SINGAPORE - The new not-for-profit SPH Media Trust (SMT) has exercised editorial independence since its titles formed Singapore Press Holdings in 1984, and funding support - whether from public or private sources - does not change that, said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo on Tuesday (Feb 15).
She was responding in Parliament to Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), who had asked how the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) would ensure that editorial independence continues to be upheld in SMT's newsrooms, now that the Government has committed to provide funding support.
"The Government's key interest is to ensure the reach of SMT's products. No one gains if these products lack credibility and are ignored by audiences," she said.
"On the contrary, we are funding them precisely because they do have readers who trust them," she added.
Earlier in her speech, Mrs Teo announced that MCI has set aside up to $180 million in funding support for SMT annually, over the next five years.
SMT is the holding company of SPH Media Group, which publishes The Straits Times, Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, Malay daily Berita Harian and Tamil daily Tamil Murasu, among other titles.
It was spun off from newspaper publisher and mainboard-listed company Singapore Press Holdings in December last year. This was on the back of falling advertising revenue and changing reading patterns globally, and the realisation that a new business model would be needed to help the media business secure funding.
On Tuesday, Mrs Teo reiterated that funding support would not change the SMT's practice of editorial independence, pointing to national broadcaster Mediacorp, which has received annual Government funding for public service broadcasting since 2011.
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh later rose to ask how the Government would assure Singaporeans that SMT's content would not be "tainted by allegations of political interference".
Mrs Teo replied that she was not surprised Mr Singh had posed this question.
"Mr Singh's question, again, asking about influence on editors, journalists, is too predictable," she said.
"His question seems to suggest that he does not trust the journalists in our mainstream media to be objective in reporting, to apply their minds and to be discerning, or to have a sense of responsibility to truthful reporting for the public.
"I hope I'm wrong in thinking that this is what Mr Singh is suggesting, but that is what came to mind when he spoke those words," Mrs Teo added.
"Regardless of what I say, or what Mr Singh may suggest, the true test is whether the public trust the media, and how they exercise their choice on a day-to-day basis in consuming news media when so many alternatives are available to them at zero cost.
"Fortunately for all of us, our local mainstream media are trusted by people and we have every reason to keep it so."
The minister had earlier pointed to the 2021 edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report that found that 79 per cent of respondents expressed trust in Mediacorp brand Channel NewsAsia, or CNA, while 77 per cent trusted The Straits Times.
"Is such a high level of trust attainable without objective and balanced reporting?" Mrs Teo asked. "Would SMT wish to erode this foundation?"
She said there was "no use" in funding the SMT or Mediacorp if nobody was reading ST, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian or Tamil Murasu, or viewing Channel 8, Suria, Vasantham or CNA.
"It is precisely because people are reading, viewing and hearing our mainstream media, that they deserve to be supported," said Mrs Teo.
"It is because the public sees them as trusted sources of news, that we must do all we can to keep them as viable propositions."
Mr Singh's fellow Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) asked if it was the case that consumers "don't entirely trust the local media" and were not buying or subscribing to publications, thus "necessitating this usage of public funds" to fund the SMT.
Mrs Teo replied that the situation for print media companies was not unique to the SMT.
Whether in the United States with The New York Times or in Britain with The Guardian, it is "very hard to translate eyeballs into dollars and without advertising revenue, these media companies will be loss-making", she stressed.
"It is not just your ability to reach audiences - the audiences can get news content free of charge almost anywhere. You and I are beneficiaries of that, we don't have to pay to get news, but we will choose where we spend our time in order to get trusted news."
Mrs Teo reiterated: "It is not me claiming that the local mainstream media is trusted… (Readers) are asked these questions through surveys conducted by institutions that have good standing.
"I mentioned Reuters. They didn't give this response to a question that I put to them. This is an independent survey done by a respected organisation."
"The facts speak for themselves," she added.