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ST - The Newsroom Challenge

ST - The Newsroom Challenge

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Published by: bryan_ti on Sep 21, 2011
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09/21/2011

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The newsroom challenge
Published on Sep 21, 2011
At the launch of former president S R Nathan's memoirs, An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency, on Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recounted how Mr Nathan was asked to be the executive chairman of Straits Times Press after his retirement from foreign service. PM Lee observed: 'Mr Nathan spent six years there, gaining the trust of journalists, helping them appreciate our unique context as a young nation, and giving them the support to run a high-quality, successful newspaper. I read this chapter carefully and it reminds me very much of the same challenges we face in the new age, with a new generation and with new media and new technologies. But the objectives, conflicting roles, imperatives, remain the same.' Below is an edited excerpt from the chapter 'Entering the newspaper world'.
IT WAS around the end of October 1981. I was still working as first permanentsecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One Saturday evening, I had a phone callfrom Peter Lim of The Straits Times. I had known Peter for many years, since the1960s, when I helped service the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) toresolve disputes between the journalists and the newspaper company'smanagement. Peter had progressed in his career - since 1978 he had been editor-in-chief.Peter went straight to the point. He and his boss, managing director Lyn Holloway,had had a meeting with the prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, at the Istana thatafternoon. The meeting, one of a number, was to discuss the government'sunhappiness with the slanted aspects of the paper's news coverage and editorialcomment, unfairly critical of the government and its policies on domestic issues.
 
During the meeting, Peter said, Holloway had urged Peter to tell the prime ministerthat he (Peter) had asked me to consider joining The Straits Times after myretirement from government. Peter said that the prime minister was planning to put asenior civil servant into the company's top management. He apologised to me forputting my name instead to the prime minister without my prior permission - hehoped I would not in any way be embarrassed. The implication of this conversationwas that the prime minister might well be sending me to The Straits Times.After the call, all I could do was to await the prime minister's decision, whatever itmight be. I told my wife the gist of the conversation and got on with my dinner. Shehad shown no reaction - perhaps she was asking herself what kind of retirement Iexpected.The following Monday, on my own initiative, I went to see S. Dhanabalan, ministerfor foreign affairs and concurrently minister for culture. The media were theresponsibility of the culture ministry at that time. Dhanabalan was aware of theSaturday meeting at the Istana, and he confirmed what Peter had said generallyabout government unease over The Straits Times.The government was unhappy with The Straits Times because of a sense that thepaper was deliberately portraying government and its social and other policies in anegative light, without any real basis. It had also been trying to ferret out confidentialinformation and revealing it prematurely as speculation, which was detrimental to thegovernment's intentions behind particular policy ideas. According to Dhanabalan,these complaints had been aired at several meetings with The Straits Times. In theabsence of any adequate proposal on the part of the newspaper management toprevent future recurrences of these problems, the government felt that it might haveto put in its own team.When I was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, in May 1971, thegovernment moved against three other local papers. Three Nanyang Siang Pauexecutives were arrested under the Internal Security Act for stirring up racialtensions. The Eastern Sun was closed down after reports that it had been receivingfunds from communist sources in Hong Kong, and the Singapore Herald, livelycompetition to The Straits Times, had its licence withdrawn by the government. Theprime minister alleged that the three papers were all involved in 'black operations',and their editorial policies were contrary to Singapore's interests and security.The matter was raised with the International Press Institute by David Marshall, whichprompted the prime minister to spell out what he saw as the role of local newspapersin June 1971 at a meeting of the institute in Helsinki. In an address on 'The MassMedia and New Countries', he reviewed the approaches adopted by the media inother parts of the world and examined the choices faced by 'new nations' in decidinghow the press should be regulated. This is what he was reported to have said:
 
 'I can answer only for Singapore. The mass media can help to present Singapore'sproblems simply and clearly and then explain how, if they support certainprogrammes and policies, these problems can be solved. More important, we wantthe mass media to reinforce, not to undermine, the cultural values and socialattitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities. The mass media cancreate a mood in which people become keen to acquire the knowledge, skills anddisciplines of advanced countries. Without these, we can never hope to raise thestandards of living of our people.'At the same time, the prime minister acknowledged, 'it is impossible to insulateSingapore from the outside world'.He drew attention to the sensitivities arising from the diverse nature of the Singaporepopulation: 'To compound our problems, the population of Singapore is nothomogeneous. There are several racial, linguistic, cultural and religious groups.' Hepointed to the ways in which the media could stir up conflict. 'People are affected bythe suggestion of the printed word, or the voices on radio, particularly if reinforced bythe television picture.'There was an inevitable tension between the government's expectations and the roleof the press as commonly seen in the developed world (and by some of the StraitsTimes journalists), which was to report whatever it feels appropriate, deferring to thenational interest only in exceptional circumstances. Journalists internationally seethemselves as having a responsibility not only to the authorities (howeverenlightened), but also to their readers. The challenge facing the paper's editors wassomehow to reconcile the various interpretations of its role.The tensions continued, and in the aftermath of the 1979 by-elections, the primeminister accused The Straits Times of treating the campaign as a 'cockfight'.This had led to some intensive self- examination within the paper, includingexchanges of views with then acting minister for culture (and later president) OngTeng Cheong. Relations were further exacerbated by the paper's coverage of boththe 1980 general election and the 1981 by-election in which J.B. Jeyaretnam of theWorkers' Party gained a parliamentary seat. During the latter campaign, The StraitsTimes had reported a possible rise in bus fares before its official announcement, andthis was construed as a possible factor in the election's outcome.The evening before my move to The Straits Times, I had another meeting with theprime minister. He spoke again of his hope that I could manage a change without hishaving to impose one by putting in a government team. He acknowledged that thislatter course would affect the international credibility of the paper. However, if itproved unavoidable, he was prepared for it.

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