The mainstream media will always be one step behind the curve of societal change unless existing press controls in Singapore are seriously reviewed, said media analysts and journalism veterans Cherian George and P N Balji.
Further, the mainstream media -- national newspapers, radio and television -- continues to pursue what George calls a “moving target” of public expectations of the types of things that are reported in news sources, and the reason for this is a system of conservative controls still in place.
“I think this is not an accident,” said George, who with Balji was addressing students, members of the public, academia and media professionals at an hour-long dialogue at the Peranakan Museum organised in conjunction with the Singapore Writers’ Festival on Saturday morning.
Balji was the first editor-in-chief at the TODAY newspaper, also holding deputy editor positions at The Straits Times and The New Paper, helping the latter publication from its beginnings in 1988. George is a respected media academic and associate professor in journalism at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, having himself previously spent a decade at The Straits Times as well.
“The system is designed to ensure that the mainstream press is always slightly behind the curve. It’s never an avant-garde institution," said George.
“The whole reason for press controls is to ensure that the mainstream press are not an unadulterated reflection of popular opinion, and certainly not a vehicle for the most progressive forces in society... (instead) to ensure that the mainstream press is largely a centrist conservative institution,” he continued.
“So as Singapore evolves, yes, the mainstream press will evolve with it, but will always be structurally behind the curve. And to me there’s no way that you can expect the press to play a leading intellectual role until you take a look at those press controls.”
Government the biggest loser
In fact, the party that stands to lose the most in a lagging mainstream media is the government, adds Balji.
“My view is that if the mainstream media continues to be behind the curve, the biggest loser is the government because the eyeballs will move away from the mainstream media — (and they’re) already moving,” said the former newspaper veteran.
“There’s no other platform for the government to get across its messages, (so) why is the government still continuing with this approach (in using its press controls)? My guess is they don’t think they have reached the danger zone yet... maybe they think they can still hold the ground,” he added.
Cherian noted also that because the Internet has emerged as a platform from which attacks at the government are launched every day, the latter now may feel it has no choice but to guard its control of the mainstream media even more carefully.
“It (the government) now relies on the mainstream media to give its point of view in a way that would not get the time of day online,” he said, explaining that it is also possible that its closer guardianship of the mainstream is a policy response to the rise of voices in the online space.
“(It) could be precisely because things are changing so fast that you have to hold on to the centre, and that centre is the mainstream media, because we (the government) can’t control anything else.”
Biggest sin in journalism: Self-censorship
What exacerbates the situation, add both George and Balji, is that journalists and editors today are not doing enough to push what were previously recognised in Singapore’s media space as out-of-bound or “OB markers”.
“The biggest sin in Singapore journalism is self-censorship,” said Balji.
“The first question is, who sets OB markers? The government does, let’s accept that. But do OB markers remain as society changes? As people change, and we have seen with online media, OB markers have to change.
“But the government that sets the OB markers doesn’t tell you they’re changed, so how do you know the OB markers have changed? That can only come about if you test the waters,” he continued.
“I get the sense that the media generally is not active in testing OB markers, (and) my view is that the media, and to a certain extent the country, will pay a big price (for not doing so).”
George explained further that members of the mainstream press are further limited by these OB markers, because their jobs are ultimately determined by boards and directors who are “indirectly but essentially appointed by the government”.
“I think testing the OB markers requires quite a clinical calculation, and ultimately depends on your values,” he said, explaining that this could sometimes involve either being looked at with distrust, having a glass ceiling imposed on one’s promotion or even being blacklisted.
“Unfortunately I don’t see enough journalists going through those calculations and deciding—what’s the harm in testing rules and OB markers? What’s the worst that can happen to me? And so what if you’re blacklisted? So what if you’re looked at with a certain amount of distrust?”
He also pointed out that Singapore’s climate is still not as severely repressed as in authoritarian states where journalists are liable to jail sentences for crossing lines.
Balji reinforced this view, too, sharing that there were instances in the past where journalists stood up to political heavyweights like former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and in some cases paid the price accordingly.
“Now we have come to the era with a bit more openness, and I would have expected now for the testing of waters to be a bit more robust. But actually I’m quite surprised, even shocked, that this actually doesn’t happen as much as it should now,” he said.
“The mainstream media seems to have withdrawn even more into a shell... I think the testing of water should be more robust, but it really isn’t.”