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Fighting fake news: The G should leave MSM alone

In my past life in the mainstream media, my old boss used to tell us journalists that “we are not pro-government, we are pro-Singapore’’. That’s the answer we should give to accusations that we are merely government mouthpieces or propagandists. It sounds reasonable, until you hear the government’s counter which has been trotted out since the days of Lee Kuan Yew: Who decides on what is in Singapore’s interest? The media or the elected government of the day?

It’s hard to argue against this line, especially since our media landscape is very unlike those in other countries, including Asian ones. They have many players; we have only two. Elsewhere, you can turn to well-resourced media outlets that are ranged along an ideological spectrum, or even owned by various political parties. You decide which is closest to your truth – and can switch to another if you lose faith.

Here, we have only two, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, both with online appendages.

You can argue that since there are so few players, State control should be even stronger to prevent mischief and undue influences. Or you can argue that because there are only two players, the State should leave them well enough alone so that they can raise their level of credibility as independent players in the system.

In the fight against fake news, the second option is the right one.

People must be convinced the MSM are the most trusted source of information. During the Select Committee hearings,  academic Shashi Jayakumar, said that ways should be found to help newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao “again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources, bar none, in the eyes of the Singapore public”.

“While numerous amateur blogs and forums which have sprung up which to some degree provide commentary over Singapore-related issues, their coverage is patchy and none of these platforms can be considered a serious, consistent news source,” he added.

I am saying this even though I am one of those numerous amateur bloggers that he might be referring. I agree that people must go somewhere for news about the small country they live in and if not these two outfits which have the resources to do extensive reporting, then where else?

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Trust in the MSM is still high, according to Edelman’s 2018 Trust barometer, but it is going down. As panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong put it: “On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust. There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

(There is also another survey, done by Reuters Institute. This says that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from “undue political influence’’. )

The answer from editors, that they are not pro-government, has been met with much amusement. I am likewise amused. Because even if the media do not believe themselves to be pro-G, the odds are so stacked against them that they have to be.

There are the laws that compel them to toe the line as well the unwritten ones that tie the media to the Government. In their written representations, the companies do not touch on restrictions that have been placed on them, like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Nor did they call for a Freedom of Information Act to gain freer access to information, which would be in their interest.

Perhaps, they believe they are non-starters. I have to confess that proposing the repeal of the NPPA is a non-starter too. I cannot see the G relinquishing the power to grant yearly renewable licences or dispense with management shares on the board, which will ultimately decide who gets to be editor with a capital E. It would a drastic slaughter of a sacred cow.

As for a Freedom of Information Act, I cannot see this G agreeing to this when it won’t even countenance releasing more than 50 year old information that would solve the mystery of Operation Coldstore, in which more than 100 people were arrested in the early 60s.

Instead, in their written representations, the two companies prefer to have restrictions put on the fairly un-regulated online space to “level the playing field’’. Their complaint is that while they are tightly regulated and adhere to professional standards, they lose out to the online cowboy outfits which write whatever they please to gain more eyeballs.

There is even a grumble from SPH about “how some major advertisers, such as the government, have adopted a communications strategy that seeks to bypass traditional media in favour of internet news sites’’. That is, the G isn’t helping them financially to sustain their newsrooms.

So if the G is not going to budge on the NPPA nor an FIA, and the MSM itself seems content to let this be, what other measures can be undertaken to help MSM raise its credibility?

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My suggestion: The G should just respect that the MSM journalists know how to do their job, instead of hemming them in or hovering over them excessively.

I don’t think that either the G or the MSM will deny that some ministries interfere in editorial decisions excessively, are coy about providing information or prefer framing their statements in a manner that says nothing. The worst type of response: Not even bothering with a reply in the hope that without information, there will be no story. Journalists are viewed as troublesome creatures who throw spanners into the efficient day-to-day workings of agencies – and they are told so.

The MSM should admit that while they practise legitimate editing most of the time, there is some level of self-censorship or a coyness about pushing the envelope or OB markers. This is too small a  place with too dominant a government for journalists to declare that they can report without fear or favour, much less speak truth to power, because it is easier and less painful to trod the familiar and congenial path.

My worry is that over the years, generations of journalists will be socialized into believing that it is right – and prudent – to follow the G’s framing of the news. And the G-men, including low level officers, will think it is their right to tell journalists how to do their jobs.

My hope is that the tussle that takes place behind closed doors between the media and the G on the level of independence of the media, whether in the big picture sense or over specific issues, is still going on. It should. You can go read Cheong Yip Seng’s book, OB Markers, for a fuller picture of the relationship.

The positions of the media and the G everywhere are naturally antagonistic: the media wants to reveal everything that it thinks the readers need to know, the G would prefers that some things are kept under the radar because :

a. readers will be confused by too much data

b. some data are confidential and can be misused if disclosed

c. it will be too much trouble to explain some things.

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d. the G might look bad

e. everyone should just trust the elected government.

There is a tension, and there always will be, between journalists and their sources. If journalists want to do a professional job, they should not succumb to the path of least resistance or think that praise from newsmakers is the ultimate reward and a scolding, a mortal sin. Nor should the G deride or disrespect the journalist who is merely trying to do his job, and thereby inconveniencing its schedule.

This is why I worry when I see media filled with rah-rah news, because I know they are so much easier to report and write. No newsmaker will complain if they get favourable coverage or have a good spin put on a not-so-good story. But that is how the credibility of the media goes down among readers and viewers. Too much positive coverage makes people wonder if they getting the truth, even if the facts are all there. The same goes for stories on the G which are vague, riddled with information gaps and written from the point of the view of the person giving the news.

I don’t blame newsmakers for trying to control the news agenda. Every government wants that. But even as Singapore has unique vulnerabilities such as its racial and religious configuration, one other unique feature is that the G is the biggest newsmaker in Singapore, and has sole control over all types of information. These are backed up by laws including the Official Secrets Act which not only prevent publication, but also reporting. And there are only two media outfits here.

If trust in the MSM is eroded or if its journalists are handicapped in doing their job, you can expect that people will turn to other sources simply to read something different, even if they are false. If the G wants to counter fake news, it should take a good hard look at its own relationship with the media. The media should do the same.


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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