Press muse – Servility to higher powers

The Christian Post Singapore published on its website Tuesday (7 September) an intriguing article titled “NCCS Workshop Prepares Churches to Engage Press“. It covered an event organised by the National Council of Churches of Singapore to “help churches publicise their work and respond to press inquiries.”

NCCS General Secretary Lim K Tham explained: “The press seem to be interested in the activities of the church (of late).” He presumably referred to media reports on local megachurches, probing their finances, business dealings and alleged fiscal impropriety.

The NCCS therefore sought expert guidance to educate members on the finer points of public relations and media management. They brought in an experienced PR professional, as the story indicated:

“Speaker Iain Ewing, 65…taught 300 pastors and church communications personnel to ‘sell their message to the media’.”

“The Canadian communications trainer encouraged his audience to make a checklist of possible stories to ‘sell’ to the media.”

“Ewing revealed one simple rule to getting a story published in the media: personal relationships with journalists. Knowing journalists has enabled the expert to have some media writing about him every month, he said.”

You may already know this if you’re a media observer, a PR professional, or a layperson who’s read Ben Goldacre’s or Nick Davies’ musings on the pernicious presence of PR in journalism. In any case, Ewing’s advice is no bombshell – PR in its modern guise has been big business for decades.

The more salient part of the workshop came from George Joseph, a Business Times assistant news editor and the Singapore Press Club’s honorary secretary – apparently an experienced and respected mainstream journalist. The article described his input:

The event also helped dispel suspicions many Christians had about a certain newspaper. This happened during the question-and-answer session at the end of the workshop.

Joseph, a veteran Singapore journalist, stressed that the particular newspaper is neither government-censored nor pro-homosexuality nor anti-Christian.

Which newspaper, you ask? There are clues later in the story, when the Aware saga was discussed at length. So no prizes for guessing the Straits Times. After all, it led media coverage on the affair and threaded on the most toes.

Joseph’s comments on that “certain newspaper” comprise familiar refrains, but nonetheless are worth scrutinising.

“There is absolutely no censorship in Singapore in the sense that you don’t have a censor sitting in the offices of the newspapers,” he said. It was a response to a question from Ewing.

That newspaper practices what is known as ‘developmental journalism’, Joseph added.

This is a system whereby ministers hold meetings with editors and journalists to ensure that they understand government objectives.

Ewing’s PR advice had anticipated Joseph’s comments. Overt censorship is superfluous when having personal relationships with journalists is sufficient to win favourable coverage. Why bother with sticks when the carrots work fine?

The fundamental point on censorship, which escaped Joseph, is not if the proverbial sword of Damocles really hangs over local newsrooms, but whether the state wields influence over journalists and, if so, how much. He acknowledges this influence, but, as his responses suggest, denies the implied aspersion that the mainstream press is biased.

Joseph – or any journalist for that matter – may not explicitly state it, but the ‘objectivity’ peddled by the news media is a mirage. Media bias is organic (or endemic). Perhaps the late historian Howard Zinn described it best:

I understood early that what is presented as “history” or as “news” is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.

…behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgement – the judgement that this fact is important to put forward (and, by implication, other facts may be ignored). And any such judgement reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian, however he or she pretends to “objectivity”.[1]

However, Joseph’s inability (or conscious choice not) to see his logical inconsistency is expected, and there is a theoretical framework that explains why. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman described it as the ‘propaganda model‘ in their 1988 book “Manufacturing Consent“. Five factors, they argue, influence news output: ownership of the medium, its funding sources, sourcing of information, criticism of their work, and ideology (or anti-ideology).

Chomsky explained the concept to British journalist Andrew Marr (then of the Independent newspaper) in a 1996 interview (watch interview as aired on BBC2):

Chomsky: The institutional structure of the media is quite straightforward – we’re talking about the United States, it’s not very different elsewhere – there are sectors, but the agenda-setting media, the ones that set the framework for everyone else (like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and so on), these are the major corporations, parts of even bigger conglomerates.

Like other corporate institutions, they have a product and a market: Their market is advertisers, that is, other businesses; their product is relatively privileged audiences, more or less..

Marr: So they’re selling audiences to…

C: They’re selling privileged audiences – these are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations.

The news media isn’t concerned with selling journalism to an audience, but with selling an audience to other businesses, which then have access to a tailor-made consumer market. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free…press.

In such a model, journalism is shaped by owners’ priorities and commercial pressures, which evolve alongside political and social realities. These realities also shape the paradigm of acceptable journalistic values. Journalists who accept (not necessarily believe) this paradigm will make it through the system.

M: This is what I don’t get, because (the propaganda model) suggests – I mean, I’m a journalist – people like me are “self-censoring”…

C: No – not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and – it doesn’t work a hundred percent, but it’s pretty effective – it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially…

M: So, stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence…

C: There’ll be “behaviour problems” or… if you read applications to a graduate school, you see that people will tell you “he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues” – you know how to interpret those things.

A short while later, Marr returned to the question of self-censorship.

M: How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…

C: I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

In the case of Singapore, the five factors described in the propaganda model manifest as follows:

  • Firstly, the matter of newspaper company ownership is controlled by the government, under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (the effects of which are explained by Press-pedia at journalism.sg).
  • Secondly, both the Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp are major corporations driven by the profit motive.
  • Thirdly, mainstream journalism tend to defer to official sources for authority and perceived authenticity.
  • Fourthly, the government has limited avenues for public criticism (although the advent of the Internet has changed this), while its criticism of newspaper actions – backed by strong libel laws – have been effective at shaping behaviour and eliminating elements of dissent.
  • Fifthly, the developmental, nation-building ideology (or the anti-ideology against communism, left-wing politics, instability, etc.) remains fashionable in the intellectual mainstream, because fundamental geopolitical realities that underpin the ideology persist.

The system isn’t foolproof but is highly effective. Some journalists genuinely believe in their work. Some see through the system and try to game it, while trying not to jeopardise their careers. Some are cognisant but cynically exploit their awareness for self-benefit. Others don’t care, so long as it pays the bills.  But all of them pass muster. It is those who reject the system in its entirety that get filtered out.

Joseph – a successful senior journalist publicly defending the integrity of his organisation – probably believes in his work. Critics may question on him on his integrity or lack of conscience – as many have of other journalists over gross bias in their work – but such accusations are likely misdirected. In the minds of those journalists, they are following their conscience.

If they believed something different, they wouldn’t be sitting where they are sitting.


[1] Zinn, Howard, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), p. 16.

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~ by spiegel2071 on September 10, 2010.

One Response to “Press muse – Servility to higher powers”

  1. […] a tad too dependent on official sources for authority and convenience, whilst smugly name-dropping Herman and Chomsky? Well, seems that they’ve been at it […]

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