February 24th, 2013
by GABRIEL WONG HONG ZHE
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims in exalting terms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Proponents of press freedom have often emphasised its importance in the democratization process: how it serves as a watchdog on the government, as a civic forum to promote informed discourse, and as an agenda-setter to highlight issues of pressing social and public concern. As Amartya Sen famously argued, the Fourth Estate ensures government is accountable and responsive to issue of national exigency as seen in how “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press”.
However, few have explored the benefits of a free press to a government already in power. It is often assumed that a free and aggressive press perpetually airing government follies is incompatible with political longevity. Ruling parties have little to gain from a hostile press, and they often respond with equal hostility, seeking to squash it with whatever the legal tools are at their disposal. In the case of Far Eastern Economic Review V. Lee Hsien Loong (2009), the “Reynolds defense” – a test utilised by the UK House of Lords to protect journalists from defamation suits if they behaved “responsibly” – was thrown out on grounds that “there is no room in our political context for the media to engage in investigative journalism which carries with it a political agenda”.
Is it however possible that a free press, in addition to serving as a check-and-balance on government, can actually serve as a feedback mechanism to keep the government attuned and adaptable to changing political winds? Could a truly free and independent press, rather than a fawning one, have alerted the government to major policy missteps or miscommunications, such as the recent White Paper on Population, before it is too late to contain swelling public anger? And could a free press possibly help rouse a ruling party when it slumbers dangerously into group-think and potential political suicide?
The answer is often yes. Firstly, an independent media can provide genuine feedback for policymakers through credible opinion polling, as was the case in United States where an average of all opinion polls was able to predict the popular vote-count of the recently concluded US presidential elections to an accuracy of less than half a percentage point. Such credible polling—unlike the shoddy and much maligned Straits Times straw poll of 50 voters before the Punggol East by–election—allows political parties, especially the ruling party, to calibrate their election campaign to the mood of the electorate and avoid being wrong-footed by shifts in sentiment, which was the case in the Punggol East by-election where PAP activists and political observers alike where shocked by the Workers’ Party’s thumping victory. Credible opinion polling can also highlight public sentiments on key issues, and deliberative opinion polling (which involves polling members of the public before and after they are informed of key arguments for and against a pertinent public policy issue to see how persuaded they are by certain justifications) can help the ruling party craft arguments more likely to strike a chord with Singaporeans.
Secondly, by providing a genuine forum for public feedback, an independent press keeps the ruling party abreast of alternative viewpoints and allows them to craft effective counter-arguments and rebuttals. This is the case even in sharply partisan new outlets, such as Fox News in America, for even they reflect the views of the segment of the population that regularly tunes into their programmes. By responding to criticism – even those bordering on the absurd – politicians are better able to chisel and craft their pitch to voters. Analysts, in their post-mortem of the US Presidential elections, often note that President Obama would often give interviews on hostile news networks like Fox News; a stark contrast to his opponent Mitt Romney, who would prefer to be treated with kids gloves by friendly journalists. By taking on a hostile media, President Obama was effective in sharpening his arguments towards swing voters with decisive effects on the campaign trail.
Thirdly, an independent press can effectively counter group-think. The PAP, a successful and homogenous ruling party with candidates of similar elite backgrounds, is highly susceptible to group-think; where surrounded by like-minded individuals, individuals are often unable to consider alternative viewpoints. The White Paper on Population was most probably such an exercise. Heavily slanted towards economics, specifically ensuring continued economic growth, it ignores other sociological and ethical considerations that should also determine public policy. Worse, its writers had the hubris not to cite their sources.
Often, a truly independent press can provide timely counsel to policy-makers on errors of judgement to prevent embarrassments. This too was pointed out in OB Markers, when Straits Times journalists unsuccessfully tried to persuade Lee Kuan Yew not to publish Chiam See Tong’s dismal O level results. They rightly noted that, rather than discrediting him, it would endear him to the electorate. The PAP refused to listen, and the rest is history. A free press is not just reciprocal with democratisation, but also ensures the ruling party’s continued adroitness. What is more dangerous, however, is not a biased press, but rather, the false belief in an independent press.
From the onset, Singapore’s media ownership is an international quirk. With the avowed aim of preventing partisan media moguls from hijacking media outlets to propagate political goals (even though a hostile partisan media can have benefits for the ruling party), the ownership of Singapore’s media has been entrusted into the hands in Singapore’s bankers, because they have an interest in Singapore’s “stability” (which some Singaporeans believe is double-speak for PAP longevity, although that is beside the point). Rather, as the financial crisis has shown, bankers on their own accord can have motives far from altruistic. Granting them control of Singapore’s media networks can result in an overtly pro-business slant at the expense of other indicators of social progress.
Although censorship’s knuckle-duster era is long departed, members of the mainstream media may still seek to ingratiate themselves with the authorities that be, by proffering excessively rose-tinted coverage, for instance, grossly underestimating turnout at Opposition rallies. They may also be inclined to self-censor or censor unfavourable political happenings until cyberspace buzz makes such a position untenable. What results is reporting disguised as balanced coverage which is highly unrepresentative of street sentiment.
Convinced of an “impartial” mainstream media, policy-makers are highly susceptible to the “confirmation bias”, erroneously interpreting favourable media coverage as indicative of their policies’ success. Given the vitriol that often pervades alternative online media sites, policy-makers and ruling party politicians can often rightly dismiss it as the work of extremists. The resulting lack of proper feedback channels can heighten group-think, creating an illusionary bubble where their policies seem perfect, which can seriously impair their judgements.
An independent media is thus needed to perform the role of Tang Dynasty courtier Wei Zheng, to adapt Chen Show Mao’s analogy, and warn the government of flawed decisions. Unlike an elected opposition, an independent media would have less of a political agenda, and hence more likely to have the government’s receptive ear.
Contrary to popular belief, an impartial media can politically benefit the ruling party. The converse is also true. I offer a cautionary tale of trusting a falsely independent media: Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China, President and warlord Yuan Shikai was considering declaring himself Emperor. As he vacillated, his sons, with clear interests in succession, decided to give him a nudge, coercing local Beijing newspapers to publish unsubstantiated reports of nation-wide appeals for Yuan to be the monarch which he gullibly believed. The result was unmitigated disaster: not only did widespread rebellions force him to curtail his reign 83 days into ascension, but his ill-considered move irreversibly set back the democratic process in China.
It is prudent to heed the lessons of history, for unlike the press, they do not add lipsticks to pigs, although that too is a debate for another day.
– Gabriel Wong is a Year 5 student at Raffles Institution. He has written for Lianhe Zaobao on education and art. Gabriel contributed this article to Journalism.SG.