Thursday, May 11, 2006

SINGAPORE ELECTIONS AND THE MAINSTREAM PRESS

Of all my musings about the Singapore elections and media old and new, the one that’s been most robustly resisted by the blogsphere is my observation that mainstream media coverage of the GE has improved. Bloggers accuse me of having an “agenda” (how easily we imbibe the discourse of the ruling party!) and wonder ruefully if I’ve toned down my views. Online, it seems, the only acceptable, flame-proof stand is that the press has been hopelessly pro-government and that Singapore reporters and editors deserve nothing but contempt for their performance. Allow me to say why such conclusions, first, fail to explain what we’ve seen in the media and, second, actually help the to perpetuate the press system. In case the second point didn’t register, let me restate it: most of the critiques I’ve read and heard about the Straits Times, CNA and other media by the anti-PAP crowd play into the hands of those trying to preserve the status quo. More on that later. Let me elaborate on my observations as systematically as I can.

1. Opposition coverage has been greater and fairer than at any point in the past 30 years at least. (Sorry, none of the objections I’ve read persuades me otherwise.) This is an impressionistic observation, but I am willing to wager that it would be borne out by any more systematic study, using quantitative methods such as content analysis or qualitative methods such as framing/discourse analysis, whether it’s of stories, headlines or pictures. No doubt, students at NTU and NUS will latch on this as a possible thesis topic, so we may have better evidence within a year or two.

2. There are multiple reasons for this improvement. Within newsrooms, there have always been editors and reporters who want to do a professional job if allowed to. Externally, there is pressure from alternative media, which are competing for influence. At the top of the system, there is a government that has always recognised that it must temper its impulse to control – not out of respect for liberal ideology, but because it knows if it completely destroys the mainstream media’s credibility, it will lose its main ideological vehicle.

3. Improvements in mainstream media performance have not caught up with the expectations of more critical, questioning Singaporeans. If you did not buy points 1 and 2, point 3 explains why. The mainstream media have improved in absolute terms, but this is of little comfort to individual readers and viewers like you, who will naturally judge media performance relative to your own expectations. And expectations have risen. Most of the reasons are obvious – education, etc – but one may be less so and is worth mentioning: the press itself has raised the bar over the years by publishing more intelligent columns and especially letters.

4. The mainstream media will never catch up with, let alone lead, expectations. The PAP press system ensures this. The government makes absolutely clear that the Singapore press has no right to set the national agenda. To put it another way, the press is not allowed to be an opinion leader or in the vanguard of change as an institution (though individual columnists may occasionally be the first to make a point). That’s the role of an elected government, the PAP says. The press is instead expected to be an opinion follower, reflecting (or maybe just slightly ahead of) the broad middle ground and its mainstream values. Whenever government leaders suspect the press of moving too far too fast, it is pulled back. However, it is not just political control, but also the nature of modern journalism, that keeps the mainstream press conservative, as I try to explain in the next two points.

5. Professionally, the principle of objectivity tells journalists to treat the world as it is, not as they think it should be. Even in societies with a free press, most professional journalists would baulk at the suggestion that they should play an active role in helping to reform the dominant political order. To get around this mental block, they would need to critique their understanding of what it means to be “objective”. This debate is taking place within the profession in the West, but it is nowhere near toppling the “cult of objectivity”, as some critics call it. Thus, professional, mainstream journalism is fundamentally conservative the world over, reflecting rather than challenging the existing power structure. (Vigorous debates in the press are in invariably reflective of a divided establishment, rather than a case of press vs establishment.)

6. Financially, it makes sense for commercial media to identify most closely with the middle bulge of readers/viewers, rather than with the minorities at either end of the political/values spectrum. Again, this factor is independent of political control. But have the media correctly assessed their market? My own view is that even after allowing for the fear factor and the lack of choice, the majority of Singaporeans (and we can quibble about just how big or small a majority it is, but it’s the majority nonetheless) are strongly in favour of continued PAP rule. (So is the stock market, apparently.) There is implicit acknowledgement of this in the blogsphere, in references to “mainstream” media. Let’s be honest: all said and done, critical bloggers know they don’t speak for the mainstream market. If they did, some (like Malaysiakini or Harakah in Malaysia, under a similar regulatory regime) would try to capitalise on it and try to become more than amateurs and hobbyists.

