SPH media restructuring must be seen in context of pressures faced by newspapers globally: Shanmugam

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also noted that it is vital for the media to retain the trust of the public.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also noted that it is vital for the media to retain the trust of the public.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - While newspaper readership in Singapore has gone up, bottom lines have suffered as the old business model, which relies heavily on advertising revenue, no longer works, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said on Saturday (May 8).

These pressures are faced by newspapers around the world, and have seen some titles taken over by billionaires and others getting government support, he added.

The minister said this is the context in which Singapore Press Holdings' restructuring plan, which will see its media business transferred to a not-for-profit company, has to be seen.

He also noted that it is vital for the media to retain the trust of the public, as a media that is not trusted will lead to a government and political leadership that are not trusted.

"We have to maintain trust in all our institutions, and the media has to play its part in making sure that it maintains the trust of the people," he said.

Speaking to reporters at a community event in his constituency, Mr Shanmugam said: "Media businesses in most countries are under pressure. Many newspapers in Europe, the US have closed. Many others have been restructured, including some of the best-known international newspapers."

He gave the example of the Chicago Tribune and Denver Post, both of which had to be saved from bankruptcy. Others, including the Washington Post and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, have been taken over by billionaires like the US' Mr Jeff Bezos and China's Mr Jack Ma.

And governments of many countries - including France and Australia - also provide financial support to newspapers, like France's Le Monde, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros.

"They are all aiding their media," Mr Shanmugam said. "You have no choice if you want high-quality journalism."

In the case of Singapore, SPH's newspapers - which include The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao - have done "extremely well" in terms of readership.

"Readership has gone up, but at the same time, bottom lines have come down, suffered," he added. "Ad revenues have come down sharply. The old business model doesn't work."

The minister also spoke on the importance of trust in the media, noting that independent surveys such as the Edelman Trust Barometer have shown that Singapore ranks higher than other developed countries - including the United States, United Kingdom and Japan - on this topic.

Around 62 per cent of respondents in Singapore trust the media to do what is right, compared with the global average of around 51 per cent. A 2020 survey by YouGov also found that seven in 10 people here trust local media reporting on Covid-19, compared with three in 10 in the UK.

"If the media is not trusted, it would inevitably lead to a government and political leadership that is not trusted. Then, we are all finished if that happens," Mr Shanmugam said.

The minister was also asked for his thoughts on SPH chief executive Ng Yat Chung's comments at a press conference announcing the move, which have sparked a furore online.

Mr Ng had told the reporter he took umbrage at her question, and a video of his remarks went viral. The reporter, from Mediacorp's CNA Digital, had asked if the company "will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interests".

"Both the reporter who asked the question, and her editor, Walter (Fernandez), know that taking money from an advertiser doesn't automatically mean that independence is compromised," Mr Shanmugam said.

"If that were so, most newspapers in the world would not be considered independent because most newspapers do, in fact, completely rely on advertisements."

He added that the question was nevertheless a fair one, given that journalists would be concerned about their independence.

"Mr Ng's reaction, and the way he answered the question, I think was very unfortunate," the minister said. "His outburst can be described in stronger terms, but I want to be careful and understated, because SPH is a listed company, with shareholders, management, and I need to be careful."

Separately, Mr Ng issued an apology on the subject on Saturday. He told The Straits Times: "I had stood up for SPH Media's long-cherished editorial integrity and will continue to do so. Being a direct and blunt-speaking person, I apologise for any offence I might have caused and regret any distraction from the merits of the proposed restructuring."