Early in Jan this year, Parliament set up the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to examine matters with regard to “fake news”.
Among the various matters, the committee is supposed to propose any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken to tackle “fake news”, especially those that come from online sources.
“Fake news” have been around even before the Internet and social media came to the scene.
In 1996, the PAP founding chairman Dr Toh Chin Chye was, in fact, wrongly named in the SPH New Paper, as the culprit in a hit-and-run accident which left a 17-year-old student dead.
The New Paper had reported that the former DPM Dr Toh was arrested with the headline, “Hit-and-run accident case: Ex-DPM Toh Chin Chye arrested”. It even featured a photo of Dr Toh.
The real suspect turned out to be a 33-year-old salesman bearing the same name as Dr Toh.
In the end, Dr Toh took legal actions and SPH had to pay for damages. SPH also published an apology in all its papers.
The apology read, “We would also like to apologize to all Singaporeans for besmirching the name of one of our founding fathers.”
SPH settled for $300,000
Former chief executive of The New Paper, P N Balji, at a talk in 2016, revealed that at the time of the misreporting, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) had departed from its standard operating procedure.
Apparently, the New Paper reporter had relied his story on a single source in the police force, which had not been officially confirmed, and the story had not been placed on SPH’s schedule of stories for the day.
“I remember talking to the reporter and he told me that he went back to check with the Sergeant [and asked] ‘Is it the DPM?’ And the Sergeant said ‘yes’,” he revealed.
“There were three standard operating procedures that were not followed,” Balji explained, “One – and I believe this still exists at SPH – you must get an official spokesman to confirm or deny [the story] or give a comment. But the journalist was so sure of his source.”
“The second is, The New Paper is an afternoon paper. There was the fear that if he [the reporter] goes to the police spokesman, the spokesman might leak it to other papers and he’d lose the story.”
The third risk the paper took was to avoid putting the story in SPH’s publishing schedule for fear others would run with it. By not putting it in the publishing schedule, it had skipped one extra level of check by the SPH editor-in-chief.
“We can laugh about it now, but it’s a real issue, if you’re the sort of journalist who pushes the OB Markers to get a scoop,” Balji said.
After the story was published, “all hell broke loose,” Balji remembered.
SPH paid compensation of around $300,000 after a negotiation process, he revealed. “At the time the executive chairman [of SPH] was Lim Kim San, who was a confidante of Lee Kuan Yew, and who knew Toh Chin Chye very well, I’m sure they must have done some negotiating,” he said.
Dr Toh’s settlement with SPH shows that civil laws are already in place in dealing with “fake news” especially when it involves an individual’s reputation.
Clearly, Dr Toh did not demand the government to also enact new laws to deal with “fake news” regarding himself.