7. Given this mix of political, professional and financial factors, it is not surprising that the mainstream media reflect, rather than challenge, PAP dominance. In this regard, the press is not unique. Every major institution and profession in Singapore, similarly, is organically and structurally linked to the status quo, which is why the PAP system is so resilient. Most of us are part of this system for better or worse. Academics, lawyers, stockbrokers, businessmen, artists – the overwhelming majority work within Singapore as it is, even if this is not quite Singapore as some think it ought to be. (For example, I have yet to meet a stockbroker who would recommend dumping a stock, including SPH stock, just to chip away at PAP dominance. Yet, there’s no shortage of finance industry types who will take a holier-than-thou attitude towards journalists whose professional judgments, like theirs, are based on current, expressed needs of their customers rather than some hypothetical market of the distant future.) The main reason why journalists get more stick is that they are more visible, and not because they are any less professional or ethical than any other professional group. (And if you think the finance industry is less relevant politically than is the press, go read your Marx.)

8. Critics who only attack the mainstream media are barking up the wrong tree. Most societies have examples of mainstream, pro-establishment media that are not sympathetic to radical or progressive forces. In other words, in many countries with a free press, you will find newspapers not very unlike The Straits Times and Today. The big difference is that in those societies, such newspapers are not given government-protected monopolies. There is media diversity, including small non-commercial, cause-driven media published for ideological reasons. For those interested in media reform, the real issue is the absence of such alternatives, which can only be addressed by reviewing the media licensing regime. As long as critics focus their fire almost exclusively on mainstream media instead of the regulatory structure, the press system will outlast them, and every criticism expressed in GE2006 will be repeated in GE2010 as it was in GE2001, GE1997, GE1991...

9. Any serious attempt at regulatory reform must address these and other questions: (a) How to ensure that freer media remain accountable to the public, when even now not all journalists act responsibly all of the time? (b) How to deal with political expression that may be inflammatory? (c) Shouldn’t the government, elected by the people, be able to do its job decisively without being encumbered by fringe media that have no responsibilities to the larger public? Liberals have ready answers to these questions, but the real challenge is to get a buy-in from the majority of Singaporeans, let alone the government itself. Until these questions are persuasively engaged and answered, the government – supported by a majority of Singaporeans who are equally wary of taking risks with their way of life - will not want media reform placed on the agenda.

10. Finally, as a journalism educator, a (longer) word about whether this profession is worth bothering with. If you have no ties to Singapore, it is entirely rational to avoid practising journalism here. It is just too difficult. However, if you are a Singaporean with a love and respect for the written word, insatiable curiosity and a questioning mind, and a sense of duty to your community, the answer is equally clear: journalism in Singapore is challenging but still meaningful. If you are intelligent and conscientious, is the public better served by you stepping into the profession, or staying out? The answer is still the former. Then, what does it take to survive as a journalist under the PAP? If the PAP mismanages the press and utterly crushes the profession, the only journalists who’ll remain are the unthinking and unethical – stupid or self-serving sycophants. This may yet happen, but thankfully it is not yet the case. As of now, individual journalists can still serve themselves, their professions, their employers and their society best by striving to be better journalists – more hardworking, more in-touch, more analytical. I don’t care if this makes me sound too idealistic or too much of an apologist. As of now, I believe it to be the case. As for the larger issues of press reform, this is beyond us as individual journalists or individual newspapers to determine. Until there are signals from the rest of Singapore society, we journalists have to take the press system as a given and work within it. As for those outside the press who take potshots from behind the safety of their own jobs and the cloak of anonymity, they are no less realistic, pragmatic, cowardly – and Singaporean – than those who work within. Elections always bring out people’s frustration with the press, like at no other time. Paradoxically, it is also around this time when accusations fly from government leaders that the press is full of radicals with a pro-opposition agenda. The government, just like liberals, has its own ideas of what Singapore should be, differing from what Singapore actually is. Faced with that contradiction, the intellectually simplest response will always be to shoot the messenger. Often, journalists deserve it, and can learn from it. But journalists who know they’ve done their best needn’t take it personally. It is part of the Singapore condition – the national dilemma of how to reconcile the benefits of a dominant party system with the need for more checks and balances. PAP dominance: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

[16 MAY UPDATE: Thanks to Alex "Yawning Bread" Au for engaging and extending the above arguments, and especially for providing some pithy examples of unbalanced coverage. Especially interesting: a case of unethical image-manipulation by CNA. See "Flat-footed and Worse" at www.yawningbread.org.]

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

...Not if your friendly senior editor is also an ISD operative.

Molly said...

I do think the mainstream media has "improved" in a way, though I believe that the improvement is never to the extent that would cause the PAP to frown. That's why it disappoints.

