Singapore—In a Facebook post, media studies professor Cherian George chose not to comment on last week’s ruckus when the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) CEO Ng Yat Chung had a strong and much-criticised reaction to a question from a CNA reporter.
Instead, the Hong Kong-based academic offered some tips to “the local press — particularly the country’s largest corps of journalists, those employed by SPH — on how to do right by Singapore when they cover the issue” of SPH’s restructuring of its media business into a not-for-profit entity.
First, he underlined the need for SPH newspapers to set up independent reporting teams to cover SPH’s restructuring who would be “insulated from editors who are involved” in the corporate exercise. This, he said, would be similar to the experience of the Wall Street Journal when Rupert Murdoch took over in the 1990s.
Immediate action along this line would convey that it is a news organisation serious about its editorial integrity.
“Its reporting of the process should not be influenced by editors and executives who stand to gain or lose from whatever arrangements are to be worked out,” added Prof George.
Making his second point, the professor wrote that journalists need to make sure “that the voice of the profession is heard”.
He further defined editorial integrity as “respecting journalists’ ultimate loyalty to their professional values and the public they serve”.
When employers ask journalists to write advertorials and sponsored content, or when paid content is not labelled, or when they are expected to solicit commercial deals in aid of marketing, this challenges editorial integrity, he added.
“Do these things happen? The public needs to hear from working journalists. This information will speak to whether we can trust SPH Media to protect editorial integrity from its funders. SPH cannot claim that these are the internal matters of a private company.”
With the company’s history of having its monopoly profits protected by Government licensing, and all the more now that it seeks taxpayer funds for support, SPH has “a fiduciary duty to the public over and above what normal newspaper companies owe”.
Prof George’s final tip is for journalists to share with the public the best practices around the world that have arisen after journalism’s financial crisis.
For example, since SPH cited the example of The Guardian in Britain, he suggested that Guardian veterans such as Mr Alan Rusbridger be interviewed about how trust-owned media protects editorial integrity from their owners and funders.
He added, “You should avoid selective reporting of partial evidence to align public opinion with the Government’s chosen path (like was done in the coverage of ‘fake news’ and POFMA).”
The academic also mentioned that while Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said it is becoming more common for many countries to turn to public funding to support media, journalists should get their information not only from officials but from also experts who have extensively studied developing media systems that serve the public interest, adding helpful links that SPH journalists can peruse.
Prof George ended his post echoing SPH chairman Lee Boon Yang, who said that newspapers will come to a point where they must choose to serve the public or their shareholders.
He added, “The public will decide where you stand not based on answers at a press conference, but on how you do your journalism. That test starts now.”
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