Press muse – K. Shanmugam, literary gymnast

So newly minted Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam (who is concurrently Law Minister) has been hitting the lecture circuit again, sharing with the world finer intricacies of running Singapore Inc.

You may recall his earlier venture in October 2009, when he memorably told lawyers at a New York State Bar Association International Section’s meeting that “[Singapore is] different. We are a city. We are not a country.” It was classic politically expedient semantics; an act of verbalised realpolitik rightly mythologised in the Singapore blogosphere.

Photo: Straits Times

A year on, Shanmugam took on bigger game at Columbia University’s inaugural forum series “A Free Press for a Global Society,” where he explained: “The Role of the Media: Singapore’s Perspective“. His oratorical arsenal remains well-stocked on the evidence of last week’s speech, already the subject of a detailed critique here. As a latecomer to this party, I shan’t replicate that effort, instead focusing on points dealing specifically with Singapore media.

His talk began on rather agreeable terms:

The question of what role the media can play in a society, has to be considered in the context of how that society has structured its political framework – the media does not operate in a vacuum.

The game plan is obvious as it is predictable: why Singapore’s unique circumstances necessitates a particular media model. After setting out the “traditional liberal theory of media” that posits the media as watchdog and a clearinghouse of debate contributing to better social outcomes, Shanmugam proceeds to describe the reality:

(1) Journalists, like the rest of us, are human, and subject to the same influences and vices. They can be biased, unfair and prejudiced, as much as any of us can be.

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

(3) Media companies and journalists, like other entities and people, can be bought, suborned and corrupted – particularly in developing countries.

(4) Competition and the need for the advertising dollar can compromise ethics.

(5) There has also been a trend towards tabloidization to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

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

These are all fair points, although Shanmugam’s pithy précis is hardly revolutionary. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky did the hard work back in 1988 of describing the political economy of the mass media in their book “Manufacturing Consent.” Still, Shanmugam provides a baseline against which to assess his later prescriptions. These he puts forth with three points, summarising the government’s view on the role of the media:

(1) It should be a neutral medium for conveying news – with commentary clearly separate from news;

Sure, if by some extraordinary literary contorting he finesses “neutral medium” to mean newspaper companies whose “management” shareholders must be approved by the government, and that each of those “management shares” give the shareholder 200 times the voting power of an ordinary share on issues concerning the “appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff” of the company.

Or a media corporation led by career civil servants and politicians, like the Singapore Press Holdings, which counts among its chairmen – past and present – President S R Nathan, the late former cabinet minister Lim Kim San, and ex-deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan, the incumbent chair.

Or one that boasts in its ranks ex-intelligence services types, including former Internal Security Department director and ex-communications ministry permanent secretary Tjong Yik Min, who served as SPH group president and executive director from 1995 to 2002, and Straits Times’ political editor Chua Lee Hoong.

Or, in the words of Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang, a newspaper that is “a living, breathing, active member of the community” and not “a passive provider” of news.

It’s hard to pick the greater marvel here – Shanmugam’s capacity for cognitive dissonance, or his giftedness in verbal gymnastics worthy of Orwellian Oceania. But I jest.

(2) It should report fully and fairly what goes on. It can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing;

How can an intrinsically biased media be expected to “report fully and fairly” as a “neutral medium”? After all, one of the most strident criticisms of the news media (see: Herman and Chomsky) is made against its systemic subordination to political and corporate power. Or perhaps the “living, breathing, active” Singapore press the minister imagines is also a sagely, omniscient entity. Even so, there are things it shouldn’t do, like…

(3) 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 the validity of any particular point of view. 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.

Forceful rhetoric, sir! Would you like to personally inform Dr Tan and Ms Chua of an impending career switch? Or would you prefer the time-honoured and, in your case, well-deserved politician’s accolade of pathological hypocrisy?

The answer to my unasked question comes when Shanmugam quotes former British prime minister Tony Blair on the nature of the modern corporate media. Ah, who better to speak on the subject than the charismatic face of New Labour, who understood better than most how to co-opt the supposedly adversarial British news media into his own agenda, peddling outrageously sensational falsehoods in the 2002 September Dossier and 2003 Dodgy Dossier about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that the press dutifully repeated?