And any minute improvement can easily be exaggerated and co-opted into discourses about openness and so on. The real test for the media, I would say is not how it behaved during the elections, but how it would behave after the elections. After all, the election period is really a sensitive period for the media to turn radical. But if the media gradually pushes boundaries after the elections, that's where the hope lies.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cherian, Alfian here...

I think your analysis, being confined to the English media, is somewhat incomplete. I've had the opportunity to review the Malay newspapers (Berita Harian) published during the election period, and was alarmed at the almost rabid pro-PAP, anti-Opposition stance the paper was taking.

(Re: Point number 6) If indeed journalists wrote according to the needs of the market, as you have often pointed out, what does one make of BH, which is one of the least profitable newspapers under the SPH umbrella? Either the newspaper challenges itself to produce more sophisticated content evolving in tandem with a maturing readership, or it seeks some kind of bailout--in the form of government patronage.

And if that latter option is exercised, and who knows in what manner the terms of that protectorship is negotiated, I would hesitate from saying that the Singapore media merely reflects ground opinion, rather than influences it. In the absence of more in-depth analysis, I would venture to say that the Malay media has been influential in converting a 'problem minority' into some kind of 'model minority'--a perverted rhetoric contingent only on their support of the PAP.

Mezzo said...

In the last week or so, I've seen the ST being accused of a massive number of things, lack of objectivity being one of them. Apart from the obvious problematic expectations of achievable objectivity, I wonder what they would make of papers that they claim to revere, such as the NYTimes. After all, at the recent dinner involving Bush with a performance by the Daily Show's Stephen Colbert, nearly all newspapers chose to pretend that Colbert's satirical slaughter of the Bush administration never happened.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jessica here with just a couple of random questions.


1. (re: Point 8/9)What do you think would be a decisive push factor in the Government reconsidering relaxing the media licensing scheme?

It seems that the online community can bitch for all its worth, but its opinions would not very likely cause a shift since it remains a minority viewpoint.

The general public, unless prompted, would not bother with voicing an opinion on this matter, much less take it up with the Government to demand change.

Internally, well it doesn't seem likely either that SPH or MediaCorp will be at the forefront of a movement to involve alternative media.

So... how can this happen?


2. (Point 9c)"Shouldn’t the government, elected by the people, be able to do its job decisively without being encumbered by fringe media that have no responsibilities to the larger public?"

While I'm probably nitpicking, I really don't understand this reason. It brings back nightmares of Lee Hsien Loong's rhetoric at Raffles Place on how he wouldn't be distracted by opposition voices.

Is doesn't seem very likely to me, that in the event that "fringe media" is introduced, it would be that much of a distraction. Judging on previous relaxation of rules - even when they allow something new, plenty of regulations come with it.




Improving is one thing.. but there should always be critcisms, in spite of improvements. How else to improve even further?

Kelvin Lim said...

I do agree on the last point, "Faced with that contradiction, the intellectually simplest response will always be to shoot the messenger."

While I agree that it is unfair to expect that government controlled mainstream media in Singapore to be sympathetic to the progressive ideologies and that the local press are a bunch of self-serving sycophants, I am not convinced that opposition coverage has been fair and objective enough.

Call me a nitpicker, but my personal last straw was when our beloved ruling party officially unveiled its manifesto on 16th April. Spanning 6 full pages included the headlining the front of Sunday Times, the coverage provided on the vision and goals of the PAP was comprehensive, even when as far to print the 7-page manifesto verbatim.

In comparison, almost two months ago, when Workers Party launched its own 52-page manifesto, it headlined the Sunday Times with a flattering picture of time bombs as regarded by the government. Similarly, the election manifesto spelt out by Singapore People’s Party on its website was surmised in an article that occupied less than a quarter of a page.

I guess I can only wait for media regulatory reforms to encourage more media diversity.

Richard said...

I think a more appropriate title would be "Confessions of a Singapore Journalist".

Your points touched on the known disappointments of the intellectual space in Singapore, and I bet most of the thinkers, ie minority and silent; are not surprised by the mainstream press during this election:

"You guys did as expected buddy, still room for improvement"

let me summarise from your blog:
#1,2,3 self congratulatory
#4,8,9 PAP Press System
#5, 10 Personal fear of objectivity, educator or scribe?
#6 professional class as Pro-Government, its a no brainer: bite the hand that feeds? more sinister: make hay while the sun shines, leave when it rains?

My take: What we didnt read speaks louder than what was printed, and I wonder, did we just have an election, or did we go through the motion of having one?

