Saturday, March 10, 2007

ONE COUNTRY, TWO SYSTEMS: FOR HOW LONG?

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.

31 comments:

kwayteowman said...

What you had just said is of purely academic interest. In the KTM's view, dun have to kuncheong spider and try to predict what will be or what should be.

Two issues are perhaps worthy of note:

(i) The traditional (print) media still dominates in terms of reach. Problem with online media is that there too much noise and too little signal, and people are always short on time, so print media is still more convenient and is therefore king for the time being. This will change in time as technology advances, but change will take time.

(ii) The current online media is as "free market" as you can get. We already have laws governing defamation and sedition. Whether people agree with those laws is one thing, whether those laws are sufficient to "regulate" online behaviour so that the online media does not descend into utter chaos is another. The KTM believes that existing laws are sufficient.

The nature of the online media is also such that even if the bureaucrats at MICA want to impose their dunno what requirements, it is not clear that their wishes will be legally enforceable. Turns out that most servers are not based in Singapore. The KTM's favourite thought experiment to this end is the example of "PAP versus YouTube/Google".

"The public should demand greater accountability on the part of media, even as the government loosens its control".

Aiyah, demand what? The public must just learn to use their brain and think for themselves. In this way, it doesn't really matter who says what. Given the choices available, if one disagrees with the stuff spouting by one party, just ignore the fella and go read other things lah. What's so difficult about that? :-)

Think free market. The water will find its level. :-P

Anonymous said...

I think the division between print and on-line will remain in spite of the trends that you accurately describe (nice graphic too!).

In plenty of other countries entry into the media business has been the ambition of successful tycoons with an interest in publishing and promoting a new point of view.

In Singapore these tycoons know how sensitive the Party is about competing media powers. I can't imagine any successful local tycoon would dare to launch a professional competing publication even in an on-line space.

The Party will occasionally use a stick with on-line publishers to remind them of who's boss.

My personal opinion is that besides for the op-ed page, the Straits Times is already irrelevant, which is why I canceled my subscription a long time ago. Anyway, the interesting op-eds usually make it into one of my RSS subscriptions.

I think SPH will continue to be a great cash-cow, but what's end-game? Will the government propaganda vehicle try buying overseas media enterprises? Fashion mags is one thing, but would it be allowed to by foreign regulators to buy a newspaper and would this type of acquisition make financial sense given that most papers suffer from intense competition and declining ad revenues?

As with the Singapore telcos, SPH is blessed by a local regulator that is protective and virtually guarantees strong cashflow for the company. It's readership may gradually decline, but I think the SPH publications will for many still remain relevant for years to come, both in print and online... particularly in the absence of well-funded corporate competitors.

Anonymous said...

You said: "The public should demand greater accountability on the part of media, even as the government loosens its control." In the example of mainstream media, they should know not to short change the public. They should be accountable from day one on their own.

We has witnessed what is said "live" and what is printed is different. People "buying" newspapers do not want the editors "fixing" the content to suit the agenda of the day. Truth is truth, why must there be "edited" truth.

Unless, accountability has a different meaning to say, regulators or "controllers".

Anonymous said...

thank you for your very informed post. i was wondering, for my research on community video initiatives, are there any in Singapore that have made some sort of dent on mainstream television?
thank you
SH
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