By Tan Tarn How
A long-time television journalist and a former senior civil servant of 35 years yesterday both revealed the workings of media in Singapore during elections at a debate organised by the website Inconvenient Questions and hosted by its head Viswa Sadavisan. The topic was “What The Media Say”.
One of the former insiders is Mr Ramesh Subbaraman, who was a senior reporter with Mediacorp for several decades and now the online editor of NTUC’s Majority Media.
The other is Ms Bhavani Krishnasamy, who was the Director of Public Communications (2008-Jul 2011), and Director of Corporate Communications and the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts from 2004 to 2008. She is now Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
Their remarks are among the very few that have ever been made about the workings of government’s relationship with the mainstream media owned by Mediacorp and The Singapore Press Holdings. They are the first since the tell-all 2012 memoir by Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of The Straits Times (ST), called “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.”
Here are their replies to Mr Viswa’s question about mainstream media coverage of the election.
Mr Ramesh: Having been a practitioner covering elections for 25 years, I think gone are the days where you can use the mainstream media to so call hantam the Opposition. Today you are expected to have a balanced coverage, definitely. I mean if you cover so many rallies for the PAP, you have to cover so many rallies for the Opposition. And you can look at it and you can see The Straits Times today, I mean, never in the past would you have this picture of the Raffles Place with SDP on the front page of the mainstream media in the past. Or even the WP rallies, those huge, huge pictures. Even for television in those days if there are no crowds, you were told to take close shots, you have to take close-up shots.
Mr Viswa: Even now we are saying that.
Mr Ramesh: Yes, but in those days that was the instruction, you got to take close-up shots to show the non-availability of large crowds at certain rallies. But all that is gone today. You got to give equal, as good as equal coverage for the ruling party and the opposition. On television you can see on the news today and more so in the newspapers. So this issue of balance coverage is catching on more and [unclear] if there is no balanced coverage than there will definitely be an outcry as to why I can hear an alternate view or a different view, why I am forced to make a judgement just one point of view. And you will lose credibility.
Ms Bhavani: Actually, I was going to say that for this year, as Ramesh has put it, the coverage in the mainstream media is really balanced, a lot more balanced than in previous GEs. So looking at it from the outside, I really feel that they are giving not just space and airtime to the opposition parties, and when an issue is being debated, you hear both sides of the argument. For example the other day there was a whole two-page spread of the East Coast GRC and you get to hear all sides, so to me that’s pretty balanced. You are not just looking at one party going in there talking to the residents or gauging what the ground feels, but you are also getting the other side, the opposition’s views. So putting it together, putting a big spread that is balanced coverage, and the voters can then judge for themselves hearing all sides. So the coverage this year is really better than in previous general elections.
Mr Viswa: I would agree with you that it has definitely improved in terms of balance, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that it is really balanced because we are starting from a very low base here.
The exchange starts at 29:12 minutes into the video, accessible from the link above. It is worth watching the rest of it for the reactions from the audience to Mr Ramesh and Ms Bhavani.
Tan Tarn How researches cultural and media policy at the Institute of Policy Studies, where he is writing a book about Flourishing Life, and is also a playwright. He writes at IPS Commons (http://www.ipscommons.sg/ ), (https://projectflourishinglife.wordpress.com/ , and https://tantarnhow.wordpress.com/ He was a panellist in the debate above.