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Redefining media quality

Howard Lee -

Let's not mince it. Our politicians are protecting the local traditional media.

You can see it simply by counting the number of public statements made in attempts to increase public value of traditional media. In the past year or so, we had ZaqyLuiShanmugam (make that a multiple for Shanmugam) and the latest being Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong lauding TODAY on its tenth anniversary.

All these efforts always lead to an unchallenged (by this I mean within traditional media itself, and why should we be surprised?) defense of the quality and credibility of traditional media.

Really, for a country that prides itself on meritocracy and open markets, this level of endorsement is simply shocking, never mind that the statistics and examples used in each instance to substantiate their claims is often subjective and disputable.

Then, there is unabashed self-praise. I have lost count of the number of times when our traditional media effectively printed their own media releases about the awards and readership figures they have achieved. Again, these often go unchallenged even between the two major media companies. It is almost as if there is a tacit understanding between them - I won't slam you for blowing your trumpet, you don't do it either when I do a counter-blow with some other award and statistic.

If we take what they say with a pinch of salt, we will wonder if this self-praise is really necessary, since quality should speak for itself.

But what I really want to point out is that there exist in the closed circle of local traditional media a desperate effort to increase their public value, and this has gained the unwavering support of our political cadre.

The obvious question: Why? The tempting answer: Unwavering media support when the general elections come. But to assume so would really be too easy, and here, I wish to explore another dimension.

This support is different from what we have in other sectors where deliberate (e.g. power grid) or natural (e.g. public transport) monopolies form. These sectors are ring-fenced with regulatory frameworks that attempt to keep a check on citizen exploitation, say what you like about the effectiveness of such frameworks.

The media industry here has no such beyond the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act, and even these particular legislations are not about managing monopoly. If anything, they seek to further entrench monopoly, with the license to operate being the biggest carrot/stick.

Granted, the license is not exclusive to our local media, but that together with the constant prattle about the quality of local media, does. And such public discourse, propagated by the same channels that have every reason to propagate it, attempts to build an undisputed picture of our local traditional media to be one cut above "the others".

It is a tiring effort. And if the end goal is to achieve political control, it is a lot simpler to reduce the presence of "the others" through selectively enforcing the Acts, to the point where our media environment is no different from a third world banana republic. And I mean really sterile media, where we have no news other than state propaganda as news. When that happens, we wouldn't even know what hits us, much less make any protest about it.

But there is a reason for this preference and presumed faith to be built as a public "debate". Yes, we cannot deny our need to remain open to the world, but more pertinent is that such debate actually defines the basis of quality, against which all media are then judged.

Any overseas evaluator would have to concede that traits often associated with our traditional media, such as objectivity, accuracy, balance and relevance are still the stalwart definitions of good, traditional, professional journalism. Never mind that, in reality, these traits are often bound by subjective interpretation.

Then there are the evidently subjective, or context-specific, qualities that our politicians often applaud our traditional media for - consensus building, racial sensitivity and respect for the rule of law. In other words, no monkey business. These traits are often cited in defense of why our media environment does not score well in international freedom benchmarks.

As such, rather than tighten control directly, we evolve through public discourse the perception of an open media environment, yet at the same time predefine the conditions that already sets out a pecking order for which media we should trust more.

We then go back to the issue of "the others", when we consider what media we are encouraged to trust more in relation to. To some extent, it refers to foreign media based in Singapore, but these are bound by regulation and also adhere to the same objective rules.

Oddly enough, it is from TODAY's two days of self-praise for its tenth anniversary, where we get a sense of who "the others" are. Two broad groups:

1) Online media - You'd say "of course". But reread reports in just the past year, and you will realise that traditional media has persistently refused to clearly identify alternative news sources when making references to who they are better than. The fact that you could identify it does credit to the effective definition of the pecking order, which I indicated earlier.

2) The thinking public - This one probably got you. Traditional media needs to suppress an intellectual society from growing. It is not just about creating the lowest common denominator to sell the most number of papers to. Traditional media cannot let go of their position of thought authority, or they lose their entire readership. If I can think, there is nothing that the papers can offer me, besides cold hard facts, which I cannot find in greater abundance elsewhere, be it online or within my own thinking circle of friends.

The growth of these two groups is indeed causing problems for traditional media. For all its bravado, business-as-usual talk, traditional media fear online media to the very core, but I do not believe they are very sure why. This is because their modus operandi is to control the thinking public, while that of online media is to embrace and encourage it. Indeed, the thinking public is the very reason why online news media and user generated content came into existence.

Open debate deliberately attacking online media, while common when blogs first became the rage in Singapore around 2005, has proven to be useless, if not goading the thinking (and curious) public further online for information. Hence, you see in recent years the change in tactics, sub-consciously or not, where self-praise on certain qualities unique to traditional media becomes the norm. The statistics and awards to prove this are easy weapons, since these are only given in the limited circles of traditional media.

So why political endorsement? Simply because traditional media has no one else to turn to, and the two are mutually dependant for their survival. John Katz, in Media Rants (1997) pointed out that the American media depended heavily on the soundbites of politicians, and in return have forsaken much of their freedom. You will not fail to notice that our own traditional media thrives almost exclusively on political soundbites. Feel proud - we almost have America's free press, just that our reporters are less boisterous.

But back to the topic - If the response to this structured framing on the discussion of media quality is anything to go by, it would seem that the thinking public has bought it hook, line and sinker. You would have read many blogs in recent days, trying to tear apart the latest statistics and statements by Shanmugam to prove how unworthy our local traditional media is. Good effort, writers, but don't waste your time. You never beat subjectivity by saying it is so.

If anything, arguing about the quality of our media in the exact terms that our traditional media wants us to evaluate them against is drawing us away from the real issue of how "the others" are sidelined, and further entrenching their presence in public awareness. At the very worst, we can only prove that they are not correct, but not exactly wrong.

I would have liked to explore further how we can potentially break away from this structuring of public thought, but that would take too long and would probably end up being prescriptive anyway. Instead, perhaps let me leave you with three quick pointers on how we can reposition our thinking away from the structured public debate:

1) Objectivity is subjective, subjectivity is objective. If you don't believe it, that's your opinion, and I will have mine.

2) Readership numbers does not equate quality, and it sure as hell does not equate to your reader's trust. The thinking public reads for many reasons, but they believe only what their gut tells them.

3) Form does not equate function, so better get cracking on function. We hear about how our local media companies are making forays into cyberspace. Old wine in new wine bottles is not sexy, it's stupid. Ask me to drink it and you make me look stupid, too.

Do share this with your circle of friends, and celebrate some anarchy. It is time the thinking public starts claiming a bit of public space for ourselves.