Yawning Bread. May 2006

Flat-footed and worse




Cherian George is one of the most well-informed and sober observers of the media scene. In a number of recent articles, he has expressed his opinion that
  • The share of space given to non-PAP parties in the period leading up to and during the recent general election was significantly greater than in previous elections
  • The fairness of the reporting in representing the views and activities of the non-PAP parties has also improved considerably
  • In fact, in terms of the allocation of coverage to the various parties, the Straits Times and Today (the 2 leading English print media) were more or less in line with what any serious newspaper would do in, say, London or New York.
  • That the PAP got the lion's share of space can be explained simply from the fact that historically and for the foreseeable future, they are the only major party. The space given to the Workers' Party and others was not different from what serious newspapers in the UK would give to, say, the Liberal Party, a minor party without much prospect of forming the next government.
  • The media kept to its role as merely reflecting the news rather than trying to push any agenda. In that sense, they behaved as followers of trends rather than pushers of the envelope and could thus be described as conservative.
  • Many in the blogosphere were unsatisfied that the "mainstream media" had been "fair". But this would be more a reflection of expectations than any substantiable criticism of the media's role in this election.
  • Even as the mainstream media's performance has improved, expectations may have roared further ahead.
  • Criticism should be more directed at the press control regime that does not allow alternative newspapers and broadcasters, for only these are likely to satisfy the minority who are anti-PAP.
  • Journalists are doing their best under the circumstances, and one should not begrudge them working for the media when they too have to earn a living.

I agree with the above. I'd like to expand on some points, though.

I think his second last point is the most important: Our unhappinness with the state of Singapore's media should be directed against the ruling party and the government. They have created an extensive system of control with formal and informal levers, such that even if, through a lightning bolt from the heavens, a brave new editor were to take over tomorrow, nothing would change still. That brave new editor might well be turfed out before the next morning's edition hit the streets.

The Media Development Authority's licensing regime makes all media in Singapore look over their shoulders all the time. There are plenty of articles in Yawning Bread that give specific examples of censorship. But more insidious than outright censorship is the self-censorship that print editors and broadcast producers exercise in their daily work.

One may argue that even within the same regulatory box, they could be braver (and further down I will give you an example that perhaps supports this thesis), but the whole system needs to be smashed before we'll see any large improvement.

The formal system of control comes out of various laws, including the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Section 10 says:

Special features of newspaper company 
10. (1) Subject to subsection (15), in every newspaper company  

(a) all the directors shall be citizens of Singapore; 

(b) there shall be 2 classes of shares, namely, management shares and ordinary shares; and 

(c) no management shares shall be issued or transferred except to citizens of Singapore or corporations who or which have been granted the written approval of the Minister. 

(2) No newspaper company shall refuse to issue or to accept the transfer of management shares to any person who has been granted the written approval of the Minister to purchase or hold the shares except for reasons to be given in writing acceptable to the Minister.

Further down,

(7) No person shall continue to hold management shares of a newspaper company if the approval of the Minister given under subsection (1) (c) or (15) has been revoked, and upon such revocation  

(a) the person shall cease to have any voting rights under those management shares; and 

(b) the newspaper company shall, as soon as practicable, arrange for the person to be issued with one ordinary share in exchange for each management share held by him.

Further down,

(11) The holder of management shares shall be entitled either on a poll or by a show of hands to 200 votes for each management share held by him upon any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff of a newspaper company but shall in all other respects have the same voting rights as the holder of ordinary shares.

What does the above mean in practice? If 99% of the shares have one vote each, and 1% of the shares have 200 votes each, then two-thirds of the voting power belongs to the holder of the 1% management shares.

Moreover, as you can see, the government can direct who gets to own those management shares. With such voting rights the government has a veto over staff appointments.

Knowing this, it doesn't take formal directors' meetings to exercise power. Therefore control is more often exercised informally. Directors, senior editors and junior editors know that all it takes is a phone call or lunch meeting with a minister or his Permanent Secretary.

