May 27th, 2009
Nominated MP Thio Li-Ann devoted a portion (about 15%) of her speech in Parliament to criticising The Straits Times – without naming the paper – for its coverage of the recent AWARE controversy. Ms Thio’s mother, Thio Su-Mien, played a leading role in the unsuccessful takeover of AWARE.*
When it comes to moral disagreements and public policy, the press is powerfully positioned to promote informed debate. However the press may, by biased and selective reporting, misrepresent, distort or obscure an issue. We need to broaden our understanding of responsible journalism in Singapore, which, to borrow a canine metaphor, rejects the extremes of an adversarial American watchdog and a Pravda-like lapdog, or running-dog. The Singapore press is expected to promote nation-building, help forge consensus and facilitate consultative democracy.
Journalists are entitled, like all citizens, to have their own opinions; however, they do a disservice if they report contentious issues in a one-sided fashion. This misinforms rather than informs. The principle must always be to hear both sides, canvass all perspectives.
The feedback I received from friends and strangers on the reporting of the AWARE controversy, which was disquieting enough for the President to reference, was that much of the reporting, particularly in one paper, was biased; it largely lacked a diversity of views in singing the same chorus that religious groups should not get involved in secular organizations. Emails I received described how many perceived some reporting as being “slanted”, “personal and spiteful”, “too smug”, “self-righteous” and “irresponsible.” Some spoke of their new lists of “fair” and “unfair” journalists.
The proper limits of religious activism is certainly a valid issue that arose, but there were other issues, such as whether a religious group was involved, as opposed to individuals with a religious faith. Another interesting enquiry would be whether it was really a debate about values rather than religious overstepping. Any attention given to this issue was strangely subdued.
It was hard to shake the impression that certain journalists were playing the ‘I don’t like your views so I will play the religionists are imposing their values card.’ This was very disappointing. When is a reporter reporting, and when playing an advocate? We do not want to arrive at the place where, as Mark Twain put it: If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.
Today published an insightful online letter on May 5 which fairly commented that the biased reporting not only distorted the issue but may have lent fuel to fire in inciting hatred and ill-will against a religious minority. The author wondered whether the “highly inappropriate” linking of personalities to their “personal religious beliefs” exacerbated “the tension that led to death threats and call for boycott.” He called for the censure of “such lines of reporting that incite religious intolerance, by speculating one’s motive based on personal faith” Irresponsible reporting can threaten social harmony and undermine social cohesion. How is journalistic autonomy, integrity and accountability to be secured?
Responsible journalism should extend to covering a diversity of views, not a journalist’s preferred view. It should include the accurate and most effective representation of differing viewpoints, and not paint the fringe as mainstream or the pathological as normal. Readers may then see all sides of an issue and decide what is true, accurate and sound, in the spirit of participatory democracy.
This is important given the near monopolistic position of Singapore broadsheets. A lawyer recently returned from London wrote to me expressing horror in finding local papers apparently had nothing better to report than the AWARE saga, as opposed to the more interesting British papers which offered a lot more variety.
This made me somewhat nostalgic for my student days in Cambridge, where I could, with chocolate croissant and Nescafe coffee in hand, survey a range of perspectives from the Times, Guardian, Independent or Telegraph.
* In the prepared text of her speech, the NMP did not declare her interest. It is not known yet if she did so verbally in Parliament.