Update on 11 Jan 2018: Fake news continues to make the headlines, as a Select Committee has been set up in Parliament to investigate the problem of people spreading falsehoods online.
The 10-member committee will be headed by veteran MP Charles Chong, and will include one MP from Workers’ Party and one Nominated MP. Together, they will look into the repercussions of fake news and the potential measures that can be taken to counter them.
In the interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was questioned by the hard talker on the freedom of Singapore’s press, insinuating that our national media here mirrors state media. This is, of course, nothing new, as social justice warriors like to annually spread the World Press Freedom Index, which regularly ranks our media here as one of the least free press in the world.
The issue the West and SJWs have with a press that isn’t “free” is the undertone that the news that these media report on are “fake”, as editors would skew stories to favour the ruling authorities. Ironically, over in the US, “free” press such as CNN, Washington Post and New York Times are now being labelled as fake news by their ruling authority.
Having been a journalist with the Singapore Press Holdings for 10 years, and in the media business my whole career, the idea that our local press could be construed as fake obviously doesn’t sit well with me.
The problem in today’s world is that the definition of journalism is severely being challenged. It’s not even about the obviously fake stories like those that circulated during the US Presidential elections, but more recently, BuzzFeed knowingly released the 35-page dossier on President Trump’s wet and wild Russian adventures even though they could not verify the content of the dossier. That’s literally a new benchmark for a major press, publishing news that they could not confirm as true. That it was then widely reported and the top trending topic for a few days, or in social media terms a lifetime, goes to show the value we place on “truth”.
As though it’s not already hard enough to discern whether things we see on our social media are real or not, do we really need news outlets not doing the job of fact checking?
Yes, I did indeed puke in my mouth a little by calling BuzzFeed a “major press” and “news outlet”, but such is the reality we live in today, which is yet another challenge journalism has to deal with, but that’s a column for another day.
Back to our local press, how real is the news you see on our media?
The most objective answer I can give to that question is, it depends.
It depends on what you think the role of media is supposed to be. The Western narrative is that the media is supposed to be the watchdog of those in positions of power and to expose any abuse of that power.
The idealist in me likes that narrative. After all, someone has to play the part of guarding the collective from individuals who are in the position to abuse their power for self gain. That ideal requires the media to hold a high standard of relentlessly pursuing the truth no matter what the cost, for the greater good of society.
The problem is with defining what “truth” really means, because the media can shape that truth by the way they report on any story.
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One of the first things I learned as a rookie journalist was how to angle a story. Very often, that is decided by what we felt was the most interesting thing about that story, or in today’s terminology, what was the most clickbait.
So let’s take PM’s interview as the news that the media would report on.
The factual headline would be: PM Lee interviewed on BBC by Stephen Sackur. That’s a neutral and factual headline, but let’s face it, not terribly exciting.
Let’s then take a look how some media reported the news.
AsiaOne: BBC tries to grill PM Lee on press freedom and here’s how he responded
AsiaOne, consciously or unconsciously, defined Stephen Sackur’s questioning as him trying to grill PM, which suggests that PM was more than up to the task of Sackur’s tough line of questioning, as the use of the word trying insinuates that Sackur didn’t succeed.
Mothership.sg: 10 key PM Lee BBC HARDTalk quotes that will save you 30 minutes of watching it
Mothership made the editorial decision that apart from the 10 key quotes they identified, the rest of the interview was not worth your time watching.
The Middle Ground: Making HARD TALK is thirsty work
Bertha Henson decided to review the performance of Sackur rather than focus on the issues, which she said was Sackur being “stuck in the old colonial mould of suggesting what other countries should do”.
The Online Citizen: PM Lee maintains stance on 377a from 2007 speech in Parliament
It might seem like good journalism to refer back to a past speech, but it could also be interpreted as TOC making a statement that PM’s thinking is outdated, as 10 years has passed since his speech in Parliament.
South China Morning Post: ‘A satisfactory outcome’: Singapore’s PM on Hong Kong’s seizure of military vehicles
Naturally, SCMP zoomed in on the Terrex issue, but did it in a way that editorialised Hong Kong’s role in it. Simply by using the right quote, the headline suggested that Singapore found no fault with the way Hong Kong dealt with the issue.
BBC: Singapore could face choice between US or China, PM says
Bloomberg: U.S.-China Tensions May Force Nations to Choose, Singapore Says
Both international news organisations were probably less concerned with Singapore but more using the opportunity to continue their narrative that tensions are escalating between the US and China under the Trump presidency.
Now, none of the above media outlets reported anything that was technically fake, since PM Lee did say all those things in the interview. But in choosing what to focus on, or carefully choosing the words used in headlines, the media outlets were also introducing their own “truths”.
Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, they were saying that Stephen Sackur is an ineffective dinosaur of the colonial era, that PM Lee performed well in the interview, that PM Lee is outdated in his thinking, that the Trump Presidency will cause major tensions between two superpowers and so on.
To be a true watchman of the rich and powerful, the media has to be factual and neutral, and yet, faced with the increasing pressure of falling circulation and increased online competition, the “free press” has found itself veering more towards the left or right, which ultimately diminishes their role as the gatekeeper of authority.
Which leads to the next view of what the media’s role should be. Some see the media’s role within a society as “nation building”, that instead of being antagonistic and doubtful of the authorities, that the media should play a role in helping them create a better community and keep peace and harmony.
This, however, is an unpopular view, especially among our local fraternity of journalists. This calls for the media to report everything that the Government or authority wants to say, take a less lenient view towards opponents of those in power and their policies and help put a positive light on what the Government thinks will be beneficial for the country at large.
This makes a lot of sense for those who believe in social engineering for the greater good, as a benevolent leader is rarely helped by an antagonistic media who might be driven by circulation and clicks more than doing good. It does, however, leave huge potential for abuse by leaders who are less altruistic.
In essence, the TL;DR version of what I just said is Good King, Free Press Bad. Bad King, Free Press Good.
Of course, with more opposing views coming through social media, the idea of the mainstream press playing a nation building role might also be moot.
In truth, since most media outlets all carry some degree of bias, a healthy media landscape would be one where we can read differing opinions and views and decide for ourselves which version is closer to the truth. In that scenario, a Fox News is just as necessary as a CNN.
The Singapore news landscape is no longer just the playground of SPH and MediaCorp, and with the rise of alternative news sites such as The Online Citizen, The Middle Ground and Mothership, voices claiming that the Singapore news outlets print only propaganda, or fake news, would probably carry less weight in the years to come.
Edwin, to the best of his knowledge, has never reported fake news in his 10 years as a journalist. He has, however, had fake hair.
All gifs sourced from GIPHY.