At the Real News Matters journalism forum held at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central last Saturday (28 Sep), Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Chief Editor Warren Fernandez told the audience that journalists play a critical role amid a proliferation of fake news and views existing today.
With misinformation on the rise, journalists play a crucial role in providing reliable information to support reasoned debate, he said.
“While the world is more connected today and more people have much more information available at their fingertips, the irony is that societies are not necessarily better informed or equipped to make the difficult choices we need to if we are going to address the many challenges we face,” he said.
That is why the work that professional newsrooms do, in fact-checking and ensuring a balanced, objective and unvarnished account of events, is so important, he added.
Mr Fernandez said that democratic discussions cannot happen in the absence of credible and reliable information. “Instead, discussions turn into shouting matches, which tend to be dominated by those with the loudest, most nasty or persistent – or often, the best financed – voices,” he said.
“Each one of us ends up the loser.”
He also warned of the rise of fake news spreading over social media.
Former ST Editor-in-Chief Cheong reveals direct government meddling in media
While Mr Fernandez talked about the importance of ensuring a “balanced, objective and unvarnished account of events” in reporting news, one of his predecessors, retired SPH Chief Editor Cheong Yip Seng, has revealed publicly in his memoir that the People’s Action Party government has the habit of “manipulating” public opinions through Straits Times.
Mr Cheong’s memoir, “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story”, was published in 2012.
In his book, Mr Cheong talked about how PM Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, systematically controlled and meddled with the press. He would routinely pressured ST editors to publish what he wanted to see.
One of the episodes was when Peter Lim, Mr Cheong’s predecessor, resisted Lee’s pressure to print the full ‘O’ level results of opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election. Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP. Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the newspaper.
Mr Cheong also related how Peter Lim, then his boss, had tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price by having to resign in 1987. Mr Cheong himself was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate. He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is — when the “notorious phone calls” came.
And among the many “notorious phone calls” Mr Cheong had to deal with, he revealed one call he got during the 1988 GE when former Solicitor General Francis Seow was contesting as an opposition candidate under Workers’ Party banner in Eunos GRC. With that one phone call, ST immediately stopped covering the election campaign of Francis Seow overnight.
In other words, SPH’s “balanced” reporting suddenly disappeared overnight after one “notorious phone call”. In other first world countries, the newspaper editors, of course, do not have to “take orders” from their government but not in Singapore.
Mr Cheong’s memoir also described the many interventions in Singapore’s media by the government – from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG, which the government deemed important for the citizens to know.
Mr Cheong’s memoir is a laudable effort to put on record the astonishing government meddling that editors like Mr Cheong had to deal with regularly.
In any case, according to the latest World Press Freedom Index 2019, Singapore is currently ranked 151st out of 180 countries, behind Russia (149th) and Bangladesh (150th).