Remaking an untenable media system: why SPH’s proposed overhaul is not enough

Academic Views / Friday, May 7th, 2021

Professional journalism in Singapore is beset by financial pressures and excessive state control. Reform is needed so that it can play its critical role in the nation’s information ecosystem, says Cherian George, professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. This is an excerpt from the volume he co-authored with Donald Low, PAP v PAP: The Party’s Struggle to Adapt to a Changing Singapore. It was first published in September 2020, before this week’s announcement that Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) would hive off its media business to a non-profit, SPH Media.

In 1920, one hundred years ago, Singapore’s imperial overlords slipped the Printing Presses Ordinance into the laws governing the Straits Settlements. This introduced a licensing system: no newspaper could be printed without a government permit. One reader in Ipoh, in a letter published in The Straits Times that March, chided the British authorities for what he called “a disgrace — a cowardly act, conceived to protect weaklings from the results of their own misgovernment and ineptitude”. Even the Governor at the time seemed too embarrassed to implement it fully, exempting established newspapers from the regulation.

When Malaya and Singapore shook off colonial rule, they could have dispensed with this decree prohibiting the publication of any newspaper without government permission. The new nation-states had legitimate national security concerns about seditious publications, but there were other laws in place to deal with such dangers. As The Straits Times editorialised in 1960, “If a newspaper is subversive, if its editors are seditious, if the press stirs up communal strife — the activities for which personal freedom can be lost — the evidence is there in black and white. Newspapers cannot commit their crimes in secret.” It wasn’t clear why officials also needed powers to ban a newspaper for hypothetical future misconduct. With such a permit system, the paper said, “The press is not free.”

The power to grant, deny or revoke publishing permits entirely at the discretion of Ministers remains a pillar of the PAP’s media system. The post-independence Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 (NPPA) retained licensing as a weapon of last resort. It also added a mechanism to encourage routine behind-the-scenes self-censorship: the NPPA gave the government the power to install reliable directors and chief editors at the top of any newspaper company.

SPH CEO Ng Yat Chung and chairman Lee Boon Yang at Thursday’s press conference. The holding company’s leadership positions have been routinely entrusted to former ministers and civil servants with no prior media industry experience.

The system, which persists today, reflects Lee Kuan Yew’s desire to pre-emptively neutralise all potential sources of political contention, in order to give elected leaders the latitude to govern decisively in the national interest. That such a system may also shield Singapore’s most powerful men and women from democratic accountability is a risk that a PAP-run Singapore has had to live with.

Almost every other sector — from banking to healthcare and education — has undergone liberalising reforms over the past 50 years. The NPPA regime is a striking exception. In its imperviousness to change, the NPPA stands alongside powers such as the Internal Security Act, testament to how strongly the PAP believes it must maintain control of the state’s ideological apparatus. Singapore’s third and fourth generation leaders seem relatively unconcerned about the credibility of the mainstream media.

When the media is stifled, it’s not just the people who lose. Government officials also deny themselves the regular critical scrutiny that could help quality-control their positions, provide timely warnings of troubles ahead, and hone their political instincts. The symptoms were plain to see in the 2020 General Election. The PAP built a trap for itself and trotted straight into it when it accused the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) of misleading the public with suggestions that the government was toying with a population target of 10 million.

The figure had surfaced in an ambiguous Straits Times report of a Heng Swee Keat dialogue in 2019. In the months after that initial report, independent journalists Bertha Henson and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh tried separately to query the government about it. But they were voices in the wilderness. A properly functioning press would have given the doubts the higher profile they deserved, and clarified them long before the SDP milked them for electoral gain. Instead, the PAP helped to direct the election campaign away from its platform of jobs, jobs, jobs and towards what is possibly its single greatest vulnerability, population policy.

Journalism’s financial crisis

After decades of brushing aside all criticisms of its media system, the PAP now has no choice but to review it. The NPPA model is on its last legs, due to professional journalism’s financial crisis. Singapore’s newspaper publishers once enjoyed profit margins that few corporations could match. Like newspaper businesses in other mature economies, though, SPH has been plagued in recent years by declining readership, revenues and share price. In mid-2020, SPH lost its place on the list of blue-chip stocks making up the composite indicator that bears the name of its flagship paper — the Straits Times Index. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent symbol of the hollowing out of a once-dominant brand.