"Mr Editor, I rather liked reporter Michelle's piece on the preparations we're making for the upcoming IMF summit, but this other one by Harold about the losses at [insert name of government-linked company] ... it's the kind of news story that foreign journalists here for the IMF might pick up and blow out of proportion. It's the second time, I think, that Harold has taken a somewhat, er, how shall I put it, er, alarmist... alarmist view on a GLC."

Is it hard to read between the lines?

After a few years, editors become conditioned to think in certain ways, and an entire corporate culture develops that knows its limits. No amount of artillery fire from citizens, directed at the newspaper and broadcasting companies, can change such behaviour except at the margins. Instead, it will be a lot more productive to stay focussed on the regulatory regime. To begin with, we should press for repeal of that part of the Act.

And also repeal the need for a licence at all, for so long as the government has the discretion to issue or cancel licences, it is very difficult for any newspaper or broadcaster to operate freely.

Two things will happen once the freedom from licensing is achieved. Alternative, probably fringe, media will spring up, giving voice to fringe causes. In response to the threat of its subscriber or viewer base being taken away, the mainstream media will pay more attention to at least the the more popular of the fringe causes.

Straits Times' coverage of rallies

The internet, as it matures, has the potential to be that unlicensed fringe media. In his essay Is the government easing up on old media? George wrote,

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.

Even so, the Singapore media nearly made the same mistake of losing credibility. The Straits Times and Today resolutely did not print any pictures of rally crowds, nor did they even mention audience sizes, at the start of the campaign. It is believed that this was a long-standing rule from previous general elections.

On the left are pictures from the Straits Times at various stages of the campaign. The top 5 pictures were typical for the period from Saturday 29 April to Tuesday, 2 May 2006.

Then Yawning Bread had a few moments of fame when in the early hours of Monday, 1 May 2006, I posted a photograph of the Workers' Party rally at Hougang. See On Hougang field

PAP rally at Segar Road field, 4 May 2006. Unlike the PAP, opposition parties did not provide chairs at their rallies.
Source: Sgrally.blogspot.com


But it wasn't just me. Many others too posted photos and video clips at various websites, including this classic one at left from the People's Action Party's rally at Segar Road on 4 May 2006 (Bukit Panjang constituency)

Undoubtedly, many videos and pictures were agenda-driven, including some of mine, but in a free world, so what?


Here are some pictures, in chronological order, from the Straits Times through the election period. In the early days, they tended to keep to photos of personalities, even at rallies. The dates refer to the print date of the Straits Times.


ST 29 April 2006: Lee Boon Yang (PAP) on a walk-about

ST 29 April 2006: Gan Kim Yong (PAP) at a rally

ST 29 April 2006: Low Thia Khiang (Workers' Party) greeting supporters at a rally

ST 2 May 2006: Crowd at the Workers' Party rally at East Coast Park

ST 2 May 2006: PAP rally at Pasir Ris Park







The internet buzz climbed rapidly and on Wednesday, 3 May 2006, the Straits Times, probably seeing how flat-footed it had been, published its first picture of a rally crowd. See the scanned picture on the right.

I noticed it immediately and said to myself, "Now, that's a change."

The following day, it had a picture of the PAP's Boat Quay rally, perhaps the best-attended PAP rally. Having published a fairly respectable crowd picture from a PAP rally, the newspaper must have felt it had a bit more wiggle room.

Finally, on Friday, 5 May, the Straits Times published its own picture of the Hougang rally. By so doing, the editors revealed that they had a photograph similar to mine (but not the same photograph, as some readers thought) since Sunday night. Yet they held it back for 5 days till it had no more news value. It must have been extremely frustrating for their photographer.

ST 5 May 2006: Workers' Party rally at Hougang held on 30 April 2006.

I can't say whether the editors had to seek approval prior to publishing the first crowd picture on 3 May, but I doubt it. It's not a big enough question. Most probably, the editors decided they had to safeguard the crumbling credibility of the newspaper when they realised how much, and how different, election coverage there was on the internet. Given the circumstances, they would have felt they had enough of a defence to change their policy on the hoof, without having to seek explicit permission from their political masters.

