Shanmugam on govts helping the media: 'You have no choice if you want high-quality journalism'

Plummeting revenues and the migration of advertisers to Google and Facebook are to blame.

Matthias Ang | Andrew Koay | May 08, 2021, 04:00 PM

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Against the backdrop of plummeting advertisement revenue, there may be few alternatives but to have the government support the media, said the Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.

"You have no choice if you want high quality journalism," he added.

Pressure faced by media outlets all over the world

Speaking to reporters on May 8, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law pointed to a trend of pressure faced by media businesses all over the world, causing some of the most prestigious names in the newspaper business to restructure or close.

Speaking about SPH, he said:

"The problem is not readership — readership hasn't declined. In fact, readership of SPH media has grown in the last five years."

"The old business model doesn't work," said Shanmugam, noting that advertisers had moved platforms to tech giants Google and Facebook.

He also singled out France in particular, where the government provided "hundred of millions of Euros" in direct and indirect support to the media.

Trust needed for media and government

Nevertheless, the minister said that it was vital for the media to be able to foster trust with the public.

"For Singapore, trust is an existential issue. And if you look at it, specific to media, if media is not trusted, it would inevitably lead to a government and political leadership that is not trusted."

"If there is no trust, we can't govern well, we won't be able to take long term measures," he said, adding that the Covid-19 crisis showed how important this trust was.

Shanmugam cited the U.S. and Europe as further examples what transpires after a breakdown in trust; "we are all finished if that happens," he said.

SPH CEO's umbrage "unfortunate"

Shanmugam had also responded to a question about SPH CEO Ng Yat Chung's "umbrage" at the press conference announcing the company's restructuring.

"Well, both the reporter who asked the question and her editor Walter (Fernandez) know that taking money from an advertiser doesn't automatically mean that independence is compromised," said Shanmugam, pointing to the fact that most newspapers rely on advertisements for revenue.

However, he noted that the question was a fair one given that journalists should be concerned about independence.

The way he answered the question was also "unfortunate", said Shanmugam, who also noted that the outburst could be described in "stronger terms". "But I want to be careful and understated because SPH is a listed company."

Government prepared to fund new subsidiary

The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) had previously said that it has considered and supports the proposal put forth by SPH, pending shareholder approval.

It is also prepared to provide funding support to the newly formed subsidiary.

S. Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, also said that the government agrees with SPH’s assessment that the current media business model is "not viable given global technology and industry trends".

"Our goal is to help the local news media and our journalists adapt and thrive in the digital era while maintaining the high professional standards we expect and value," he said.

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Top image by Darryl Laiu