Former SPH editor makes scathing remarks on state of journalism in Singapore

Veteran journalist Bertha Henson, speaking to reporters from Singapore’s media industry, wrote:

“Now it looks like you’ve lost the fight and are completely resigned to playing the role of publicist. Not only that, you seem to have forgotten basic journalistic principles and I mean things like grammar and house style and getting the 5Ws1H. You have come to repeat press releases that are themselves poorly written.

Ms Henson, former editor of the Straits Times (ST) and New Paper (TNP) in a scathing Facebook post, expressed concern about deteriorating journalistic standards in Singapore and the ability of local journalists to “clearly and concisely”. write a story with a strong angle.

She asked if local journalists realize what is happening to them and being sidelined by Singapore’s top journalist and the government who are “supporting your operation with public funds”.

Politicians are not on the side of the media

SPH Media Trust (SMT), a not-for-profit entity, was spun off from newspaper publisher and listed company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) on December 1 last year. It was then announced in February this year that SMT would receive funding from the Singapore government of up to $180 million per year over the next five years, or a total of S$900 million.

The announcement that SMT – which hosts the bulk of Singapore’s publications such as ST, TNP, Lianhe Zaobao (Chinese broadsheet) and others with 2,500 employees – would be funded by the government, sparked concerns Members of Parliament (MPs) on how the public would perceive press neutrality.

In response to a question posed by a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) on how the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) will ensure that editorial independence continues to be respected in the newsrooms. MCI Minister Josephine Teo said SMT has exercised editorial independence since its inception in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings. Adding that the financial support does not change this, as it has been with Mediacorp since 2011.

In a clear and direct critique by Ms Henson of Singapore’s 4th generation (4G) political leaders in terms of their approach with the media, she wrote:

“4G is not on your side. They want only their messages to be heard loud and (un)clear. I bet they see the media as a hindrance if they’re doing the job they’re supposed to. Now, I think they see the media as a wonderful mechanism to deliver any message or story they see fit. That’s why they organize closed dialogues and so on. and keep repeating that old chestnut about how having journalists will keep people from being outspoken – as if that was something to be encouraged. And they think they’re doing everyone a favor by giving a briefing on what happened later. Either they summarize the “findings” in a report or they tell you how many “comments” they have. And you duly reiterate that there have been extensive public consultations and intensive reviews. You have no role to play in building a community of civic-minded citizens who aren’t afraid to speak up. In fact, you have to be an MP to get answers to questions.

Although journalists never had a say in media-government relations, their predecessors in local media had tried to have a say. She pointed out that they were lucky because politicians at the time knew the value of a credible media and they knew they had to travel to answer questions. Ms Henson had been in the industry since 1986 after graduating from college and leaving SPH in 2012, where she went on to found the defunct Middle Ground in 2015.

Ms Henson contrasted the difference between the way politicians then held quick press conferences as opposed to briefings, while politicians today completely ignore reporters in the hope that ‘no response means no story”.

She claimed that today’s politicians would tell reporters to watch their Facebook and that reporters would “dutifully do it because you’re afraid you’ll miss any pearl of wisdom.”

“They go on TikTok and have their own fake YouTube interviews done by their ministry minions. They do “door-to-door” interviews to look casual, but we all know that’s only because they have something to say – not because you have something to ask.

Erosion of trust in the media

When it comes to building trust, Ms Henson wrote that most people hope the media will play the role of asking questions they themselves might have.

“The more ‘cut and paste’, the faster the erosion of media credibility. And when the media can’t even spell correctly or neglect details, it’s not even good enough to be a language-teaching tool.

“For Singapore, the plethora of laws and the disappearance of some alternative media only serve to ensure that one voice remains the purveyor of truth and collective opinion. A voice that is not “moderated” by anyone. Increasingly, journalists believe it is not their place to ask certain questions or bother officials, in case they are labeled as “unfriendly”. And there are no other types of journalists to irritate the G by answering. (They moved abroad or lost heart)”

Ms Henson wrote that she believes any deterioration in professional standards could be reversed at least slightly since public trust is not so closely tied to the fortunes of the parent company and its board.

“But the opacity of your operations and your governance process only confirms that this is the status quo…and thank you for the money.”

Ms Henson, in conclusion, said that she could not blame journalists if they lost heart in the process of gathering information as well as the freedom to decide how to disseminate the information, resign or simply resign, but she always implored reporters to hold the line and practice professional principles.

“You do NOT always have to do what the G says. You should inform readers of the obstacles you face in obtaining information. You should list the questions you want answered. You should behave like a trust public, not as a public agency. And it’s actually IN the interest of the G too.

Ms Henson lamented in the comments section of her post, saying: Frankly, the fault is ours. We don’t care if the media deteriorates because we so proudly proclaim that we don’t read them. And sometimes we don’t even know why except that it’s fashionable to be anti-media.

“But it’s important for us to know that the media is reporting local news well (because other media outlets wouldn’t care). Or it will lead to a dumbing down of our country, an inquisitive, complacent population that clings to the idea of ​​’trust’ without needing to exercise our brains.”

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