Editorial independence of SPH is a 'given': SPH Media chair Khaw Boon Wan

Singapore Press Holdings Media chairman-designate Khaw Boon Wan addresses reporters on Wednesday, 12 May 2021. (SCREENGRAB: The Straits Times)
Singapore Press Holdings Media chairman-designate Khaw Boon Wan addresses reporters on Wednesday, 12 May 2021. (SCREENGRAB: The Straits Times)

SINGAPORE — The editorial independence of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) journalists is a "given", said Khaw Boon Wan, chairman-designate of SPH Media, on Wednesday (12 May).

Yahoo News Singapore understands that Khaw was speaking during an internal town hall meeting, which was live-streamed to SPH employees, with representatives of the various SPH newsrooms prior to a scheduled press conference.

Khaw said, "We are trying to ensure that SPH Media can continue to be trusted, and to be so it must be credible, objective, fact-based, professional, knowing what is Singapore values, Singapore interests...So why should we want to undermine that when that is the precise objective of the project?"

He added, "Let's say, you make the newsroom the mouthpiece of the government, or worse, the party. I think that (will) completely destroy what we are trying to achieve, and therefore, you will fail."

The 68-year-old was responding to a question from a Straits Times journalist about his views on editorial credibility and integrity. The journalist had said, "While we understand that total freedom of the press is not something that may work in Singapore, I do believe that journalists need enough freedom and enough latitude to be able to be credible."

Khaw also assured that there would be a "competitive reward system" to recruit and retain talent, adding that he would look into getting "additional resources" to help out the respective newsrooms. "Bottom line is this, that it is talent that creates products. Without talent, there are no products."

Patrick Daniel, who was named interim CEO of SPH Media on Wednesday, and Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH's flagship title The Straits Times, were also present at the town hall.

Khaw was named chairman of SPH's not-for-profit media business on Monday. The media business will be restructured into a not-for-profit entity under a company limited by guarantee (CLG) with management shareholders.

'Strong support' from government

In a speech at the same session, the former transport minister had said that having trusted sources of news and information remains critical to nation building, stressing that SPH Media has the "strong support" of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the government.

"While we must offer a range of viewpoints, we must not go down the path of divisive and corrosive media, or clickbait journalism that panders to eyeballs but fails to inform or educate readers," said Khaw, adding that taking a long-term perspective of Singapore’s interests and reporting the news for Singaporeans through Singaporean eyes is key.

Khaw added that financial support from the government is also important. "Without regular and substantial financial support from the Government, SPH Media will soon be insolvent. It will be a struggle to sustain quality journalism as a public good."

'I am out of my depth here'

In a press conference held after the town hall, Khaw was asked about a 2017 incident where he told off media outlets over their coverage of the MRT resignalling project "because they've magnified the problem unfairly".

Khaw, who retired from politics last year, had said resignalling was "a very complex" task. But the media, he said, "think it's so easy... like holding a pen and writing a few articles, and get the signalling done".

One journalist asked whether the incident signified that he does not understand the tenets of journalism. In response, Khaw, admitting that he is not a "media man", stressed that he would let SPH journalists get on with their work. "I don't know how to be a journalist...I'm out of my depth here. And therefore, how can I interfere in newsroom, when I don't know what I'm talking about?

"So I know what I'm coming in here for, and I have certain value add that I bring to the CLG, and I will make sure I deliver on what I can deliver."

Khaw was also asked if SPH would retain its subscription model. Noting that he has "strong views" about pricing and subscription, Khaw said that a paid model would compel journalists to adhere to higher standards. "This paid model forces us to make sure you are (doing) a lot more analytical, deeper analysis, and more importantly, original insights, which I can't get from the competition.

"So it's a higher pressure on ourselves, deliberately so that we know are we doing the right thing, that the customers find it valuable."

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