In its heyday, the NPPA system was pure genius: it commandeered commercial media corporations’ greed as a weapon to discipline the democratic impulses of professional journalism. Lee Kuan Yew was a decade ahead of other leaders, including China’s Deng Xiaoping, in realising that the market need not threaten authoritarian rule. He used the stock market to neutralise headstrong individual and family media owners who were prepared to place pride and principle over profit — notably, the Lee family (no relation) behind the country’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, Nanyang Siang Pau.

The 1974 law, in addition to preserving the permit system, set caps on investors’ holdings, and allowed the government to designate selected individuals and institutions as super-voting holders of “management shares”. This combination of provisions put SPH mostly in the hands of financial institutions and other corporations with a vested interest in stability. Enjoying monopoly profits protected by the licensing system — with average margins of 30 percent — it is no surprise that SPH and its senior management were content with the NPPA.

“Those days are gone — savaged by the technology platforms which have sucked up the bulk of advertising revenues,” former editor-in-chief Patrick Daniel wrote in The Straits Times on the occasion of the paper’s 175th anniversary in 2020. “I’m convinced that newspapers have to find a new ownership model to survive — either be owned by a billionaire or convert to a public trust. I much prefer the latter, and predict ST will go that way and live to celebrate its 200th anniversary.”

If Daniel means something like the Scott Trust, which owns Britain’s Guardian newspaper, that is an extremely hopeful prediction. Such a model protects the professional autonomy of journalists better than corporate owners do. This can only happen if the PAP sheds its conviction that it must perch itself at the commanding heights of the media industry. Without such a mindset shift, any new structure will just recreate the status quo through other means.

China’s state media are one form of sustainable non-profit media, reliant on the state’s deep pockets.

An outright buyout by Temasek may be too much even for the PAP. Temasek already possesses 100 percent of Mediacorp, so nationalising SPH would make Singapore the only non-communist country in the world where almost all news media are state-owned. This has such bad optics that the government may prefer a trust system with private sector cronies at the wheel. Alternatively, the government could be tempted to throw good money after bad, propping up Singapore’s newspapers the way the Chinese state supports People’s Daily, by purchasing subscriptions for public sector employees. It can also buy more advertising space for government messages. Many states use this as a form of indirect censorship, rewarding compliant media with lucrative contracts while boycotting troublesome outlets.

Reforms we need

A more visionary PAP leadership should instead respond to the current industry turmoil by liberalising its model of media management. The NPPA needs to be repealed and replaced with a media framework that does not prioritise the ruling party’s dominance ahead of the public interest.

First of all, the century-old licensing regime has to go. Of course, even without this barrier, no businessman would gamble on a daily, general-interest print newspaper of the scale ofThe Straits Times or Lianhe Zaobao. To echo Daniel, those days are gone. However, investors could well be attracted by the opportunity to build a multi-platform news media organisation able to publish a weekly print newspaper or magazine alongside daily digital products.

Hard law is still needed to protect against the most severe harms caused by irresponsible media practices, including defamation, harassment and invasion of privacy. The Republic’s multi-culturalism also deserves special regulatory protection: news media catering mainly to the Singapore public should be locally owned and their sources of funds transparent to the public. A regulator can be empowered to levy punitive fines on media that incite discrimination or hate against racial or religious communities. Such laws, narrowly tailored to achieve legitimate goals, would make the current permit system redundant.

A new media framework should also include a well-resourced independent press council. Press councils are self-regulatory mechanisms that investigate complaints about violations of professional ethics. Made up of industry veterans and, sometimes, representatives of the wider public, they issue judgments that member organisations are morally obliged to act on. In the early 1970s, it looked like Singapore might head in this direction, but the government opted for regulation by ministers instead. Germany and Indonesia are among the countries with highly respected press councils that are worth studying.

