Saturday, November 6, 2010

Role of media: No one size fits all

Nov 6, 2010

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke on 'The Role of the Media: Singapore's Perspective' at a forum in Columbia University on Thursday. This is an edited excerpt from his speech.

TRADITIONAL liberal theory of media is that it should represent different points of view. That will encourage open discussion and, as a result, there will be better outcomes for society. The media should in effect play the role of the Fourth Estate, checking the government.

That is the theory. The reality is a little different. Let me set out some of the differences as we see them:

# Journalists, like the rest of us, are human, and subject to influences and vices. They can be biased, unfair and prejudiced.

# Media companies are often profit-driven, like other commercial entities. It is not uncommon for journalistic values to be sacrificed in the pursuit of profit.

# Media companies and journalists, like other entities, can be bought, suborned and corrupted - particularly in developing countries.

# Competition and the need for the advertising dollar can compromise ethics.

The media can have tremendous influence in the political process. It can set the agenda for discussion, it can shape public opinion about the government, and it can make or break politicians. As the Fourth Estate, it is an active player in the political process. Yet, it is the only institution in the political process that is often not subject to any checks and balances. The answer that the public provides the check and balance is a non-answer.

The media in America has a wider and freer role than in almost any other country in the world. That this approach can cause some harm to American society has long been recognised. The view, however, is that the risk is nevertheless a price worth paying.

There is a fundamental assumption underlying this reasoning - that American society is strong enough to withstand the possible harmful consequences arising from such an approach. If, however, that fundamental assumption changes, then there has to be a different calculation. That, precisely, is Singapore's position.

Our view is that our small society, with a short common shared history, enclosed within a small island, cannot withstand the harm that can be caused by giving our media the role that the United States media has. By the time we have some light, after all the heat, irreparable harm may have been caused - or at least a level of harm that we as a society are not prepared to accept.

To use an analogy, the US is an aircraft carrier. We are a little skiff. A lot of things that can take place on an aircraft carrier would not be possible in a skiff.

Our view on the role of the media is as follows:

# It should be a neutral medium for conveying news, with commentary clearly separate from news;

# It should report fully and fairly what goes on. It can probe, ask the inconvenient questions and expose wrongdoing;

# But it should not join the political fray and become a political actor. It should not campaign for or against a policy position.

The media can and should convey the views of opposing political actors - and people can judge for themselves. But if a journalist or a newspaper owner wants to take part in the political process, then he or she should join a political party, and not use the privileged access to the media to push a political perspective.

Obviously, our views are not very popular. And unsurprisingly, Singapore gets some negative attention from the international media. But when I look at some of the criticism, I wonder at the objectivity. Let me give an example:

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) comes out with an annual ranking of countries on press freedom. This year, they ranked Singapore 136th, below Iraq (130th), Zimbabwe (123rd) and Guinea (113th).

Last year, the International Herald Tribune ran a story headlined, 'Ousting Guinea's brutal junta'. The first paragraph read: 'Over 150 people were gunned down by soldiers in the West Africa country of Guinea. Women were raped on the streets and opposition leaders were locked up. This was the response of a brutal military junta to a group of brave citizens who dared to hold a peaceful pro-democracy rally.'

Singapore is apparently below Guinea in press freedom, and has been since 2003.

What is RSF's methodology? As I understand it, they go to each country and choose some people to ask what they think about press freedom in that country. The scores thus seem to depend entirely on who is chosen to be questioned, and how subjective that person is. It is not the same group of people who assess each country by a defined set of criteria.

Contrast all of this with a Gallup poll. In 2005 and 2006, Gallup asked residents in 128 countries whether they had confidence in the quality and integrity of their media. Sixty-nine per cent of Singaporeans polled answered in the affirmative. The figure for the US in the Gallup poll was 32 per cent.

Could Singapore have done as well if our media played the role that the American media plays? Alternatively, given our current level of development, should we change? I will give a couple of reasons why I believe that we should stick to what has worked for us.

First, we can look at developing countries that adopted the US model. By comparison to them, we perform better in terms of the human development index and stability. And the media in these countries is not a model we want for Singapore.

Second, we can look at the US itself. For an outsider like me - and I am an admirer of many aspects of the US system - it is not so clear any more that every aspect of the US system will work well, particularly for us. The questions that arise for an observer include:

# Does the media in the US always pursue the truth and seek to enlighten the readers?

# Do parts of the US media act as campaign arms of politicians, peddle half-truths and present biased perspectives?

# Do viewers get to the truth or do they rely on their preferred media, seeking to confirm their own prejudices?

# Is it financially more lucrative for the media to serve up red meat to a secure base of viewers, rather than seek the middle ground?

# To what extent does money affect the traditional theory of a marketplace of ideas? If a particular group can buy more campaign advertisements, will that group not have an advantage?

# How does it help democracy if pursuant to the principles of free speech, large groups can play a big financial role in elections?

# Can people make informed choices when campaign ads have little relation to the facts or the serious issues? Would not truth be swift boated, as it were, and distinguished records tarnished through unfair means?

