The extent of government pressure on mainstream media newsrooms, challenges faced by freelance journalists, and the public’s possible “complicity” in the market failure that underpins Singapore’s media landscape were among the issues discussed by several media practitioners in a Future of Singapore (FOSG) roundtable discussion on Saturday (22 May).
Held via Zoom, the discussion, titled “Is it time to liberalise the news media?”, was moderated by veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon.
Reasonable to demand SPH to allow alternative views despite constraints imposed by Govt influence
Media and communications professor Cherian George spoke on the trifecta of problems that has led to the proposed Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) restructuring of its media business: Market failure, political control, and poor management.
Market failure, he said, is seen in the “breakdown of the century-old business model” where articles on matters pertaining to public interest was bundled with “more entertaining” content, which allowed investment in journalism centering public affairs.
The Internet, however, has “exposed the cruel fact” that public interest journalism by itself is unable to attract enough people who are willing to pay for it, which economists brand as a “public good subject to market failure”, said Prof George.
The People Action Party (PAP) government’s “chokehold” on public discourse remains “a huge part of people’s lives” in Singapore, even when the national media still “perform a reliable service in many respects”, Prof George said.
“So if a news service provides timely and accurate news about everything, from COVID-19 restrictions to school admission policy changes to new schemes for small businesses, such media will generally be trusted,” he elaborated.
In any nation, however, there is bound to be situations where the interests of the government may “diverge” from that of the country’s citizens — and this is where the press is “intuitively” expected to speak up for them, Prof George said.
Yet, simultaneously, it is in such instances that the government will demand the press to tell the people “that they are wrong and that officials are right, every single time” — such a situation, said the academician, is not a good formula for news outlets to develop customer loyalty.
On the poor management, particularly in terms of the SPH leadership crisis, Prof George said that such failures are a “prima facie evidence of a competency gap”.
“Consider that Mediacorp’s Tham Loke Kheng had almost 20 years of industry experience when she was appointed CEO four years ago, including holding top positions in the highly competitive markets of Taiwan and Hong Kong,” he observed.
SPH, on the other hand, has been helmed by CEOs with “zero media experience, and in many cases, zero commercial experience of any kind for the past quarter century,” Prof George added.
Highlighting veteran journalist Gina Chua’s recent appointment as Reuters executive editor, Prof George highlighted that there is no shortage of talented Singaporeans to fill the top most positions in local media companies.
While all the above three factors are significant in influencing the state of Singapore’s mainstream media landscape, specifically in terms of the discussion on SPH’s proposed restructuring, the academician said that the degree to which each factor plays a role and how interrelated the factors are is “debatable”.
However, Prof George opined that it would be “unfair to burden SPH” or any single media organisation “with all of our pent-up desires for a better media system”.
“There are things that a large, mass-market news organisation like SPH can do that smaller alternative media can’t. But conversely, big media face certain limitations: For both economic and political reasons, they cannot stray too far from the middle ground,” he said.
Blaming the mainstream media for not being able to push the envelope further, said Prof George, is like “blaming a caged watchdog for not being able to stop an intruder”.
“It’s not the watchdog’s fault that it’s caged,” he said.
Mainstream media entities such as SPH, however, can still strive to be fairer even within such limitations, said Prof George.
“I think it’s reasonable to demand that SPH not shut out alternative views the way it does now, even if we concede that SPH titles need to gravitate towards the mean … It is reasonable to expect it to allow for more standard deviation,” he added.
A paper that “insults the intelligence of its leaders routinely” does not do the government any favours, and this is why mainstream media should convey the views of the establishment “less unthinkingly”, said Prof George.
The public, he opined, is also in denial about its own complicity in journalism’s market failure, which he considers to be “a moral failure”.
Singaporeans, he observed, would pay for streaming services such as Netflix and other media that “turn them into obedient customers in the capitalist system”, but not for media that will turn them into “more engaged and better citizens”.
“From a purely political point of view … Is the PAP wrong to bet that Singaporeans, after loudly complaining, will quickly move on? Singaporeans have lived with the PAP media model in the past. Why would the future be any different?
“Many claim to be unhappy with Khaw Boon Wan’s appointment as chairman, but he’s just the latest in a 30-year-line of trusted ministers and mandarins managing the media,” he said.
Given the restrictions faced by mainstream media, Prof George is of the view that part of the onus to facilitate change in the media landscape partly also rests on the public.
Journalism in 80s and 90s “very different” from that in the present; editors more keen on resisting Govt pressure
Former journalist and editor of TODAY and The New Paper, PN Balji said that there were editors who were prepared to decline certain requests or instructions from the government to report certain stories in a certain way, or to not report certain stories.
Even when there were instances where the government acceeded to the editors’ input, Mr Balji said that it is “always the editor’s blood that is on the floor”.
Citing Leslie Fong, an editor at The Straits Times at the time who ran a column called ‘Thinking Aloud’, Mr Balji said that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had attempted to persuade then-executive chairman Lim Kin San to terminate Mr Fong.
“I know this, because I was actually at one meeting where Leslie actually mentioned this. But Lim Kin San decided to strike a deal with Lee Kuan Yew, which is to stop Leslie from writing columns but he will continue to be in The Straits Times,” said Mr Balji.
Mr Fong, he said, paid the price of not being promoted as editor-in-chief — the “normal route” for editors in ST. Instead, Mr Fong was made head of ST’s China desk.
