Covering a changing political landscape: the challenge for national media



September 13th, 2011


This article is based on a talk given at a Singapore Press Club forum on Reporting the 2011 Elections on 13 September 2011 at the SPH Auditorium.

This year’s elections did not fundamentally alter Singapore’s power structure, but they have transformed the political landscape that the powerful must traverse. The terrain has become more competitive and less predictable.

This affects our national media in two ways. The good news for professional journalists is that the Singapore story is becoming a lot more interesting. We know that more voices make for a better story and there are certainly more voices to report now.

Even if not all those voices speak sense, an active conversation is more engaging than a monologue and ultimately more likely to enlighten, especially when facilitated by media that feed that conversation with facts, context, reasoned analysis and thought-provoking commentary. After the Presidential Election, for example, it was widely recognised that the debate had been educational for Singapore’s polity. A more open and inclusive dialogue is good for democracy and good for journalism.

The second way in which the news media are affected presents more of a challenge. The terrain has changed not just for newsmakers but also for the press as an establishment institution.

For the national media, it’s not just a question of keeping eyes and ears open to report the changes around them. They also have to decide where to stand and when to move, if they want to play their role effectively without being either swept aside by the tide of change, or run down by conservatives who want to blame the media for their setbacks.

What won’t change anytime soon is the core principle of Singapore’s media system, that freedom of the press must be subordinate to the needs of governance. Singapore’s licensed news organisations have no choice but to work within these bounds.

But it’s important to note that the official justification for media subordination was never that leaders have a mandate from heaven or a god-given right to rule. Ever since the principle was articulated by Lee Kuan Yew in 1971, it’s been justified in democratic terms: it is the “purpose of an elected government” that must have primacy over press freedom. Our government is the embodiment of people’s will whereas nobody voted for the press, the theory goes.

Logically, this principle requires the media to be independent during elections. Since the press is one of the main avenues for political parties to present themselves to voters and for voters to learn about their choices, independent and well functioning media are essential for free and fair elections.

Therefore, government control of the press, by its own argument, cannot be unlimited. To the extent that government control interferes with the role of the press in connecting candidates to voters, the democratic justification for that control is weakened. True, nobody elected the press, but if this important democratic institution is seriously undermined, the government can’t claim to be freely and fairly elected either.

This is why even Singaporeans who are not schooled in democratic theory and who show no great appetite for removing the PAP from power are nevertheless sensitive about any unfairness they perceive in election coverage by national newspapers and broadcasters.

But what does it mean to be fair and balanced in the context of what is, in effect, a dominant party state?

Does scrupulous fairness demand equal weight for every party, such that the Singapore Democratic Alliance, one of seven groups contesting this year’s GE, gets one-seventh of space and airtime?

Or perhaps we should base coverage on the number of seats contested. In which case, in the run-up to the Presidential Election, should the media have devoted as much attention to Ooi Boon Ewe and Andrew Kuan as they did to the Tan Quartet?

Or what if Tan Lead Shake’s Democratic Progressive Party has enough candidates with enough money to contest every seat in the 2016 election. Should the press then give it equal coverage to the PAP – and more than it gives to the Workers’ Party and SDP – just because the DPP has found 87 men and women who are not below 21, not undischarged bankrupts, not declared of unsound mind and not ex-convicts?

The Elections Department is constitutionally required to preserve the fiction that all candidates are equal. But should the press do so? We would expect journalists to exercise judgment and not be mindlessly balanced.

Accordingly, the free press in Britain sees no obligation to give equal coverage to the Monster Raving Loony Party, for example. The BBC is mandated to be impartial, but its editorial guidelines say that “impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions”.

“Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’.  For example, minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus,” it says, adding, “Nevertheless, the omission of an important perspective, in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality.”

In other words, the media should exercise certain qualitative judgments to provide a diversity of opinion but also ensure that its limited time and space – and more importantly the audience’s limited attention – is not wasted on loony and fringe views.

The press in free societies also gives less attention to politicians who are unlikely to make a practical difference to people’s lives – even if they have something important to say.

Green Parties have an important message for the electorate, but the New York Times is less likely to give coverage to the American Green Party than Die Welt gives to the German Green Party, simply because the latter is more likely to be part of a ruling coalition in Germany’s proportional representation system.

Similarly, the American press treats its Presidential Election as a two-horse race even though Ralph Nader has been contested the last five elections. Conversely, in Britain, policy alternatives mooted by the Shadow Chancellor are given significant coverage because there is a realistic chance in Britain’s two-and-a-half party system that the Shadow Chancellor in this term of Parliament will be the Chancellor in the next.

In Singapore, no matter how credible the blueprints of the opposition are, we should not be surprised if journalists exercising independent news judgment conclude that any statement from Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is more newsworthy than Tan Jee Say’s alternative economic plan. Tan may move hearts, but Tharman moves markets and affects the economic decisions that households and firms make tomorrow.

Mainstream journalism aims to report the news as it is, not the news as it should be.

But what are the implications of this fairly universal approach to journalism in a country with a hegemonic, dominant party? By treating alternatives as less newsworthy because there is so little chance of these alternatives becoming reality, is there not a danger of journalism being biased for the status quo and contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Absolutely. This is why, as a vital supplement to mainstream journalism, we should value alternative media, including partisan journalism, where what is today’s fringe is given the chance to flower into tomorrow’s mainstream.

The vibrant alternative online space does not, however, absolve mainstream journalism of grappling seriously with the dilemma of how the establishment press can remain relevant a time of extraordinary change in Singapore’s political culture.

Journalists will somehow have to keep their feet on the ground and recognise the reality that the PAP government remains the most newsworthy newsmaker for at least another 10 years, while at the same time facilitating discussion of the range of alternative ideas and visions being explored outside of Cabinet – on the fringes of the PAP, within the Opposition, in universities, online forums and in civil society.

The leading opposition parties in Singapore are, right now, neither as inconsequential as the Monster Raving Loony Party nor as significant as the opposition Labour Party in the UK. They fall somewhere in between. Which end of the spectrum they are closer to, and how much weight they are due, is one of the most important strategic assessments that the national media will have to make in the coming years. Get it wrong and Singapore’s press will – not for the first time – find itself on the wrong side of history.

Whatever principles and strategies the media settle on to play their role in this evolving landscape, I would urge them to be transparent about it and to be ready to account for it. Gone are the days when the media could simply brush aside critics with stock phrases like “we stand by our coverage” when criticised. The public now demands greater accountability from all establishment institutions, including the press.

I am hopeful that this is in journalism’s interest: in many cases, more transparency and more communication about why the media do what they do will not only push journalists to improve their quality, but will also earn respect, however grudging, from fair-minded Singaporeans.

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