By Howard Lee
Those who have watched Diana might remember the ending scene about how the late Princess of Wales escaped the paparazzi hordes with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed.
Before leaving a hotel in Paris, they sent a decoy – a fleet of cars, as if to demonstrate the importance of its occupants, rolled in one direction and was chased aggressively by the media hounds on motorcycles, while Diana and Dodi left in another vehicle.
The plan, unfortunately, did not work, as a few from the paparazzi crowd noticed the real quarry and gave chase. The result was the tragedy we know today.
That was the famous Diana, God rest her soul. But in recent days, we have our own little melodrama, when the infamous Amos Yee, claiming he was hounded by the media, threw a decoy on his Facebook page – pretending that he would meet reporters at a location he never showed up at, and adding a meaty titbit about how he was molested.
The plan also backfired, but not quite the way it did in Diana. The piece of meat he conveniently threw was Vincent Law, the man who risked $20,000 to bail him out of prison, when the youth was charged for posting a YouTube video that criticised the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
That many found Yee throwing his benefactor under the bus so soon after the closure of his case unpalatable has been well-documented on social media. It would be pointless for me to add further. Suffice to say that nobody in their right mind would, or should, now pay any attention to the boy who cried wolf, deliciously saucy as his updates to himself are.
My greater concern is to examine the way he treated the hounds.
The media has the important social responsibility to tell us about what is happening around us. In recent times, we are more accustomed to media serving as the conduit where alternative voices can also be heard. This brings about further complications, as such voices are no longer from the “official sources”, not because they are less trust-worthy, but because it makes us think about the veracity of voices and the role that the media plays in sifting out such views.
Some have observed that the media should have known better that Yee’s original accusation was a deliberate trolling attempt by the teenager. A sharp-eyed editor would have picked out that Yee was offering nothing more than hot air. At the very least, the smarter thing to do was find out why Yee would make such allegations, and if necessary, cross reference with the alleged.
However, to put the blame on the reporters on the ground might not do full justice to how media work. In such a situation, a reporter has one of two choices – go with an honest evaluation, decide Yee was smoking them out and ignore the story; or run with the slim chance that he might be right, and chase it down.
We may debate on whether the Facebook post of a teenager is worth a story, but for they have been put through, my sympathy goes to my friends in traditional media. They have been unfairly put in a situation where a small case has been grossly overblown.
What we have here seems to be a case of poor editorial judgement, or none at all, where the editors decided that Yee’s claim alone was worthy of a story. Nowhere is this more apparent than our national broadsheet, who first went online with a report based purely on a single unverified Facebook post, which did not even present an interest for the accused party to explain.
We might derive vicarious pleasure from seeing our mainstream media getting slapped in this way by a 16 year-old, for no other reason than its consistently dismal ranking in press freedom indices. While our media is no darling, it does not justify it being manipulated.
The importance of the media to any society should not be doubted. Its “nation building” role was espoused by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, in particular its first secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew. Unfortunately, we have also seen how Lee has manipulated and tried to influence the media, as writers like Cheong Yip Seng in OB Markers and Fr Guillaume Arotçarena in A Priest in Geylang have alluded to.
When we offer media false information, we are doing no different from directing their attention away from the complete truth that they are supposed to inform us about. Who suffers? Not just the victims of false allegations, but all of us. When we send media out on a wild goose chase, there is no clarity, just smoke and mirrors.
We can blame the powers be for censoring, stone-walling and misdirecting media, but deliberately misleading media, even to get them off your backs, is not doing much better. A better way would be to engage media directly. In Yee’s case, wouldn’t telling them, “I have nothing more to offer you, please tell your bosses that, and you can all go home now,” be a more elegant and less manipulative way for avoiding the paparazzi effect?
I maintain that true free expression is about creating a conducive space where everyone has an opportunity to voice their views and debate on issues. Negative impact on free expression is, when exercising that right, you deny another’s access to the same right. That applies equally to Lee Yuan Yew or Amos Yee, in silencing the media or throwing them a distraction. And we are all worse off from it.