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Give the facts, the FULL facts

In the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods are a few interesting paragraphs about maintaining public trust in institutions. The end result is a  recommendation that public institutions “emphasise the timely communication of information to both pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods, and recognize the role of participation, transparency and accountability in ensuring public trust in how public institutions respond to online falsehoods’’.

But the discussion was a lot bigger than that.

Note that the committee’s recommendations relate to how to deal with falsehoods per se rather than than issues of accountability and transparency. But broader recommendations about governance were also made by representors. The committee said that these reiterated the importance of well-established principles such as communication, transparency, participation and accountability. It added that there were several suggestions urging the G to:

  • – Explain the rationale for public policy decisions;
  • – Be candid about failures and problems faced;
  • – Undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;
  • – Involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;
  • – Demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and
  • – Foster civil society and an active citizenry.

More specific proposals include enacting a Freedom of Information Act, to enable the public to get information from public institutions. Related recommendations were made to establish an ombudsman, to assess what classified data could be disclosed, to regularly de-classify archival material, and to investigate complaints against public institutions.

The basis of the recommendations: Strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. It also makes it easier for public institutions to effectively intervene in crises.

While the committee thinks the suggestions are valid and well-meaning, it said that representors didn’t go far enough to, for example, assess the extent to which the G now explains policies or consider how national security interests would crimp transparency. In other words, there was no evidence on the extent of gaps to be addressed. Nor was there a direct relation made between these issues and deliberate online falsehoods. In other words, they lacked “specificity’’.

It sent off the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which has oversight of citizen engagement efforts. The MCCY’s response is a seven-page statement listing all the efforts to engage the public, from Remaking Singapore and the Our Singapore Conversation to getting input on what to with the rail corridor and having Silver Ambassadors to explain policies to the elderly.

I suppose representators were too polite to make a direct link between lack of transparency and the uptake of falsehoods. I will say this: It is the perception that citizens are not being told everything that leads them to explore other avenues of information. It is the perception that information is being “spinned’’ to put policy makers in a good light. It is the perception that mainstream media, the G’s main channel of communication, isn’t giving all sides of the story, even if they do report accurately.

Panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said during one of the public hearings: “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.”

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Yes, we’re talking about perceptions here. It is a slow drip that has less to do with the prevalence of fake news and more to do with the frustration over not getting full answers.

I will give one example: The Prime Minister’s answer to a question from a parliamentarian on the amount of bonuses ministers received. The PM spoke only of performance bonuses and referred to the framework established on calculating ministerial salaries. Is it any wonder then that people would start asking about other salary components such as the National Bonus and take a stab at calculating how much each minister makes? This is how falsehoods are created, with The Online Citizen making the error of saying that the PM earned $4.5 million a year.

Nor is the G’s fact-checking site Factually any clearer in debunking the falsehood.

It said: The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister (that is, $1.1m). His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses. The Prime Minister does not receive a Performance Bonus as there is no one to assess his performance annually. He does receive the National Bonus.

So what is the National Bonus anyway? We’d have to do our own calculations based on the KPIs in the matrix developed for the bonus. And isn’t it the case that although he gets no performance bonus, the Prime Minister’s National Bonus can go up to 12 months while it’s capped at six months for the rest of the Cabinet if KPIs are exceeded ?

The mainstream media, meanwhile, faithfully reports the “debunking’’ without adding any value nor asking any questions.  In the meantime, TOC has put up another calculation of the PM’s salary…

Where there are gaps in information, others will step in to fill it. There is little point in indulging in self-righteous indignation over misinformation and rumours that arise because of a natural tendency for people to close the information loop. Also, because as the Select Committee itself pointed out: the falsehood has far greater traction (and retention) among people than the correction. Why create such opportunities for the curious, the mischief-makers and the malicious?

So the G has a big part to play in curbing the spread of disinformation beyond wielding the stick. Likewise, the mainstream media.

A 2017 Reuters institute report said that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from political influence. Academic Shashi Jayakumar who spoke on the need for public trust during the hearing, 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”. Note the word “again’’.

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It has always been my thesis that the G should leave MSM alone to do a professional job, so that we can all be exposed to quality journalism.

Another important point to note that the media landscape has changed substantially.

Professor Thio Li-ann, whose views were quoted liberally by the committee, for example, describes MSM as “a public forum, exposing people to a wide range of speakers, unanticipated topics and viewpoints, and exposing viewpoints to a diverse public’’. She said that this would allow citizens to engage with a range of representative views of issues, in order to understand where other citizens are coming from, and for facilitating compromise and overlapping consensus where possible.

This might be the case some years ago when even a monolith like Singapore Press Holdings pursued a competition policy among its stable of newsrooms. But news reports are now served out of a common kitchen and put in different packaging. A reader would do as well having a copy of the free New Paper, because the same stories can be found in the paid Straits Times and Business Times. Diversity of news and views and the variety of discussion has narrowed. There is less to read – and a paywall for premium content as well. According to the Nielsen Media Index Report 2017, only 55.9 per cent of adults read print and online newspapers in Singapore today.

Prof Thio added that people who choose to go online to obtain their news are “denied this exposure to differing viewpoints’’. Online news sites would beg to differ and argue that they offer viewpoints that do not exist in the mainstream media.

It is good that there is widespread support for quality journalism, even though 60 per cent of the people here agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumours and falsehoods.

The answers on how to raise the standard of journalism are predictable: Ramping up training and fact-checking – except there’s the question of who’s going to pay for this at a time when subscriptions go down and digital advertising doesn’t translate into big bucks. It can’t have escaped Select Committee’s notice that “fact-checkers’’ are a near-extinct breed in news organisations, accompanied by high staff turnovers, whether forced or voluntary. Even MSM editors lament the tremendous amount of resources that would have to go into verifying sources and checking facts. What journalism faces is a worldwide industry problem: The old business models aren’t good enough to ensure quality journalism – and good profits.

The panel said that commercial challenges aren’t within its remit, but is something the G and media organisations themselves have to think about. In my view, a suggestion by ex-journalist Nicholas Fang bears greater consideration. He proposed to separate the news functions of news organisations from the rest of the business, and be held under a not-for-profit umbrella where the sole mandate is to deliver excellence in journalism. The funding of local news organisations could be modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain, which is funded principally by an annual television licence fee charged to all British households, companies and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts.

It will probably be met by howls of protests.  Journalists will never make big bucks under such a system and consumers will scream at having to pay for news. Someone, however, has to foot the bill for quality work. Please do not apply to the G, because this means the media will never be free of the charge of being under “political influence’’. The whole Singapore media landscape bears a re-look.

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What about online media? The committee says that the same standards of professionalism should apply online and offline. I agree, and I would add that there should be no double standards when it comes to access to official sources of information. MSM might carp about how online sites play fast and loose with the facts; they don’t say that it is far easier for them to obtain the facts compared to online media.

But if MSM finds it difficult to maintain its fact-checking resources, then I don’t know how online sites can do it. Funding must come from somewhere.

Want quality journalism? Pay for it.

Written By

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

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