TODAY to revert to Temasek Holdings; has media liberalisation really succeeded?

What little independence Singapore’s second-most widely read English daily had may now be reduced even further. On August 25, Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced that SPH will divest its stakes in Mediacorp Press, the company that publishes TODAY (I’ll just conflate the two from here onwards). This announcement was, naturally, overshadowed by the announcement that, from October onwards, TODAY will cease to produce a print edition. This means that there will be no more free newspapers at MRT stations during rush hour. For most of us, that’s what matters, right? Who cares about who owns what?

All of us should actually. While it is true that SPH never had a majority stake in TODAY—and it is also true that even if SPH had a majority stake in TODAY, this would not make it any more independent of the state—this latest move means that TODAY will return to its 2004 position. It will once again be fully owned by Mediacorp which is in turn owned by Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s state-owned sovereign wealth fund. If TODAY ever harboured any illusions about its independence from the state, such folly must now be clear. It would, of course, be deluded to think it had any independence in the first place, given our onerous press laws and the ruling party’s control over SPH (its current CEO was a PAP minister for two decades and its incoming CEO is a former army general).

Ever the optimist, TODAY says that this “will mean that the liberalisation of the media scene… will have come full circle.” It is trying to suggest that our efforts to liberalise the media scene have been so successful that we may no longer need to liberalise them any further; thus, we may return to the way things were in 2004, before SPH bought a 40% stake in TODAY. Unfortunately, the best arguments it could muster from its experts consist of platitudes about better journalism.

“TODAY has maintained its core till now, which includes providing more analysis and commentaries. And it has strong journalists in its newsroom. The content it produces is a good product,” said Mr Ganesh, a Nominated Member of Parliament. Likewise, Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University, called it an improvement in “the quality of journalism”.

But the question remains: how exactly has journalism improved? Perhaps, one could point to Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s criticism of media coverage of MRT train delays as proof of improved journalism. After all, what better journalism is there than one that attracts a politician’s criticism—especially when all the media have done is give voice to the everyday concerns of ordinary citizens and hold the government to account.

However, the very effect of returning TODAY to the full control of Temasek Holdings must surely be to reverse whatever gains in media liberalisation permitted the mainstream media to, as Mr Khaw eloquently puts it, “turn tabloid”. This, then, is what is most confusing about this entire charade. If SPH’s acquisition of a 40% stake in TODAY is media liberalisation (an odd claim given the anti-competitive implications), SPH’s divestment must surely mean the opposite. And if media liberalisation is indeed something to be celebrated, why return TODAY to Temasek Holdings?

Herein lies the nub of the problem. Media liberalisation, as defined by the ruling party and as confirmed by such learned individuals as Prof Ang, has nothing to do with the presentation of dissenting viewpoints. Media liberalisation is merely about who can continue to attract readers whilst avoiding political controversy that is not in the interests of the ruling party.

The deal awaits regulatory approval. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.