Channeling the master, disciple Shanmugam proceeds with a rhetorical sleight of hand – a Bliar Blair favourite – by citing the United States as notional alternative to the Singapore model; the classic false dilemma, better known as the either-or fallacy. I shan’t bore you with details but suffice to say, departing from our status quo doesn’t necessitate diving recklessly into the American media quagmire.

His straw arguments are nonetheless good for some snicks and giggles. Take this gem, for instance, where he flatters his hosts:

The basic point is a simple one. Your society has in-built stability. There can be fringe lunatic behaviour, but mainstream Americans are sensible, rational, and extremist sentiment will not threaten the very fabric of society.

So by implication, Singapore doesn’t have built-in stability, because there is lunatic behaviour and mainstream Singaporeans can’t be relied upon to be sensible, rational, and extremist sentiment will threaten the very fabric of society. Comforting, though not as much as our collective faith in our media, as Shanmugam boasts in riposte to Reporters Sans Frontières’ annual press freedom index (see: shame parade):

In 2005 and 2006, Gallup asked residents in 128 countries whether they had confidence in the quality and integrity of their media. 69% of Singaporeans polled answered in the affirmative…. Singaporeans trust our media.

Is that so? It is a claim similar to one made earlier this year (discussed here), when then acting information minister Lui Tuck Yew (he has since been appointed on a permanent basis) cited in parliament the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, which said that 68 percent of Singaporeans polled regarded newspapers as their most trusted source of information – a proportion higher than the global average of 34 percent.

Flunking Shanmugam’s “full and fair reporting” test, Straits Times reporter Zakir Hussain, in his report on Lui’s remarks, had elided the fact that Edelman’s Singapore study involved only 200 people that are college-educated; with household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; and follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week. Hardly a representative sample of the Singapore population.

Funnily enough, a day later the Straits Times reported the findings of a Reader’s Digest online poll that ranked 40 professions on how trusted they are by Singaporeans, based on responses from 760 residents. It placed journalists at 30th and politicians at 39th. Charming.

Even the Straits Times’ Han was coy enough to admit in May that “We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased,” adding “the test is if our readers believe in the paper and continue to buy it.”

How do they fare then? From 2000 to 2009, the Straits Times’ circulation fell by four percent. Detailed figures aren’t available, but the net readership trend in the same period, provided in the 2009 SPH annual report, indicates only modest growth for SPH’s English-language newspapers. In the same period, Singapore’s total population grew by 24 percent, while the resident population grew by 14 percent. While potential readership rose rapidly, circulation actually fell and net readership grew only modestly.

So much for SPH’s flagship newspaper that despite having free rein to corral its market in the absence of an equivalent domestic competitor, has had to step up bulk sales to schools to keep up circulation numbers. Result.

What of the Gallup poll? Gallup discusses it on its website, reveals their methodology and makes a couple of tentative observations: “While a country’s press may be considered free, it may not be widely respected by the residents who live there. Further, media considered to have relatively limited press freedom may have the support of their people.” What the results reflect on each society is not clear, but interestingly Singapore’s performance puts it alongside Botswana, Costa Rica and Tanzania, while trailing the likes of Nepal, Cambodia, Laos and table-topping Rwanda.

But bollocks and yah boo sucks to them, right? Only one audience really counts, as Shanmugam reassured us:

Our approach has been to ignore criticisms that make no sense – and we continue to do better. The people of Singapore also know better. 66% voted for the Government at the last general elections on our policy platform.

Or in “fuller” and “fairer” terms, 56.6% out of a total registered electorate of 2.16 million in 2006.

Mind you – Singaporeans are now well-educated, sophisticated, and know their rights. And as stated earlier, they also trust their media.

Only minutes before, some of us were lunatics and the rest of us aren’t really sensible and rational. Bravo sir, a perfect volte-face. Comăneci would be proud.

~ by spiegel2071 on November 9, 2010.

One Response to “Press muse – K. Shanmugam, literary gymnast”

  1. […] fortunate recipients of a elaborate back rub last month. Home affairs and law minister K. Shanmugam spoke of its trustworthiness and fulfillment of key socio-political roles. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong called on them to convince readers they remain “one of the […]

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