Saturday, March 10, 2007


Notes on a book chapter I'm working on.

Up till now, mainstream media such as the national newspapers and broadcasters have been equated with a cluster of attributes: they are profit driven, resource rich, professionally run, mass oriented, large in readership and viewership, highly public, and regulated through discretionary licensing. Alternative media such as independent websites and blogs are associated with the converse cluster of attributes: they are not for profit, resource poor, run by amateurs and volunteers, niche oriented, limited in penetration, semi-public, and free of discretionary licensing requirements.

This neat dichotomy has allowed the government’s dual regulatory regime to operate relatively smoothly: regulators apply far stricter standards to mainstream than to alternative media. In theory, in an age of digital convergence, regulations that are not platform-neutral will be unsustainable as they will generate inconsistencies. In practice, however, convergence has not run its course in Singapore; the dichotomy between offline mainstream media and alternative online media persists.

The dichotomy is unlikely to persist indefinitely. It will be pressured by the following possible developments, which, while not guaranteed to occur, already show signs of surfacing:

In the mainstream sector
  • Erosion of journalistic standards within mainstream media, due to the growing dominance of entertainment values.
  • Under-investment in editorial departments by mainstream media, for cost-cutting motivated by short-term shareholder greed.
  • Greater focus on niche products targeted at demographics with advertiser interest, at the expense of serving the wider public interest.
In the alternative sector
  • Growing online participation of experts and specialists who are no less authoritative than full-time professional journalists.
  • Greater involvement of universities, think tanks, civic groups and foundations with the resources to support online ventures in the public interest.
  • Growing sophistication of peer-to-peer and collaborative projects allowing part-timers and amateurs to approximate (and even exceed) professional standards.
  • A growing culture of self-regulation and peer review/moderation among the most serious of alternative sites
These developments will challenge various aspects of Singapore’s media system. The following questions will surface:

1. If online media are maturing to become as influential as traditional media, why should the two sectors be subject to different levels of control? And if regulations are to be harmonised, should regulations for online media be tightened, or should regulations for traditional media be liberalised?

2. If mainstream media are growing increasingly commercial and abdicating their fiduciary responsibility to the public interest, why should they continue to be protected by regulatory barriers to entry? Shouldn’t publishing and broadcasting licenses be given out more liberally?

3. If online media show themselves to be capable of self-regulation, and the public shows that it is not prone to run amok when encountering inflammatory speech, should Singapore not review its paternalistic media management philosophy – for traditional as well as new media?

4. If traditional media are declining in their capacity to command the attention of the mass public, should the government not wean itself off its current attention-on-demand model and build its capacity to compete for attention?

These are years of profound change on Singapore’s media landscape. Stakeholders can help shape that change, in directions that serve the greater good.

The mainstream media. The journalistic profession, ensconced in mainstream news media organisations, needs to come to terms with the fact that it is not a closed shop. With the democratisation of influence, professional journalists must be able to articulate to themselves and to others what makes them worth paying attention to – and, more importantly, live up to their promises.

Alternative media. Proponents of an emerging new media order must go beyond predicting the future and start building it. If the new media are to be more than about merely the right to individual self-expression and are also to achieve a social purpose, they need to be more organised, reliable and accountable than they are at present.

Official newsmakers. Officials need to prepare for a new order in which influence is democratised. The new media, unlike the traditional media, will not give officials the final word simply because of their rank and status. Officials need to develop the skills to compete for influence on more equal terms, within a culture of transparency and discussion. This can contribute positively to a mature polity. On the other hand, a reactionary response will lead to a schizophrenic media world, with a cognitive dissonance between mainstream and alternative media content.

Regulators. Media regulators will need to separate the hitherto inseparable: the interests of the party versus the interests of the nation. Only then can a more rational and sustainable media regulatory regime be shaped. Aspects of the current controls, designed to serve narrow political interests more than the broad national interest, need to be modified.

The public. The public should demand greater accountability on the part of media, even as the government loosens its control. This can be effected through various non-government mechanisms and at different levels, to address ethical breaches and push for higher journalistic standards. With more accountability mechanisms in place and a stronger culture of consumer rights and self-help, the use of governmental power can be left as a last resort in solving problems with the media.