The appetite for new media is partly a function of how well traditional media fulfill people’s needs. So, what can be said about the performance of the mainstream mass media in the Singapore elections?
I have heard and read many complaints, mostly to do with inadequate or skewed coverage of the opposition and overly flattering coverage of the PAP. Nothing new here. Or is there? My own impressionistic assessment is that there has been a subtle but significant easing up on the media, allowing journalists more room than in previous elections to do their job with some professionalism. Why do I say this? Here are some observations.
First, compared especially with GE 1988, the coverage has reflected more honestly the level of interest in the polls and in particular contests. In 1988-89, I did my undergraduate thesis on government-press relations, focusing on press coverage of that GE. The most remarkable feature of it was that the all the local media, clearly under instructions from the government, treated the polls as a non-issue, devoting just a few pages daily to the campaign. Eunos GRC, being contested by Francis Seow and the Workers’ Party, was the battle to watch, but coverage was minimal. Not quite a news blackout, but close to it. Eighteen years later, there is no evidence of such media (mis)management. The only complaint I’ve heard about the volume of election coverage is that there’s too much (“why go on and on about the elections when the outcome is predictable?”) which is a good problem to have compared with 1988. Furthermore, the hot seats, notably Aljunied GRC, have been explicitly recognised and covered as such, very different from Eunos 1988. If the PAP is concerned that all the talk of hot seats will over-excite the electorate, it is not showing it – it has refrained from fixing the coverage as crudely as it did in 1988.
Second, there is less use of the news media as a campaign vehicle to run down the Opposition. Of course, in any election, when a party chooses to make its opponents’ character and ability an election issue, the media will report it because it’s news. If such attacks are the most interesting (even if not necessarily the most important) developments of the day, they will receive the most coverage. (Therefore, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about, say, the space or prominence given to the James Gomez controversy. The ruling party’s top leaders chose to make it a major issue, and it is worth reporting as such. Readers can then decide whether to accept the PAP’s conclusions, or Mr Low Thia Khiang’s that the PAP is making a mountain out of a molehill. It is customary for newspaper editors everywhere to refrain from pre-judging.) Compared with past GEs, the big difference this time is that the ST has stopped there. In the past, it would have “added value”, to put it euphemistically: with columns and graphics to ram home, in a crudely caricatured way, the “lessons” that the PAP wanted the electorate to draw. For example, the ST of old might have accompanied the James Gomez news story with a half-page graphic on opposition deceptions and dishonesty by opposition candidates over the years. Fortunately, most of us have forgotten the amplificatory journalism that used to accompany past GEs.
Another story that caught my eye for personal reasons was the Insight feature on Potong Pasir and Hougang some weeks ago. In the run-up to the 1991 GE, when I was a reporter at ST, I was assigned to write a similar Insight feature on life in what was then the only opposition-held town council, Potong Pasir. The piece was spiked, one of only a couple of articles in my 10 years at the ST to have been killed by editors after completion. The article that came out this year was not very different in substance or in its bottom line. It has taken 15 years, but I guess that is the time scale over which change happens in Singapore.
Why might this change be happening?
First, the government probably appreciates that it cannot afford to intervene so much in the press that the press loses all credibility. It would have learnt from events across the Causeway, where the crudely propagandistic mainstream press lost up to one-third of its audience during the Reformasi period. Malaysians rejected the government-controlled media in favour of alternative media, mainly less-regulated, more critical sources on the internet. Thus, while the Singapore government maintains that it has the authority to set the agenda for the press, it also knows that it has to be quite selective and self-restrained in exercising its powers.
Second, the government is probably more self-confident than before. It knows that the mathematical result is secure. It can therefore focus on the quality of its victory. It may have learnt from recent elections, when its victories were tainted by the perception that it did not fight fair. (Note, for example, the Roundtable’s critical assessment of the PAP victory in GE 1997, by Simon Tay and Zulkifli Baharudin, soon after the polls.) I suspect PM Lee Hsien Loong is keen to minimise allegations of unfairness. Hence, perhaps, the stability in the electoral boundaries, and Temasek Polytechnic’s timely change of rules allowing WP chairman Sylvia Lim to keep her job. If this analysis is correct, it would make sense for the PAP not to open itself to the criticism that, under its management, the press is hopelessly one-sided.
Of course, there continues to be unhappiness about media coverage. The most commonly heard complaint has to do with the relative space given to the parties. If you think about it, though, this is really a complaint about the PAP’s near-monopoly of power rather than media coverage. Mainstream journalism takes the world as it is, not as what journalists think it ought to be. In the world as it is, the PAP is the dominant party, the party whose people and policies will have the greatest impact on the lives of Singaporeans into the foreseeable future. As such, it is the PAP that is the most “newsworthy”. When comparing with the press in liberal democracies, the coverage of, say, the opposition Democrats in the US or the opposition Tories in Britain is hardly the right benchmark. These are parties that have already and will be again parties of government. They are rightly given substantial space in election coverage in those countries. To compare apples and apples, we might want to look at coverage of Ralph Nader’s Green Party in the US or the Liberal Democrats in Britain. These secondary players are not given equal coverage by the American or British media, because, in the world as it is, they are not likely to challenge seriously the dominance of the major parties. Singapore opposition parties’ realistic prospects are probably somewhere between the Greens and the LibDems. It would not be unprofessional for editors to treat them accordingly in their coverage.
This of course raises the question of whether professional mainstream journalism’s news values, and even their holy grail of objectivity – taking the world as it is – are necessarily good things. Some would argue that there’s a need for journalists to take a stand for democracy, and even discriminate positively in favour of pro-democratic and progressive causes. This is not, however, a position that most professional journalists worldwide are comfortable with. This more activist, cause-driven approach is therefore left to radical alternative media operating on the margins. Thus, in the US, Ralph Nader relies mostly on alternative media, and not the mainstream press. In Singapore, similarly, the opposition will continue to need alternative media, even if the government eased up on political control of the mainstream press. Mainstream journalism is organically and structurally linked to the status quo, even in free societies.