The newsroom challenge

Then Straits Times Press executive chairman S R Nathan opening a charity fair organised by the Singapore Council of Social Service and The Times Organisation in September 1983.
Then Straits Times Press executive chairman S R Nathan opening a charity fair organised by the Singapore Council of Social Service and The Times Organisation in September 1983.PHOTO: ST FILE

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 permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One Saturday evening, I had a phone call from Peter Lim of The Straits Times. I had known Peter for many years, since the 1960s, when I helped service the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) to resolve disputes between the journalists and the newspaper company’s management. 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 that afternoon. The meeting, one of a number, was to discuss the government’s unhappiness with the slanted aspects of the paper’s news coverage and editorial comment, unfairly critical of the government and its policies on domestic issues.

During the meeting, Peter said, Holloway had urged Peter to tell the prime minister that he (Peter) had asked me to consider joining The Straits Times after my retirement from government. Peter said that the prime minister was planning to put a senior civil servant into the company’s top management. He apologised to me for putting my name instead to the prime minister without my prior permission – he hoped I would not in any way be embarrassed. The implication of this conversation was 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 it might be. I told my wife the gist of the conversation and got on with my dinner. She had shown no reaction – perhaps she was asking herself what kind of retirement I expected.

The following Monday, on my own initiative, I went to see S. Dhanabalan, minister for foreign affairs and concurrently minister for culture. The media were the responsibility of the culture ministry at that time. Dhanabalan was aware of the Saturday meeting at the Istana, and he confirmed what Peter had said generally about government unease over The Straits Times.

The government was unhappy with The Straits Times because of a sense that the paper was deliberately portraying government and its social and other policies in a negative light, without any real basis. It had also been trying to ferret out confidential information and revealing it prematurely as speculation, which was detrimental to the government’s intentions behind particular policy ideas. According to Dhanabalan, these complaints had been aired at several meetings with The Straits Times. In the absence of any adequate proposal on the part of the newspaper management to prevent future recurrences of these problems, the government felt that it might have to put in its own team.

When I was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, in May 1971, the government moved against three other local papers. Three Nanyang Siang Pau executives were arrested under the Internal Security Act for stirring up racial tensions. The Eastern Sun was closed down after reports that it had been receiving funds from communist sources in Hong Kong, and the Singapore Herald, lively competition to The Straits Times, had its licence withdrawn by the government. The prime 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, which prompted the prime minister to spell out what he saw as the role of local newspapers in June 1971 at a meeting of the institute in Helsinki. In an address on “The Mass Media and New Countries”, he reviewed the approaches adopted by the media in other parts of the world and examined the choices faced by “new nations” in deciding how 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’s problems simply and clearly and then explain how, if they support certain programmes and policies, these problems can be solved. More important, we want the mass media to reinforce, not to undermine, the cultural values and social attitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities. The mass media can create a mood in which people become keen to acquire the knowledge, skills and disciplines of advanced countries. Without these, we can never hope to raise the standards of living of our people.”

At the same time, the prime minister acknowledged, “it is impossible to insulate Singapore from the outside world”.

He drew attention to the sensitivities arising from the diverse nature of the Singapore population: “To compound our problems, the population of Singapore is not homogeneous. There are several racial, linguistic, cultural and religious groups.” He pointed to the ways in which the media could stir up conflict. “People are affected by the suggestion of the printed word, or the voices on radio, particularly if reinforced by the television picture.” 

There was an inevitable tension between the government’s expectations and the role of the press as commonly seen in the developed world (and by some of the Straits Times journalists), which was to report whatever it feels appropriate, deferring to the national interest only in exceptional circumstances. Journalists internationally see themselves as having a responsibility not only to the authorities (however enlightened), but also to their readers. The challenge facing the paper’s editors was somehow to reconcile the various interpretations of its role. 

The tensions continued, and in the aftermath of the 1979 by-elections, the prime minister accused The Straits Times of treating the campaign as a “cockfight”. 

This had led to some intensive self- examination within the paper, including exchanges of views with then acting minister for culture (and later president) Ong Teng Cheong. Relations were further exacerbated by the paper’s coverage of both the 1980 general election and the 1981 by-election in which J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party gained a parliamentary seat. During the latter campaign, The Straits Times had reported a possible rise in bus fares before its official announcement, and this 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 the prime minister. He spoke again of his hope that I could manage a change without his having to impose one by putting in a government team. He acknowledged that this latter course would affect the international credibility of the paper. However, if it proved unavoidable, he was prepared for it.

As I walked to the door of his office, the prime minister called me back. I remember his words: “Nathan – I am giving you The Straits Times. It has 150 years of history. It has been a good paper. It is like a bowl of china. If you break it, I can piece it together. But it will never be the same. Try not to destroy it.”

I said nothing. He said, “You are keeping silent.” I said, “Sir, you have told me what to do. Also what I should not do. What is there for me to say? I’ll try.”

And so I left.

When at last I moved to Times House, I was allotted a small office on the third storey. Unkind observers could have remarked that my secretary Cindy Lee and I had been tucked away in a corner tower.

I was greeted with hostile body language even by those I knew. Some wore black armbands, which I naively took as the signs of personal bereavement traditionally displayed by the Chinese in mourning. They were certainly in mourning, but the unhappy event was my arrival.

I sensed that Peter was also under pressure from junior journalists. Some of his subordinates were inclined to dismiss him and his more senior colleagues as government stooges. Some of them were indeed vocal in expressing displeasure over my coming. Young and new to the business, they were probably reflecting the opinions of more seasoned foreign journalists, whom they often took as role models. In news reports and comment pieces, many reports published outside Singapore had interpreted my arrival as a move by the government to restrict press freedom. They had frequently cited my previous career as director of intelligence as evidence of the government’s diabolical motives. 

Over the next few weeks I made an effort to get out and talk to a range of ministers and officials and the few prominent businesspeople I knew – newsmakers – to get a sense of any complaints they had about the newspaper and its coverage and comments.

Gradually I began to have a clearer sense of what had been irking the government and what lay behind it. The Straits Times’ coverage of local and foreign news, including sports and market coverage, was very broad and comprehensive. A lot of it was relatively factual and uncontroversial. Like any newspaper, The Straits Times received its fair share of gripes from the people actually in the news, and even the occasional libel suit. Inevitably the sports and entertainment sections had their fair share of critics. But this was only to be expected. The problem, it seemed to me, lay in the culture of the newsroom.

The newsroom management seemed rather casual. Some of the younger journalists often resorted to challenging the authority of their superiors. A few were very much influenced by the American press, which saw itself as the “Fourth Estate”. There was pressure for “democracy in the newsroom”. Junior journalists would walk up to the editor-in-chief and protest whenever their pieces were spiked, rewritten (as is customary newsroom practice everywhere), or merged with other contributions. Perhaps more legitimately, the journalists claimed it as their role to be sensitive to the needs and interests of their readers, which were not necessarily congruent with the views of those in authority. Complex though the situation was, it was clear to me that the solution did not lie in an administrative clean-up, arbitrary disciplinary measures or dismissals. I realised that insensitive handling of the situation could have adverse repercussions beyond the company.

It took time, but gradually Peter Lim and his colleagues came to appreciate that I was there to work with them to address their problems and not to usurp their functions. I was not there simply to impose solutions derived from my previous experience. Gradually, the atmosphere began to improve.