Former SPH senior editor delivers scathing remarks on state of journalism in Singapore

Former SPH senior editor delivers scathing remarks on state of journalism in Singapore

Veteran journalist Bertha Henson, addressing to journalists in the Singapore media industry, wrote: 

“Now it looks like you’ve lost the fight and are completely resigned to playing the role of publicist. Not only that, you seem to have forgotten basic journalistic principles and I mean stuff like grammar and housestyle and getting the 5Ws1H. You’ve descended to repeating press releases which are themselves badly written.”

Ms Henson, a former editor for The Straits Times (ST) and The New Paper (TNP) in a scathing Facebook post, was voicing her concerns over the deterioration of journalistic standards in Singapore and the ability for local journalists to “clearly and concisely” write a story with a strong angle.”

She asked if the local journalists realise what was happening to them, and being sidelined by the biggest newsmaker in Singapore and the government who is “supporting your operation with State funds”.

Politicians Are Not On The Side Of Media

SPH Media Trust (SMT), a not-for-profit entity was spun off from newspaper publisher and mainboard-listed company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) on 1 Dec last year. It was then announced in February this year that SMT will get funding from the Singapore government of up to $180 million annually over the next five years which is S$900 million in total.

The announcement that SMT — which hosts the main bulk of Singapore’s publication such as ST, TNP, Lianhe Zaobao (Chinese broadsheet) and others with 2,500 employees — would be funded by the government, sparked concerns from Members of Parliament (MP) over how the public would perceive the neutrality of the press.

In answering the question filed by a People’s Action Party (PAP) MP on how the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) will ensure editorial independence continues to be upheld in the newsrooms. Minister for MCI, Ms Josephine Teo said that SMT has exercised editorial independence since its establishment in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings. Adding that funding support does not change that, as is the case with Mediacorp since 2011.

In a clear and outright criticism by Ms Henson on the Singapore’s 4th Generation (4G) political leaders in regards to their approach with media, she wrote:

“The 4G  isn’t on your side. They want only their messages heard loud and (un)clear. I bet that they see the media as a hindrance if it goes about doing the job they are supposed to do. Now I think they see the media as a wonderful mechanism to convey any message or narrative that they see fit. That’s why they hold closed door dialogues etc and continue to trot out that old chestnut about how having reporters will stop people from being frank – as though it’s something to be encouraged. And they think they are doing everyone a favour by giving a briefing on what happened later. Or they summarise the “findings’’ in a report or they tell you how many pieces of “feedbacks’’ they have. And you duly repeat that there has been extensive public consultation and intensive reviews. You have no part to play in building a community of civic minded citizens unafraid to speak up. In fact, you have to be an MP to get questions answered.”

While journalists never had much a say in media to government relationships but their predecessors in the local media had tried to have a say. She pointed out that they were lucky as politicians at that time knew the value of a credible media and that they knew that they had to get out there to answer questions. Ms Henson had been in the industry since 1986 after she graduated from university and left SPH in 2012, where she subsequently founded the defunct Middle Ground in 2015.

Ms Henson contrasted the difference between how the politicians back in her days were quick to hold press conferences as opposed to briefings while the politicians nowadays ignore journalists entirely in hope that “no answers mean no story”.

She claimed that current politicians would tell the journalists to look at their Facebook and journalists would “do so dutifully because you’re afraid to miss any pearls of wisdom.”

“They go on TikTok and have their own mock interviews on YouTube done by their ministry minions. They hold “doorstop’’ interviews so as to look casual but we all know it’s only because they have something to say – not because you have something to ask.”

Erosion Of Trust In Media

On the point of building trust, Ms Henson wrote that most people do hope that the media plays the role of asking questions that they themselves might have.

“The more “cut-and-paste’’ there is, the faster the erosion of the credibility of the media. And when the media can’t even spell right or is sloppy about the details, then they aren’t even good enough to be a teaching tool for language.”

“For Singapore, the plethora of laws and the demise of some alternative media only serve to make sure that one voice remains as the purveyor of truth and collective opinion. A voice that isn’t “moderated” by anyone. Increasingly, journalists don’t think it’s their place to ask certain questions or to bother officials, in case they are being tagged as “unfriendly’’. And there are no other types of journalists to irritate the G into responding. (They moved abroad or lost heart)”

Ms Henson wrote that she thought any deterioration of professional standards could be reversed at least slightly since the public trust is not so closely tied to the fortunes of the parent company and its board.

“But the opacity of your operations and governance process only serves to confirm that it is business-as-usual…and thanks for the money.”

Ms Henson in conclusion, said that she can’t blame journalists if they lost heart in the news-gathering process as well as the freedom to decide how to put the news across, quiet quit or just quit, however she still beseeched for journalists to hold the line, and put professional principles into practice.

“You do NOT always have to do what the G says. You should tell readers about the obstacles you face in getting information. You should list the questions you want answered. You should behave like a public trust, not a public agency. And that is actually IN the G’s interest too.”

Ms Henson lamented in the comment section of her post, saying: Frankly, the fault is ours. We don’t care if the media deteriorates coz we so proudly proclaim we don’t read it. And sometimes we don’t even know why except that it’s fashionable to be anti-media.”

“But it’s important for us to know that the media reports local news well (because other media agencies wouldn’t care). Or it will lead to a dumbing down of our country, an incurious and complacent population which clings on to the idea of “trust” without needing to exert our brains.”

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