From The Gallery

SPH media restructuring: Keeping the faith, keeping the trust

Visitors viewing interactive displays at the ST170 exhibition held at the ArtScience Museum in 2015.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - When news of the restructuring of Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) media business broke last Thursday, my phone buzzed non-stop.

Everyone had an opinion; everyone had a meme. The number of messages became so overwhelming that I stopped responding to them.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran's ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday (May 10) cut through the noise.

He went back to first principles.

The global media industry is under severe structural pressure, and even the rare newspapers which are profitable, such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, have not been spared.

Contrary to a trope peddled by some critics of the media here, Singaporean readers are not turning away from the company's news platforms in droves.

In fact, readership has never been higher, and so is the public's trust in the local media. Yet the market reality is that there is limited scope to grow digital advertising to offset the plunge in advertising revenue.

Second, the Government is stepping in on the fundamental premise that a high-quality, professional and respected media, reporting news by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, is essential to the country's fabric.

Mr Iswaran observed that the local media help interpret global events through a distinctively Singaporean lens, and act as a glue that binds rather than divides society.

"Domestically, the local media not only report on events and developments, but also publish a balanced range of views, to inform the national debate and help foster a national consensus, not allowing disagreements to deepen into divisions in our society," he said.

There were other notable points made in the debate following his ministerial statement, such as by Ms Mariam Jaafar (Sembawang GRC), Ms Nadia Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) on the vernacular media.

Mr Iswaran gave the assurance that the Government remains committed to the vernacular media under the new company limited by guarantee (CLG) that SPH's media business would eventually come under.

He said that any hollowing-out of SPH's capabilities would weigh heavily on these newspapers, which have a smaller readership.

"If you take a purely business logic to this, then I think the outcomes can be quite detrimental to national cohesion," he said.

"We want to preserve the voice of our vernacular media. This is an important part of the (multiracial) tapestry of Singapore society."

But what has really dominated online discussion - and which was a point raised by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) on Monday - is the issue of editorial independence.

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), with its attendant restrictions on the ownership and control of local media companies, will apply to SPH's news entities under the new CLG.

Current management shareholders such as OCBC, Great Eastern, and NTUC Income - which have special voting rights on resolutions relating to the appointment of directors and staff - have all agreed to form the CLG and be its founding members.

There will naturally be howls of displeasure from those who say it is old wine in a new bottle.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) questioned the basis of having retired former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan - also a former chairman of the People's Action Party - head the CLG.

But is it necessarily a "missed opportunity" to pick someone less closely linked to the Government, as she said?

Mr Khaw, 68, has, after all, a reputation as Mr Fix-It, thanks to the turnarounds he has made in housing, healthcare and transport.

The CLG membership will also be expanded to include newer and more diverse institutions. This is rightly so, given that the digital and social landscape has changed dramatically in the more than 40 years since the Act was enacted.

Could an expanded membership include philanthropic foundations? Private equity firms? Tech companies?

The point here is that a door to other funding sources and expertise has opened where it was once closed.

What makes such a CLG any less compelling than the single-ownership structure adopted by, say, the Washington Post - bought by Amazon's Jeff Bezos after 80 years of being owned by a single family; or the South China Morning Post - owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, then Malaysian real estate tycoon Robert Kuok, and later the Alibaba Group?

Said Mr Iswaran: "We should therefore be very clear that what matters is not perceived political hue in the appointments, but rather, the substance of the character and capability of the people who are involved."

Monday's debate in the House will, of course, not silence the debate outside of it.

SPH can never run away from the perception that it reflects the Government's position. To quote a former managing editor, "that's our karma".

The truth is that a media company which exists free of any legacy, be it cultural, business, or political, is a chimera.

But good journalists and editors will do their level best to navigate their unique legacies, be professional, and produce a fair, balanced and accurate analysis for their readers.

In this regard, Mr Iswaran hit the nail on the head when he said that the Government and the media will not see eye to eye on every issue.

For The Straits Times, which celebrated its 175th birthday last year and has seen more than its fair share of convulsions, this restructuring is as good a time as any to transform, so that it can serve the public better and maintain its trust.

Writ large, this isn't just about SPH per se.

It is about the local media's duty to keep the faith even under the most difficult of circumstances, to reflect the diversity of views that make up Singapore society, and to foster greater understanding of the values on which this country is based. That is all.

Read key highlights of the ministerial statement on SPH media restructuring here