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Media Literacy Council: MICA’s Legacy Continues!

~ By Howard Lee ~

Just when you thought the Singapore government had given up on pushing through the Internet Code of Conduct, the mere concept which was much derided by the online community, along comes a new project – the Media Literacy Council, to be formed on 1 August 2012 but announced by MDA just two days before, with the aim of “spearheading public education on media literacy and cyber wellness, and advising the government on the appropriate policy response to an increasingly complex and borderless world of media, technology, consumer expectations and participation.”

But there is just one issue: the MLC is hardly new. If anything, its core interest look and sound just like the CoC, with the exception that it seems less interested in egging a grounds-up approach, which was the narrative around the CoC.

If anything, the MLC typified the current government’s age-old method of forming what it likes without prior consultation, and then later, maybe, wonder why the group it hopes to address through such initiatives is ignoring it.

Don’t just take my word for it. If anything, let’s do exactly what the newly minted MLC suggests – practice media literacy – on a fairly interesting piece of text: MDA’s media release to announce the MLC.

What is the (real) focus?

“The Internet and social media have brought about exciting possibilities for learning and collaboration, and even new business opportunities for young people. At the same time, social issues such as bullying, scamming, preying on the young and inappropriate comments have found new outlets and been magnified through the multiplier effects of the Internet and social media. Our ability to critically evaluate information, as well as handle and create content appropriately, is key.”

By this third paragraph, after paying homage to the MLC’s purported desire to tackle both online and traditional media through politically-correct statements, MDA seems barely able to contain this rib at online media.

If anything, this statement immediately bears a striking resemblance to the rationale that fore-grounded the desire to implement the CoC, as put forth by the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts.

Of course, you might just want to brush that off as a conspiracy theory. But then, you might just want to dig a bit deeper to see what it is that the MLC plans to work on.

“The MLC provides a more structured platform for long-term community engagement and public education. To carry out its programmes and recommendations, the MLC will be supported by the resources from the Media Development Authority (MDA) in its role as secretariat to the council… Immediate projects that the MLC will be participating in include the Communications Literacy Seminar, a conference jointly organised by the MDA and the International Institute of Communications (IIC) on 5 October 2012, and the global initiative Safer Internet Day on 5 February 2013.”

The Communications Literacy Seminar 2012 has as its theme “Challenges of Communications Literacy: Discernment and Conduct in a Digital World”, while the Safer Internet Day 2013 is themed “online rights and responsibilities”.

While we can expect MDA, as co-organiser of the Communications Literacy Seminar, to feature heavily in the programme – Michael Yap, Deputy Chief Executive of MDA, will deliver the welcome – the bigger area of concern is that none of the other speakers from Singapore can rightly say that they have delved much into the online world. Bharati Jagdish and Felix Soh are well-known names in Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings.

Not surprisingly, the same can be said of the current MLC panel. Of the six identifiable media professionals in the 21-member panel, all except one are established veterans of traditional media. It would be a hard nut among them who would be able to critically evaluate their colleagues, or even themselves.

Of course, the truth of their integrity remains to be discovered, but it is clear that the numerical balance of the panel is not in the interest of an unbiased evaluation of traditional media.

So while MLC Chairman Prof Tan Cheng Han might insist that “the "council is intended to include traditional media as well" as part of its remit”, the focus of the MLC for the next two foreseeable years is not exactly heading that way. And two years will be halfway to the end of term for this panel.

There is no clear indication the MLC intend to advocate a more discerning public view on approaching traditional media texts. Questionable articles, such as those by the Straits Times, are likely to continue unnoticed, if not unchecked, for a while more.

For want of understanding

If anything, the MLC seems to be struggling to understand what imparting media literacy really entails. As suggested by Prof Tan:

“In cyberspace and the real world where people are constantly interacting and sharing information, appropriate social norms and discernment are important. The MLC hopes to raise the media literacy level of Singaporeans so that everyone can benefit even more from the Internet, and traditional and new media.”

But in her response, blogger Kirsten Han probably noted it best:

“Media literacy isn’t actually about being safe or secure. It’s not about “appropriate social norms” (who even decides what these norms are?) It’s about recognising how the media affects our lives, and therefore taking steps to think critically about the influence that it wields. It’s about looking critically at what we see around us, asking ourselves what they’re showing us and (sometimes this is even more important) what they’re not showing us. It’s about examining motives and agendas, reading between the lines and finding the hidden messages. It’s reading beyond what’s merely on the page, and then making an informed decision about what’s before us… Yet this isn’t even mentioned – not even a whisper – in relation to the Media Literacy Council.”

There is also a fundamental problem with the idea that media literacy is a “level” within people that can be “raised” through “community engagement and public education”. It is a tinted judgement that implies a certain standard of performance that people can work towards, which leads us to wonder, what might that standard be?

Don’t bother answering, really. In truth, media literacy, in the broadest sense of the term, is the constant application of critical thinking to any text we come across. It requires us to apply a certain degree of scepticism to what we read, filtering it through our own values, which is in turn challenged and expanded by alternative values and view points. In other words, media literacy is attained by de-structuring the mind, not by structuring it towards certain attainable results, as the MLC suggests.

It is also disappointing to see one of the members, former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, opine as such:

Cheng also feels that the mainstream media "needs to really up their standards" and that they should "not instead dumb-down to the lowest common denominator with sensational reporting in order to win back readership."

"Unfortunately, we see some mainstream media providers doing this," Cheng says, "and this makes media literacy skills even more important. Media literacy needs to apply not only to consumers [but to] providers as well."

The idea that professional media practitioners need to be coached in media literacy as part of improving their reporting standards is woefully laughable. The very least that Cheng could have done was do a Wikipedia search before rattling off something like that.

Clearly, the MLC has far to go, when it evidently has not even demonstrated the ability to grasp the basics concepts of what it professes to champion.

Continued indifference?

Even so, one would expect the government to have finally realised the need for a consultative effort before pushing through such a concept as the MLC. Sadly, not so, or perhaps only in lip-service.

“As part of its charter to promote civility and responsibility on the Internet, the MLC will adopt an open and transparent approach and consult key stakeholders like the industry, community and bloggers to gain insights into the issues of importance to them. It will review approaches such as advocating best practices and shared values to create a more participatory and responsible cyberspace culture.

The 21 members of the MLC will be officially appointed by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts… The diversity of the MLC will reflect the views and concerns of different communities, as well as enhance the outreach efforts of the MLC through the members’ various networks.”

To begin with, how would it be possible that the MLC can be an appointed body and still lay claim to openness and transparency, when the selection criteria and process is not made known? The fact that the panel is appointed by a political figure would rightly raise uncomfortable suspicions that there would be a political purpose behind their appointment, despite Cheng’s effort to “avoid politicising the MLC and its aims”.

Given the current level of distrust toward the government among the online community, why has an alternative system, such as peer nomination, not been used in appointing the panel? Has the online community been consulted adequately about the need for the MLC, to begin with? It is not as if members of the online community still reside within the myth of unreachable anonymity, and clearly some of them, including TOC, are openly registered with MDA.

The MLC and MDA are not winning and favours, much less buy-in, with an approach that is clearly non-participatory, which is ironic since it needs the participation of its current focus – the online world – to give justification to its existence.

In reality, the MLC is no less dead than the CoC, even if it comes with warm bodies and not just a policy.