Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.
Politics is a dirty business, elections even more so. It’s hardly surprising that a poison pen about a candidate was sent to the press; whether it’s to make an opponent look bad or stoke up more public sympathy and support, there is no shortage of people with agendas when the stakes are high.
What’s more disappointing, though, is the way the mainstream media took the bait when they received allegations that Workers’ Party candidate Dr Daniel Goh had had an affair with a former student. The letter, sent to newsrooms as well as the Workers’ Party, was signed off by a “Max Chan” and also alleged that the former student’s boyfriend had found out about the affair.
The media ran the story. It was, in my opinion, a shockingly bad editorial decision. Dr Goh’s refutation of the allegations was of course included, but the story should never have run in the first place.
Firstly, there are many unanswered questions related to the identity of the letter-writer: who is he? Is Max Chan his real name? How is he connected to either Dr Goh or the female student? How did he come to know about this alleged affair? What is his motivation for writing the letter? What is his motivation for writing the letter now, when Dr Goh has openly been a member of the Workers’ Party for quite some time?
Then there’s the question of evidence. The letter-writer had apparently claimed that the student’s boyfriend had found out about the affair through their phone messages, but failed to provide a copy of these messages to substantiate his allegations. In fact, there was no evidence provided at all.
So all the media had was a letter of dubious providence, and a denial from the subject of the allegations. They had no evidence to catch the candidate out on a lie. There should therefore have been no story. And yet it ran.
I find it hard to believe that the mainstream press has no mechanism to deal with such situations. Tips, letters and comment must stream into newsrooms all the time; even as an independent journalist I get people writing to me with rumours, allegations, theories and commentary. It’s not a new practice for journalists and editors to weed out the good tips from the bad, so why did the mainstream media get it so wrong?
This bizarre decision has naturally prompted questions. Why did the mainstream press decide to run the story with such little evidence? Is this standard practice for local newsrooms? If not, why Dr Goh and why now? Would the media have done the same to any other candidate, even a PAP one?
There’s been a boom in alternative media sites since the last election, but the mainstream media still dominates in terms of newsgathering power and readership. For Singaporeans with no ability or desire to get online, traditional media is the only source of information. So while candidates are being reminded by the Elections Department to steer clear of negative campaigning and conduct a clean campaign, the mainstream media too should be reminded to stay out of the gutter.