Deep in the Depths of the Establishment, I hope someone is checking-off on some to-do list; the key points raised on the cost of living: for the less connected and less well to do. (We shouldnt debate if these are a majority, until some Means Tests tell us)

Meanwhile, I need to buckle down to continue my rat race.. by the way, here's a suggestion for your next blog "Emperor's New Clothes"?

Anonymous said...

Hello, readers are not stupid. From the selection and layout of pictures used in the newspaper and the underlying tones used, it's not hard to draw a conclusion. We just want a more balance reporting.

tsft said...

Does 'progress' really apply in this case? I think journalists are either honest (to the best of their knowledge) or they are not (whether that is 50% honest today or 75% honest today)– or perhaps you have a different way of seeing that.

I still don't have a high opinion of the local media, but it is not because I despise its lack of objectivity - I tolerate it better than most because my education involves absorbing more bias than is dispensed by the local newspapers.

I enjoy reading UK newspapers and newsmagazines, and none of them pretend to be objective, but I find that this helps honest and open dialogue. (Slate's Michael Kinsley explains this at length much better than I can manage here: http://www.slate.com/id/2139042/)

Is it too much for the Straits Times to publish even one well-written letter in criticism (of the newspaper, at least)? The letters section of every Economist (and Guardian Weekly) has at least one accusing this and that writer of incompetence and lack of understanding – and nobody is spared.

The local equivalent can be summed up in a recent event: an Australian newspaper's criticisms about a spirited defence of the death penalty by Andy Ho – not most people's favourite ST columnist – which invited an unsavoury retort challenging anybody in said newspaper's newsroom to match up to his academic credentials.

My question is: do you think today's media are more intellectually honest than they used to be? Why should they be, anyway?

tsft said...

I meant today's local media.

Agagooga said...

aki has a response: http://akikonomu.blogspot.com/2006/05/singapore-urban-legends-part-deux.html

James Yap said...

Hi.I chanced upon this website and would just would like to comment that my interpretation on the centrality of your article is the question of whether journalists should be held to a higher measure on their sense of equity, not so much in the creation or advocation of an opinion but to objectively provide information on all aspects of an argument.

Perhaps its a question of my expectations but i'm quite disappointed that the aforementioned question even needs to be asked.

Yuez said...

Hi there, I chanced across this blog for the first time and found it very in depth in analysis regarding the recent GE. I happen to be enrolling in NTU CS in 2008, just that I am now currently serving NS, thus I am quite pleasantly surprised to find a blog written by a CS professor here.

In your 8th point, you wrote that its is more of the regulatory structure of the media, rather than the mainstream media itself, that is the crucial factor behind the lack of radical views in our main newspapers.

But what I read from historical sources and personal accounts, is that there were already various alternative newspapers that flourished in the 60s and 70s, such as the Nanyang Siang Pau and Singapore Herald. Apparantly, they were both forcefully shut down on the grounds that these papers engaged in communist or espionage activities.

In the background of the ruling party hostile attitude towards alternative, independent newspapers that disagreed with with their agenda, it is very hard for independent newspapers to survive in Singapore's political climate afterall. The defamation suit caused by Dr Chee's allegations in the New Democrat seems to mirror the numerous lawsuits brought to new agencies int the past, local or foreign.

Thus although critics seem to be barking up the wrong tree, the other tree dosen't seem to bringing much promise for change either.

Anonymous said...

I did not manage to catch any opposition rally due to the jammed sessions that accompanied each of them. Sadly, we get to known/hear this only not thru the press/radio or CNA. It is a clear evidence of the biased reporting. I personally experience one WP jammed packed session and had to turn back due to no parking space in sight.

I follow closely the news, on TV and radio. the views and scenario painted was all pro-PAP and all the vote-buying, scare tactics and threats being blare out. Just by the TV/radio propaganda alone, i was almost certain that hougang and potong pasir will be swallow up by PAP this time round. Luckily, the people in PP and HG has more intelligence and guts than to succumb to the biased and painting of untruths in the press/TV. The people of HG and PP should be respected for their true courage. a big thank you to THEM. As for the press, the most shameful thing is they trying to evoke sympathy in showing the PM choking tears. come on lah, this is the 21st century, not the War years. its so PAP patronising. yuck!.

Blueheeler - the dog that sniffs out fishy news said...

On a related issue, I found yeocheowtong dot c o m. It's really NOT what you think it is...
What refreshing audacity! Why has this site not been shut yet, I wonder? You mean that there are really places beyond the reach of the octopus? Haha

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