Prof Cherian George cites market failure, political control, and poor management that led to SPH restructuring

Speaking at an online roundtable conversation on 22 May organised by Future of Singapore (FOSG) about the restructuring of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) into a media trust and the media landscape in Singapore, Prof Cherian talked about the government’s refusal to acknowledge its part in the problem, the inability of SPH leadership to acknowledge their own inadequacies and the public’s denial about its own complicity.

The panellists —which included former journalist and editor PN Balji, veteran reporter Toh Han Shih, journalist and activist Kirsten Han and TOC Chief Editor Terry Xu—were moderated by architect Adjunct Professor Tay Kheng Soon.

First observation: Problems with SPH

Kicking of the discussion, Prof Cherian made three broad observations about the ongoing debate, starting with the problem of the national newspaper company.

The breakdown of a century old business model

The first problem he identified is the “breakdown of the century-old business model” that used to allow media organisations to make substantial investments into the kind of journalism that helps people become “better citizens”

“Such as journalism used to be bundled with more entertaining news as well as with advertising,” explained the professor but lamented that, “The internet has disaggregated this bundle, exposing the cruel fact that public interest journalism by itself is not something that enough people are willing to pay for.”

“It is what economists call a public good subject to market failure,” he added.

Government’s media chokehold

The second problem with SPH is the “PAP government’s chokehold” on public discourse which has prevented journalism in Singapore from reaching its full potential, argued Prof Cherian

The professor acknowledged that the national media still performs a reliable service as it provides people with timely and accurate news coming from the state, such as COVID-19 restrictions or new schemes for small businesses.

However, he noted that there are instances where the interests of the government diverge from the interests of its citizens.

“And in those specific moments, that’s when people around the world intuitively expect the press to speak up for them but it is precisely in those instances where the government demands that the press tells the people that they are wrong and that officials are right every single time,” he said.

“This is not a formula for developing customer loyalty,” added Prof Cherian.

The leadership crisis of SPH

The third problem with SPH is a possible “leadership crisis”. This theory, which the professor pointed out many people hold, posits that SPH should be doing better than it is despite the digital disruption and government control.

Drawing a comparison to another media giant in Singapore, Mediacorp, which is state-owned, Prof Cherian noted how Tham Loke Kheng had almost 20 years of industry experience when she was appointed as CEO four years ago.

She had held top positions in highly competitive markets in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he pointed out.

“SPH, meanwhile, has been led by CEOs with zero media experience, and in many cases, zero commercial experience of any kind for the past quarter-century,” the professor noted.

Expressing his agreement with current SPH Media Trust Chairman-Designate that there is no shortage of talent among Singaporeans for such top positions, Prof Cherian pointed out the example of former SBC and Straits Times journalist Gina Chua who had held top positions in major publications like the South China Morning Post and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Now, she is the executive director of Reuters, a news organisation that is larger than the SPH.

“I think all three factors—journalism’s financial crisis, Singapore’s press controls, SPH’s self-inflicted leadership failures—clear a path,” explained Prof Cherian.

“What’s debatable is how big each factor is, to what extent they are interrelated, whether it is even possible to crack one challenge without addressing the other two and so on.”

Second observation: Unrealistic to expect SPH to lean away from centre but it should be fairer and more representative

Moving on to his second observation about the debate surrounding the story of SPH, Prof Cherian cautioned that it would be “unrealistic and unfair” to place the burden of all the nation’s desire for a better media system on SPH or any single media organisation.

He explained, “There are things that a large mass market news organization like SPH can do the smaller alternative media can’t but, conversely, a big media face certain limitations. For both economic and political reasons, they cannot stray too far from the middle ground.”

Prof Cherian advised that those who lean further from the centre in either direction cannot realistically expect SPH to champion their worldviews.

Even so, Prof Cherian does think that SPH could be “fairer and more representative”, even within the economic and political limits it faces, adding that it is even reasonable to demand that it doesn’t shut out alternative views the way it currently does.

He said, “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, to stick with the statistical metaphor.”

“Even if SPH has to broadly align itself with government agenda, it could still give a much broader platform for contrarian views, and I think this is where even insiders and former insiders, including journalist who are not anti-government, do have a problem with the status quo,” added the professor.

