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.]