Mr Balji then questioned what had made editors of mainstream media outlets in the 80s and 90s the way they were — not fearing repercussions to their careers and salaries unlike those in the profession at present.
“The kind of journalism practiced back then is very different from the journalism that is practiced now,” he said. “You would see stories which (may) not (have) so much criticised the government, but the stories were different in such a way that when you read, you can say, ‘Oh, there’s something here’. Today you can’t even find that.”
Attempts by the government to liberalise national media since then, said Mr Balji, were merely “proliferation”, as his friend had told him.
Giving SPH the licence to start two television channels and Mediacorp to start TODAY was a “drastic failure”. TODAY, formerly a newspaper, is now a fully-online outlet.
“How much money was thrown down the drain? … Yeah, we have more TV channels, maybe an extra newspaper, but this is not media liberalisation,” said Mr Balji, who was involved in the setting up of TODAY, which was meant to serve “analytical reporting”.
Mr Balji said that social media and websites such as Academia.sg have served as an antidote to the “very sad” state of media in Singapore, and have injected diversity in an otherwise sterile environment that often propagates pro-establishment views.
Barriers in accessing information from govt officers, covering court cases among common obstacles faced by freelance journalists in S’pore
Kirsten Han, formerly editor-in-chief of Southeast Asian journalism platform New Naratif, highlighted problems with relying on freelance journalists such as herself to constantly produce news, despite the freedom to choose the kind of stories one would like to cover.
“It’s such a big operation … The amount of daily news that you see printed in the newspaper is actually a portion of the work that the journalists actually do to produce that,” she said.
“For every interview that makes it in the paper, there might be other people that they’ve not quoted, people they’ve spoken to on background, events that they go to … So as a freelancer, I don’t have the time and capacity to do that kind of news coverage,” Ms Han added.
Freelancers, she said, are not allowed to sit in the media gallery when covering court cases — they are required to queue for a spot in the public gallery “with everybody else”. They are also not allowed to join press briefings or conferences, and are not sent press releases from the government.
This is not typically a problem for freelancers such as herself, said Ms Han, as they do not normally produce breaking news in the same way as those working with mainstream news outlets do.
However, daily interactions with government officers “can be very frustrating” and will “really affect the journalism that can be done”, she said.
“So if most of the time they are not replying to you at all, and you’re getting stonewalled, and there’s no freedom of information, legislation that you can apply to require them to give you information, then it is very difficult for certain stories to be told, right?”
In the event that she does receive a reply from officials, Ms Han said that her actual questions would often not be answered directly.
“The most honest one I had was a government comms officer, who, after he received my questions in email called and said, ‘To be very honest with you, I will not get clearance to answer your questions from my superiors’. Such an incident is telling that government officials are not used to being pushed to be transparent and accountable.”
“So the relationship is that they have power and you are begging for information, and not that their job is to facilitate such communications between the public and the media, and it’s very difficult to do things,” said Ms Han.
The lack of response, she added, is an indirect way of killing a story “as editors tend to fear that they will be accused of not providing the government’s side of the story”.
Another crucial observation made by Ms Han is that Singapore does not have a strong association or coalition of journalists to discuss press freedom in thhe city-state, unlike in other countries.
“We have a foreign correspondents’ association … We also have a press club, but they don’t do work about press freedom,” she said.
Even correspondents working with foreign publications, who are expected to have more leeway in reporting Singapore affairs compared to their counterparts working with local mainstream media, “have an eye on self-censorship” as they are worried about their visas, Ms Han highlighted.
Change possible with “enough divergence” between Govt will and public demands?
Answering a question from a member of the virtual audience on whether significant changes will take place after SPH’s restructuring, Mr Balji echoed Prof George’s sentiments, saying that he is not optimistic that such a change will take place in his lifetime.
“I don’t think our population, our people … Although they talk about wanting an alternative to The Straits Times, I don’t think they are prepared to put the money where their mouth is,” he said.
Taking off from Mr Balji’s point, Prof George reiterated his observation, stating that Singaporeans appear to not be “bothered enough” to support independent online media at this juncture.
Although there is discretionary licensing when it comes to print media, where citizens who want to launch such a publication must ask permission from the government, such limitations do not apply to online media, he said.
“So the only obstacle in the way of online media is people’s willingness to pay,” Prof George added.
However, Prof George is not entirely pessimistic about the future of Singapore’s media.
He pointed out that previously politically “apathetic” Malaysia and Hong Kong, for example, are now known to have a growing media landscape beyond that of the establishment, despite attempts by the establishment to stifle alternative outlets in recent years.
“If there is enough divergence between the popular will and what the government is doing, you might well see Singaporeans being willing to support the largest commercial news media,” he opined.
TOC editor-in-chief Terry Xu added that putting aside issues such as the absence of discretionary licensing for online media and whether people would pay for news content generated by such outlets, online media is not entirely free from the government’s scrutiny.
Even when the subscription model serves as a viable means of revenue for an online media outlet, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) — as seen in the case of TOC — will seek an explanation as to why subscribers are required to pay even if it is a nominal monthly sum, said Mr Xu.
“This really bugs me, because TOC is (one of the) only two publications in Singapore that is subjected to the current licensing regime under IMDA,” he added.
“I think this is something that they wouldn’t ask The Straits Times: ‘Why are you charging 20 over dollars for your digital subscription when you can get it online for free?'”