“It is understandable that a national media would lean gently towards the PAP just as most Singaporeans do, but it can afford to do this less unthinkingly,” he noted.

Prof Cherian suggested that a paper which “insult the intelligence of its readers routinely” would do the government no favours.

At this point, the professor does note that there is a point at which organisations like SPH and MediaCorp cannot go, and to condemn them for not pushing further would be akin to “blaming a caged watchdog for failing to stop an intruder”.

He explained, “The hard political limits within which media are forced to operate is not something that SPH, in whatever form, can unilaterally address.”

As such, the professor pointed out that it is up to the people to work things out with the government.

Third observation: The public is complicit in perpetuating the status quo

This led to his final observation which relates to the role of the public.

Highlighting the strong public reaction to the SPH announcement several weeks ago, Prof Cherian noted his scepticism that the public has the “patience or resolve” to make a difference in the landscape.

He pointed out, “There is a big difference between the slacktivism of sharing means or buying umbrage merchandise and [the] serious work of a citizen movement for media diversity.”

Noting the incredulity of many Singaporeans over statements by Minister S Iswaran and former Minister, Mr Khaw Boon Wan who “acted as if political control of the press is a non-issue”, Prof George suggested that they may have a better understanding of the situation that critics do.

He asked, “From a purely political point of view, was Iswaran wrong to claim that the system ain’t broke? Is the PAP wrong to bet that Singaporeans, after loudly complaining, will quickly move on?”

Prof George posited that while the SPH restructuring appears to be radical, the main concerns being debated are nothing new.

“Singaporeans have lived with the PAP media model in the past. Why would the future be any different?” he asked.

Prof George called out the unhappiness over Mr Khaw’s appointment as chairman as well, noting that he is merely the latest in a long line of former ministers appointed to manage the media company.

“People got upset before too, but the disquiet died down. Why should this time be any different?” he noted.

As for the unhappiness many feel about the media industry being a “closed shop” that is protected from competition, again Prof Cherian pointed out how this is old news.

“Voters knew this when they went to the polls the last 13 times and each time they overwhelmingly endorsed the PAP that has openly, even proudly declared that it is against press freedom,” Prof Cherian said.

In the current situation, the biggest difference is the government’s decision to offer financial help to SPH, however even this is not new, said the professor, pointing once again to MediaCorp.

“I think about the public funds poured into thinly disguised political campaigns like SG50 including in the run-up to the elections; think about the states use of paid influencers and covert methods of computational propaganda; think about pro-government trolls that harass and incite hate against citizens who are classified as political opponents,” he noted.

“Officials haven’t renounced or denounced such practices nor have they denied directly or indirectly.”

“So this [argument that] the PAP is out of touch with reality, seems that it is the public that’s in denial,” said Prof Cherian.

He went on to also dismiss the argument that “people are helpless”, pointing to 50 years ago when a group of Singaporeans tried to form a trust to buy over the Singapore Herald which was being threatened with closure.

The group has set up a Singapore Herald trust fund to rescue the newspaper and run it as a 100 per cent Singaporean newspaper, independent of any political party. The endeavour was, however, unsuccessful.

Prof Cherian argued that there is no major legal or regulatory hurdle stopping SPH from being a news agency that publishes not just commentaries and very occasional original reporting but with daily news coverage of national affairs.

He cited news sites like Rattler in the Philippines, Malaysiakini in Malaysia, The Wire and Scroll and India, The Reporter in Taiwan who have managed to do this in their respective countries.

“The main impediments are in the public mind,” he suggested, adding that “Singaporeans continue to delude themselves that high-quality journalism does not need to be paid for.”

While many are happy to pay for Netflix, live sports, Spotify and video games, they think that news should be free, said the professor.

“They think they don’t need large teams of journalists whose full-time job is to keep track of matters of public interest because these Facebook and WhatsApp friends will tell them what’s going on,” he chided.

Prof Cherian concluded, “So, in summary, I think we are suffering from a triple denial. The government refuses to acknowledge that it is part of the problem, newspaper management protected from competition won’t acknowledge their own inadequacies, and the public is in denial about its own complicity.”

The failure of the journalism market, he said, is a moral one on the part of citizens “who will pay for media that turn them into obedient consumers and the capitalist system, but not for media that will make them more engaged and better citizens.”

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