This is what I meant by my earlier point that it is conceivable for the editors to do more, even within the existing regulatory box. But this does not take away the more important point where I agree with Cherian George, that the main barrier is the regulatory environment.


Then on Wednesday, 3 May, the first wide-angle picture of a rally crowd appeared in the Straits Times. 

ST 3 May 2006: Workers' Party rally at a field next to Safra Tampines

ST 4 May 2006: PAP lunchtime rally at Boat Quay

ST 4 May 2006: PAP lunchtime rally at Boat Quay





Worse than flat-footed

While I agreed with his main points, I would have preferred George to have been a wee bit more critical than he has been of the mainstream media.

There were two examples of conduct that I consider worth mentioning, neither of which showed our media in good light at all. One was plain foolish, but a foolishness borne out of obsequious habit; the other -- if true -- was utterly unprofessional, also borne out of slavish servility.

At the Boat Quay lunchtime rally, 3 May 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the word "fix" in his speech

Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong, Steve Chia. We can deal with them. Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week's problem and forget about next year's challenges?

-- ChannelNewsAsia's website, 3 May 2006 evening

The next morning (4 May 2006)  'Today' newspaper reported it too. However the newspaper changed it to reported speech, but keeping, in fact highlighting through the use of quotation marks, the word "fix".

Mr Lee took the tack that more Opposition members in Parliament -- perhaps 10 to 20 -- would cause gridlock in Government as the ruling party begins to focus on "fixing" the Opposition instead of on implementing the "right policy for Singapore".

-- 'Today' newspaper, front page, 4 May 2006



Straits Times, front page, 4 May 2006 (Highlight added by Yawning Bread)

The Straits Times too converted the paragraph into reported speech, but instead of drawing readers' attention to the word "fix", it substituted the word with "counter".

(It also left out the bit about "buy supporters' votes").

Now, before anyone rushes to the Straits Times' defence, note this: The day before, it carried a headline based also on Lee Hsien Loong's words, in which he used the word "fix". See scanned page at right. It's interesting how that particular "fix" was not changed into "counter".

How foolish the decision to change Lee Hsien Loong's "fix" was became clear that same evening (4 May 2006) when Lee's press secretary (not Lee himself) issued a public "clarification" to say that he had actually meant "counter" even though he said "fix".

But if any Singaporean had depended on the Straits Times alone, he wouldn't even have known what Lee was apologising for. The "indispensable" Straits Times had never informed him that Lee had used that word in the first place.

It's like newspapers in totalitarian countries one morning reporting that the government, with much pomp and ceremony, has declared the epidemic over, without ever having reported that there was an epidemic in the first place.

* * * * *

Saturday night (13 May 2006), a week after polling day, ChannelNewsAsia ran a short news story about the role played by "citizen journalists" in the election. One of the blogs featured in that news story, Singapore Election Watch, claims that their blog entries were modified before being shown on TV.

The issue is quite complex and technical, and I have decided to move it out into another article by itself. It was originally here in this essay.

If true, this would be most unacceptable media practice. It would be equivalent to deliberately misrepresenting what was on that weblog.

* * * * *

What this entire experience through the election campaign shows is that blog journalism should not hibernate between now and the next election. There is much that can be done to monitor the professionalism of the mainstream media, the words uttered by politicians and the actions of the government. 

Yawning Bread 




Straits Times, 3 May 2006.


The Straits Times' Online edition included the word "fix" in its report of Lee Hsien Loong's speech, according to a Yawning Bread reader who wrote in. I am unable to verify this. It's quite funny to think that the editors, in their haste to protect the PM, overlooked amending the online version too.


Editors signalling to government

The adding of quotation marks and replacing "fix" with "counter" also served as gentle feedback from the media to Lee that he had made a bad mistake. However, anyone monitoring the blogs would have seen bloggers' reactions to that "fix" word, and the ridicule heaped on Lee, even before the newspapers' print editions came out.