Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh earlier this week crossed swords with Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran on issues on the Government’s possible influence over the Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) new media entity.
The editorial independence of SPH titles has been thrust into the spotlight following the company’s announcement to transfer its media business to a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee (CLG).
Mr Iswaran’s Ministry has since expressed its readiness to provide funding support for the CLG, on top of the subscription model and advertising revenue.
The Workers’ Party chief probed Mr Iswaran on the amount of funding the Government intends to channel into the CLG, to which the Minister replied that SPH shareholders must first give the proposed restructuring plan the green light before any concrete decisions on funding can be announced.
Stating that it is “premature” to give a figure at this juncture, Mr Iswaran said that the new CLG must undergo the process of formulating its “strategic business direction, going forward”.
“(It) is not because we are reluctant to talk about them, but it’s simply because first, this is still a matter before the shareholders of SPH. They have to decide whether they want to approve this. It is only after that, that we can really get into a more detailed discussion,” said the Minister.
“And in that matrix, the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role the Government funding (will) play in that matrix,” said the minister.
When asked by Mr Singh on what safeguards will be in place for the new SPH media entity as a buffer against the Government’s possible interference in its editorial practices, Mr Iswaran said that such a culture “already exists” in Singapore’s media landscape.
“I think we do a disservice to our journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary,” said the Minister.
In his ministerial statement on Monday, Mr Iswaran had cited a couple of surveys to demonstrate how Singaporeans have been “quick to express” whether they think local media can be trusted, as seen in the relatively high trust in local media based on an Edelman Trust survey compared to the global average.
“Trust in (Singapore) local media is at 62 per cent above the global average of 51 per cent, and above the U.S. number, which is 45 per cent. And UK and France, which were both at 37 per cent,” said Mr Iswaran.
A survey by the British pollster YouGov last year, he added, showed that seven in 10 Singaporeans said they trusted the local media’s reporting on COVID-19.
“In the UK by comparison, YouGov found that only three in ten trusted information on covid in British newspapers,” he said.
Reiterating this point to Mr Singh during the debate, Mr Iswaran said that such would not be the case if Singaporeans did not feel they could trust local news organisations.
“So I think the people have spoken. And I think it’s our job now to make sure the object of their trust continues to succeed,” the Minister added.
Bringing the debate back to the specifics of government funding and the question of editorial independence, Mr Singh then held up a cover of SPH tabloid The New Paper from 1997, which showed a list of things to check off “Before you vote”.
“Minister spoke earlier about objectivity and balance. The only thing objective about this cover page is the EPL (English Premier League) scores,” Mr Singh quipped, adding that the checklist was essentially relaying to voters “what you’re voting for if you vote for the PAP”.
The Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament then referenced again his question on whether the Government would consider convening a Select Committee that will be tasked with consulting the public on the proposed SPH restructuring plan.
Noting that two recent commentaries in a Mandarin and English newspaper demonstrated divergent views on the fourth-generation leadership transition, Mr Singh said that “there can be different views on the quality and the standards of journalism”.
“And it is for that reason that I put my earlier question to the Minister about a Select Committee, and to try and get some understanding from the public about what they expect of a taxpayer-funded CLG,” he said.
Mr Iswaran, in response, expressed his disappointment that Mr Singh had “decided to make political capital out of something that I think is quite fundamentally important to us”.
“The examples that he cites … In a way, he has already illustrated the point that I’m making. Isn’t this the diversity that we want?” said the Minister.
With regards to Mr Singh’s prompts on the issue of government funding, Mr Iswaran once again declined to provide specific details on the matter, reiterating that such will only be disclosed when there is further clarity on business proposals.
“When the funding is finally decided upon, it will have to come back to this Chamber, because it will be part of the budget of the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The member and his party would have ample opportunity to ask all the specific questions,” said the Minister.