freedom, government action against people who do not comply with official regulations and the absence of free indigenous media companies, would affect people’s perceptions on freedom of the press and its necessity against social harmony.

The dominance of public or private media influences what people think of their importance vis-à-vis issues that are reported and the accuracy of the media. The lack of an indigenous free media, and the relative accuracy of local public media, shapes opinions on media performance.

The local media environment also plays a part. The poll simply confirms this observation, and lets the people think about its implications. TODAY’s article merely attempts to report on this poll from a Singapore perspective.

Read also: "Fact checking on press freedom/stability in Singapore" by Simple Is The Reason Of My Heart.