Much more challenging is the quandary of how to finance good journalism. Local businesses freed of the licensing requirement are part of the answer. But subscription and advertising revenues alone are unlikely to fund media of adequate quality and quantity. Free-marketeers once believed that the invisible hand of commerce was enough to support vibrant news media. But newspapers’ high profitability was based on the limitations of the print medium: physical newspapers combined various kinds of advertising and editorial content that the consumer had to purchase as a bundle. News important for a society’s democratic life — well-researched articles about matters of public interest — was cross-subsidised by other content that readers and advertisers might be more prepared to pay for, such as car reviews, celebrity gossip and classified advertising.

The internet unbundled this century-old combo package, offering products focused on the most profitable services and neglecting the others. Worldwide, citizens agree that a well-informed public is essential for a safe, healthy, democratic society. But the same citizens are generally unwilling to pay what it takes to keep themselves informed. Journalism in the public interest is thus a victim of market failure.

Again, there are many proven models overseas that Singapore could selectively adopt. Lee Kuan Yew admired the BBC enough to make its World Service available on FM radio. It, and several other respected public service broadcasters including Japan’s NHK and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, are potential models for a reformed Mediacorp. They show the kind of quality and credibility that is possible when journalists in state-funded national media are required to work within strict bounds of social responsibility and public accountability — but independently of political office holders. CNA has made great strides in quality, but its local news coverage is sabotaged by the government’s all-too-evident hand.

The Straits Times is not Singapore Airlines. The national airline may deserve bailouts, but do ST and its sister papers need to have their monopoly protected?

To ensure diversity and competition, public service media funding should not be monopolised by one or two players. The government should learn from its mistakes of 20 years ago. It attempted to introduce more competition through an exclusive offer to the incumbents: Mediacorp was allowed to launch Today to compete with The Straits Times, and in return SPH was given a permit to enter the national broadcaster’s terrain, with two new free-to-air television channels. Mediacorp had some success with Today, but SPH — a company with no TV experience — eventually gave up on the medium. This manner of so-called ‘liberalisation’ entrenched Singapore’s media duopoly and was totally at odds with common sense, as well as with the government’s own approach to liberalising other sectors such as telecom and banking.

An independent public body to disburse funds

Future restructuring of the media industry should put consumers’ needs ahead of incumbent firms’ pecuniary interests. Any company that can meet required standards should be allowed to enter the market. This principle has already been implemented in broadcasting, in a limited way. Independent production houses can bid for funds from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). Mediacorp (like the BBC) is required to open its channels to programmes created by independent producers. IMDA also has a code against anti-competitive practices. Building on these precedents, Singapore should follow international best practice and disburse funds via a new independent public body that is better insulated from government interference than is IMDA.

If the government is contemplating any direct or indirect bailout of SPH, the same principle should apply. SPH is not Singapore Airlines: no group of Singaporeans, however talented, can start up a mini-SIA anytime soon, so if Singapore wants a viable national carrier, SIA has to be rescued. By contrast, SPH is not indispensable. There is no good reason why private sector incumbents should receive preferential access to the state’s largesse, whether through Temasek funds or the government budget.

The talent exists right now outside the SPH stable to create news services that can surpass The Straits Times in quality within a year. The competition will also do the existing players a world of good, forcing them to raise their game and make better use of their many able journalists.

These proposed changes will not be easy for the PAP. In the course of a century, press laws ostensibly intended to protect national security and public order in exceptional circumstances have evolved into a routine system of public opinion management. In the government’s mind, making Singaporeans see it as it wishes to be seen is a legitimate use of its powers. This desire, although not explicitly written into earlier media laws, has been reified in the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which declares that protecting “public confidence” in the work of any government agency is, by definition, a matter of public interest.

Thus, the PAP has grown comfortable with a habitat where the media mostly amplifies and only occasionally questions the government’s voice. Many of the current leaders may simply not know any other way to operate. But outstanding PAP leaders with an eye on the future must try, not just for the media’s sake, but also their own. Buffering public officials from the inconvenient probing of a professional press corps was meant to help Singapore get the most out of brilliant policy-makers. But, as that Straits Times reader warned a century ago, it is more likely that stifling the media will “protect weaklings from the results of their own misgovernment and ineptitude”. A new leadership must rise to the challenge and remake a media model that is technologically and socially obsolete.

See also our academic reading list on public funding for media in our Special Topics section.

For media: Are you interested in republishing this article? Please see our guidelines here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.