Meaningful Journalism 

CHANGE of political landscapes, removal of knuckledusters tactics, trades-offs, protecting younger employees. Have a read on former ST editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng’s pointers:

Contrary to public perception, the Government did not use the mailed fist during my tenure as newsroom head.

That era was over. It was more sophisticated in dealing with troublesome writers. (It) often responded privately and occasionally publicly and robustly to columns through the Forum pages. Only on a few occasions was I under pressure to remove the writer from the paper. I was fortunate I had in Lim Kim San an executive chairman who agreed that we had to protect our writers.

If we did not, how could we continue to attract able young people to take up journalism? Besides, the writers could not be held solely responsible since editors cleared their work. I had ultimate responsibility because, unless I was out of town, I would usually have read the column before publication. It was not uncommon for editors to challenge some of the writers’ views or to point out another way of looking at an issue. Editors could not therefore distance themselves from what was published…

The newsroom need not unduly worry that OB markers will handicap staff in practising meaningful journalism. There are strong safeguards against threats to editorial integrity.

First, political conditions have changed. The public wants an even greater say in how they are governed. The power of the vote was evident in the 2011 general election, when a more assertive electorate took even the PAP by surprise.

There was a sharp edge to the criticism openly aired, even from those who benefited most from PAP rule. Those who felt left behind, as Singapore raced to stay at the forefront of the First World, made their feelings known.

Second, policy trade-offs have to be made, more than ever before. For example, first-time buyers of HDB flats want the cost lowered, but existing homeowners want the value of their homes to go up. Those who protest against the growing population of foreigners also want better public infrastructure, higher service standards in restaurants and shops, and faster economic growth. Without foreign labour, those needs cannot be met.

Younger workers want career advancement, which requires high growth, but the growing retiree population wants lower growth so costs can be contained and pressure on public services like transport eased. Competing demands have never been greater.

Globalisation is best for Singapore, but it exacts a painful price – a yawning income gap. The Straits Times cannot be stopped from reflecting the whole range of diverse needs and opinions.

Third, the knuckleduster methods of the past in dealing with media deemed unfriendly to the Government are obsolete. Under present conditions, I cannot see the Internal Security Act being used or The Straits Times losing its publishing licence. Indeed, taking the tough line would be counter-productive.

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the Government veto powers over who gets to edit newspapers. But how many leadership changes can be forced on the newsroom? Whoever is put in charge cannot be expected to ignore the changed political conditions without inflicting a mortal blow to its editorial integrity, at great cost also to the PAP and Singapore.

Fourth, mainstream media cannot ignore the growing weight of new media or its shortcomings will be quickly exposed. Online content has become a real competitor for eyeballs. If The Straits Times ignores issues widely aired in cyberspace, it will lose readers. New media has moved the OB markers, further expanding the fairways.

No media organisation in Singapore has a burden greater than The Straits Times in negotiating the fairways to avoid going OB. In the English media market, no one else commands as extensive a reach… I cannot see another paid newspaper emerging in Singapore. Time and again, launching one to rival The Straits Times had proven ruinously expensive. To have a fighting chance, it must take an editorial position sufficiently differentiated from The Straits Times. In a state dominated by one party, the prospect for such an alternative to The Straits Times is virtually zero.

Hence, in terms of influence on public opinion in Singapore, The Straits Times is unmatched in the English media market for a long time to come. Even in a more politically pluralistic Singapore, the scope for two viable English-language paid newspapers is small.

For this reason, our journalists have an important role to uphold Singapore’s best interests, because an economically vibrant country can best secure the paper’s future.

The Straits Times occupies a large public space that can be used to help decision-making. In an environment where views are now actively encouraged by policy makers and where the noise in cyberspace is getting louder, the paper provides a source of accurate information about Singapore and the world, and space to accommodate all shades of opinion where calm analysis prevails over histrionics. Readers can also benefit from knowing clearly what it stands for so they can better assess what they read.


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