By Kirsten Han
In 2002, Lord David Puttnam – an established, well-respected film producer who has been behind hits such as Chariots of Fire – was part of a committee involved in the drafting of the Communications Bill, later passed as the 2003 Communications Act in the United Kingdom.
Back then the Internet was barely, if at all, considered. It was, as Lord Puttnam explained, shoved into the “too difficult” drawer.
11 years on, the Internet can no longer be ignored. Speaking before a small audience in SMU on Friday night, Lord Puttnam addressed the move in media consumption from television and print to digital devices.
With more and more people turning to the Internet and mobile devices for their news, considerations of media regulation have also had to move. Laws that apply to offline media should also apply to online media, Lord Puttnam argued, pointing out cases of defamation and hate speech online that have attracted the same legal repercussions as they would have had they been printed in a newspaper or broadcast on television.
Of plurality and parity
But there was also another point on which he put plenty of emphasis: the media’s “duty of care” to the social and democratic values of its country and its public. As journalists and content producers, the media has a duty to provide information that would allow citizens to participate in a democratic society.
The plurality of such media – offering different perspectives and takes on issues – is also important in fostering a well-informed citizenry. Plurality is key, he said, in preventing one particular group or media organisation from having too much influence on public opinion and discourse.
The plurality of media also prompts the issue of parity, particularly in terms of regulation and legal liability. Should online media be regulated the same way as mainstream media? And if so, how then can we regulate such a diverse and fluid environment?
“The Internet has begun to establish its own integrity,” Lord Puttnam said when TOC put the question to him. He highlighted quality social networks such as Ted and Avaaz who he believes to be leading the way in ethical online activity, saying that such platforms show that the Internet is capable of seeking its own balance and integrity in a diverse space. “We’re going through a period of chaos,” he said, referring to the relative newness of online media.
Online users themselves can also be counted upon to regulate the Internet. “There are some egregious examples that we should all be jumping on, and not waiting for legislation,” he said.
Lord Puttnam was not against legislation, and acknowledged that it was necessary as a means for establishing parity between traditional and online media. He cited specific laws, such as those concerning defamation, harassment and hate speech, which in the UK apply to both traditional and online media.
The Singapore context
It is easy to understand the UK’s confusion and struggle with the acknowledgement and regulation of online media. Singapore, too, is faced with questions of how to manage the speed and volume of content posted on social media.
When it comes to the Internet, talk of professional standards and integrity can quickly seem meaningless. The Internet is different precisely because one does not have to be a ‘professional’ to get a chance to be published and have one’s voice heard. Any person with a connection and some basic know-how is able to set up a Facebook, Twitter or blog account, and begin engaging in debate and conversation with a potentially large audience.
In his examples of Ted and Avaaz, Lord Puttnam recommended for the Internet to seek its own balance. Such a view is somewhat at odds with that of Singapore’s situation, where the government has decided to use legislation and state regulation in an attempt to establish some form of control over online content and behaviour.
The licensing framework introduced in 2013 targeting news websites is one such example. Rather than wait for the Internet to “establish its own integrity”, the government has chosen to license popular news websites. Yet this move has failed to address the original question: How does one regulate such a diverse space, where anyone from anywhere could post anything at any time?
That is not to say that current legislation in Singapore does not already regulate online media. With the latest announcement made by the Law Minister, legislation such as defamation, harassment and hate speech already apply to both traditional and online media.
As such, there is already parity between the mainstream and online media in terms of the application of these laws; one could be sued for defamatory statements posted on a website just like one could be sued for defamatory statements printed in a newspaper. As such, the often-cited reason for the licensing framework – to establish parity between traditional and online media – can barely be substantiated, because these laws already apply to both.
Unfortunately, what 2013’s licensing framework has achieved is to place a burden upon fledging news websites, making it harder for them to carry out their work. Often, these websites are precisely the responsible, organised ones that we should be encouraging; the irresponsible rumourmongers and abusers tend to be anonymous and difficult to pin down.
As Singapore’s media regulations continue to impose onerous demands on websites, we find ourselves inadvertently destroying the very plurality of the media that Lord Puttnam highlighted as being crucial in the fostering of an engaged citizenry in a democratic society.
With media plurality already an issue in a landscape where our newspapers, radio and television stations are largely operated by two big corporations, the Internet is the best place for Singaporeans to find a wider range of perspectives and views. The information provided can contribute to a more politically mature conversation on Singapore’s direction. We should be careful that this potential is not stamped out in efforts to make sure that everyone “reads the right thing”.
Top image from the Official Website of David Puttnam, insert image courtesy of the British High Commission Singapore.