Tom Friedman of The New York Times had a commentary on US politics a few days ago, which ended thus: 'A dysfunctional political system is one that knows the right answers but can't even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them, and one that devotes far more attention to cable TV preachers than to recommendations by its best scientists and engineers.'

If the marketplace of ideas is working well, then why this lament? Other commentators have made similar points: I refer to them not so much to say they are right. The only point I make is that serious people say this, they are knowledgeable, and these do not appear to be extreme or fringe views - and we outside America must consider them when considering if the US system will work for us. I don't seek to prescribe for the US.

Even from a larger perspective, moving beyond the media, there can be serious questions as to whether American-style democracy can work for everyone.

I refer to the legislative process, with its earmarks and gridlock; the role of lobbies and vested interests; the amount of money needed for elections; the time congressmen spend networking and raising money; the deep political divides; and the general aversion of candidates to deal with serious issues in their campaigns.

The system works for America. This is a great country and will remain so. But can the rest of us adopt this system? My own view is that the US system will impose costs that a large, rich country like the US can afford - but the cost will be too high for some of us.

We believe that our system works for us, and we don't shut out the world. We have more than 5,500 foreign newspapers and publications in circulation in Singapore. Close to 100 TV channels are carried on our cable networks. Nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations are based in Singapore.

Also, household broadband penetration is more than 100 per cent; and our population is English-educated and Internet savvy. Singaporeans rank among the world's most-travelled populations. In 2008, 6.8 million passenger trips were made, more than the number of Singapore residents.

Let me now address the issue of our libel laws - which often excite much interest, internationally.

Our libel laws are based on English common law.If you make a personal attack of fact against a person's reputation - for example, by alleging that he is corrupt or that he embezzled state funds - then you should be prepared to prove it in court. We do not believe that public discourse should degenerate to a base level, by allowing untrue personal attacks.

We would like to keep political debate focused on issues. You can attack government policies fiercely. That will not be defamatory. And let the people choose the candidates based on alternative policies.

America takes a different view. We respect that, but we disagree that that approach leads to a better debate - and in saying this, I am aware of the 'chilling effect' argument.

It is also sometimes suggested that our libel laws are used to perpetuate a one-party system in Singapore. As proof, commentators will refer to the fact that the governing party has been in power since independence in 1965.

There are several responses to this. I will give just one. Remember that Singapore is a city state. There are no great geographical variations, no serious economic differences between regions, no great demographic variations. It is one relatively small city; the comparison should be with city politics in the US.

If you consider cities in the US - for example, San Francisco - you also see uninterrupted hold on power by one party for decades. So in city politics, it is possible for a party to retain power for a long time.

My basic point is that each of us has to choose what works for us. Over time, it is possible that a set of core values can evolve across countries - but this has to be agreed rather than imposed.

MR K. SHANMUGAM spoke more on Singapore in a short question-and-answer session following his speech:
  • Why Singapore has tough libel laws

    'The reasons that are pushed usually for the press having greater privilege is that it helps in the democratic debate, but I ask you, how does it help?

    The chilling effect as a result of having these defamation laws is that people may be tempted not to enter into the debate. But what about the opposite effect? First, you dumb down the debate, then it descends into a series of personal attacks, and third, serious people may well ask themselves, do I really want to get involved in the political process?

    There is no reason why a personal reputation should not be protected any less than private property, which you protect very rigorously.'

  • Why Singapore will not move to an American-style media

    'We are paranoid about whether we will continue to survive... you just look at the map and you look at history, how many city states have survived for any length of time?

    We never take our survival for granted. We know that when we do take it for granted, we gamble with the lives of our people and no responsible government will do that.

    Are we prepared in Singapore to have that kind of media exchange? Does the fact that we have developed mean that our society is mature enough to accept some of the risks that will come?'

  • -----
    Not surprisingly, Mr Shanmugam's 45-minute speech drew its share of opposition.

    Mr Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Straits Times that the minister had presented a robust defence of Singapore's press policies.

    But he said he strongly disagreed with Mr Shanmugam's suggestions that Singapore's unique history gave the country standing to flout what he said were international standards.

    He said: 'Singapore is proud of its role in the world economy and has become a global centre for business and trade. The country should also embrace international standards for freedom of expression and the press and reform its punitive libel laws.'

    [Comment: Does freedom come with responsibility? Does power come with responsibility? It is tempting to look at Singapore's press and say, they are not free, they are not neutral, they are not impartial. Maybe. But the US definition of press freedom includes a role for the press as the Fourth Estate. But if this role were ever sacrosanct, the fact that it is a powerful force has attracted the corruptible, the corrupted, and the corrupting. Big money has been attracted to it. Why buy advertising, when you can buy the media, dictate the agenda, and pick your mouthpieces? The media like the financial institutions are powerful forces. But they are also commercial entities, driven by commercial bottom lines, and the commercial-political agenda of their owners. If financial institutions should be regulated, then equally, the press should also adhere to standards, and to understand that there are boundaries. Does this make them less free? Only if one believes the press should pursue political agendas without political responsibility.]

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