S Iswaran & Pritam Singh joust over editorial independence of new CLG overseeing SPH's media

Iswaran cited both international and local surveys that showed high levels of trust in the local media by Singaporeans.

Sulaiman Daud | Syahindah Ishak | May 10, 2021, 06:28 PM

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The Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) previously announced its plans to transfer its media business to a not-for-profit company.

Communications and Information minister S Iswaran said in his ministerial statement in Parliament on May 10 that the government is willing to fund the Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) in areas like digital innovation and capability development as part of a long-term, sustainable business plan.

"We already have a similar financing model with Mediacorp, our core national broadcaster, which has been working well," he added.

Editorial independence and trust in media

Following Iswaran's statement, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh raised five clarifications, including one that questioned the SPH CLG's editorial independence from possible government interference.

Singh asked if there were any structures in place to ensure the CLG's independence and to foster a culture of editorial independence, and if the government would consider the formation of a select committee to allow members of the public to express the editorial standards they expect from the "CLG's taxpayer-funded mainstream media".

In his reply, Iswaran said that the culture of editorial independence already exists in Singapore's news media. He added that it would do a "disservice" to journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary.

He pointed to surveys indicating that Singaporeans have high trust in the local news media, and that SPH's news organisations have not just maintained but grown their reach and readership, taking both print and digital formats into account.

"That would not be the case if Singaporeans did not feel that they could trust the news organisation. So I think the people have spoken, and I think it's our job now to make sure the object of their trust continues to succeed."

Iswaran earlier said in his ministerial statement that SPH papers' total circulation grew by 5 per cent from 2017 to 2020. He noted that ST's print and digital circulation has grown by about 20 per cent.

    Government funding

    Singh also asked when the government had informed SPH that it was willing to extend grants to support the media business.

    He then questioned the size of the funding the government has penciled yearly to support the CLG and if the government aims to cap the grants it extends, with the expectation that the CLG will also secure other sources of funding.

    On when the government informed SPH of its willingness to fund SPH Media, Iswaran said:

    "The government has always taken the position that we are willing to support investments in capability development, and then it is up to the respective organisations to develop their plan, and to put forward their proposals to us."

    Iswaran added that in the case of SPH specifically, it had received Jobs Support Scheme (JSS)  support last year. The government was also prepared to offer extra help if it was required. However, the restructuring proposal was put forward.

    On Singh's question on other sources of funding, and whether government funding to the CLG will be capped, Iswaran said that it is "premature" to specify the exact numbers, in regard to the government funding, as SPH's restructuring proposal is still pending the approval of its shareholders.

    He added that it is not just about the shareholders' approval, and that the new CLG will also need to formulate its plans and put them on the table.

    Iswaran said that these plans would have to cover the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role government funding will play in that matrix.

    In addition, Iswaran said that the government "fully expect[s]" the media entity to continue to pursue business on a commercial basis, and seek revenue through advertising and subscriptions, as well as to seek out other sources of funding.

    Singh: Select committee to find out what public wants

    In another follow-up question, Singh said that members of his generation will remember a certain headline in an issue of The New Paper (TNP) in 1997 around the time of the general election.

    "It was a checklist to help you decide how to vote. Minister spoke earlier about objectivity and balance, the only thing objective about this cover page is the EPL scores, no win for Liverpool and also for Manchester United.

    The checklist essentially told the voters what you're voting for — if you vote for the PAP, you're voting for upgrading, edusave, and MPs of acceptable character."

    Singh had printed the front page of that TNP issue in question, and held it up as he spoke.

    He then cited two examples of media stories on the 4G leadership transition.

    A Chinese media (Zaobao) story asked some "very serious questions" about the transition, saying that "internal competition is intense" and there's "no consensus". On the other hand, the English papers say "major Cabinet reshuffle", but "now is not the time to read the tea leaves."

    Singh said there can be different views on the quality and standards of journalism, and said that this was the reason he asked about a select committee, to try and get an understanding from the public about what they expect of a "taxpayer-funded CLG", although he noted Iswaran's comment about the surveys indicating Singaporeans' trust in the local media.

    Iswaran: Examples that LOTO cited illustrated my points

    Iswaran then replied, "I'm disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition has decided to make political capital out of something that I think is quite fundamentally important to us. And I think even in the examples that he cites, in a way, he has already illustrated the point that I am making."

    Iswaran acknowledged Singh's 1997 example, and his more recent example of how the Chinese media put forward one point of view while the English media came out with another view, and said:

    "Isn't this the diversity that we want? Isn't it the diversity that the Leader of the Opposition has been talking about? So I'm not very clear why he thinks the current model is not succeeding. Is it perfect? No. I would challenge him to show me a model that works and that is perfect. But is it one that works in our context? I think it does, with some areas for improvement, certainly. But it's an evolutionary process.

    And even in the examples that the Leader cites, I think it's quite clear. And I would add that what we want at the end of the day is not posturing, but substance. So, if we can achieve that, not just in the news media but also in this chamber, I think we would have gone a long way to building a stronger country and nation."

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    Top image screenshots taken from MCI/YouTube.