SINGAPORE: Questions about funding, editorial independence and the selection of top leadership for Singapore Press Holding’s (SPH) proposed new media entity were raised by MPs in Parliament on Monday (May 10).
SPH said last week that it plans to transfer its entire media-related business to a newly formed public company limited by guarantee (CLG), amid the ongoing challenge of falling advertising revenue.
The move is essential in supporting the vibrancy of the local news media scene, said Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran in a ministerial statement on the matter.
He also said retired former minister Khaw Boon Wan will be the chairman of the not-for-profit entity.
EDITORIAL INDEPENDENCE AND DETAILS OF FUNDING
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) kicked off the debate with five questions, ranging from details about funding, to the possibility of forming a Select Committee to seek public views on the proposal.
On the amount of funding to be provided, Mr Iswaran said it was “premature” to specify such a figure, as shareholders of SPH must first approve the restructuring plan.
“We also need the new CLG to then formulate its plans and put on the table what it sees as its strategic business direction going forward. And in that matrix, the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role the Government funding (will) play in that matrix,” said the minister.
Mr Singh also asked about what structures the Government would “insist on” to buffer the CLG from possible government interference, and to foster a culture of editorial independence within it.
To that, Mr Iswaran said he “ventured that this culture already exists” in the local media scene. “And I think we do a disservice to our journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary,” he said.
He pointed to surveys that showed Singaporeans had higher levels of trust in local media outlets compared to citizens in other countries, adding that audiences have also been growing.
“This would not be the case if Singaporens did not feel they could trust the news organisation. So I think the people have spoken. And I think it's our job now to make sure the object of their trust continues to succeed,” he said.
READ: SPH restructuring will balance 'conflicting' expectations of public, shareholders: Lee Boon Yang
Later on, Mr Singh pressed further for a ballpark figure for funding.
He also circled back to the issue of editorial independence, pulling out a cover of The New Paper from 1997.
"It was a checklist to help you decide how to vote. Minister spoke earlier about objectivity and balance. The only thing objective about this cover page is the EPL (English Premier League) scores.
"The checklist, essentially told the voters what you're voting for if you vote for the PAP."
Mr Singh also noted how two recent commentaries in a Mandarin and English newspaper showed differing views on fourth-generation leadership transitions.
“So there can be different views on the quality and the standards of journalism. And it is for that reason that I put my earlier question to the Minister about a Select Committee, and to try and get some understanding from the public about what they expect of a taxpayer-funded CLG,” he said.
In response, Mr Iswaran said: “I'm disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition has decided to make political capital out of something that I think is quite fundamentally important to us.
“The examples that he cites - in a way, he has already illustrated the point that I'm making ... Isn't this the diversity that we want?”
He said the “current model” in the media scene works, but there is room for improvement as processes evolve.
Mr Iswaran declined again to give specifics about the funding amount, saying it should be discussed only when there is further clarity on business proposals.
CHOICE OF KHAW BOON WAN AS CHAIRMAN
MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) also asked about Mr Khaw’s appointment as the CLG’s chairman - and whether the Government was the one who had first suggested him in its discussion with management shareholders.
“I'm not questioning the personal integrity of Mr Khaw, but the fact is that he is the former chairman of the People's Action Party, and former Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure,” she said.
She also asked whether it was “a missed opportunity” to appoint someone else who is not so closely linked to the Government, in light of concerns over editorial independence.
Mr Khaw - who was most recently the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, as well as Transport Minister - retired from politics ahead of the General Election in July last year.
To this, Mr Iswaran noted how SPH’s current chairman, Dr Lee Boon Yang, is a former Cabinet minister, while other ministers and senior ex-civil servants have also been at the helm in the past. He noted that Mediacorp’s chairman also hails from this background.
“And yet, we are where we are today … We should therefore be very clear that what matters is not a perceived political hue in the appointments, but rather, in the substance of the character and capability of people who are involved,” he said.
He added that Mr Khaw is held in high standing by many, with “a proven track record of taking on difficult issues and working on them”.
“What you need is someone at the leadership level who has the gravitas, has the strategic vision, and the experience in undertaking these sorts of major tasks. And make no mistake about it, this is a major undertaking ... that is of national importance.
“In the end you have to decide on the basis of: What is needed, what are the attributes we seek, and how do we go forward? And that's what happened here.
“Therefore, is this a missed opportunity? I think what would be a missed opportunity is if we allow political considerations to prevent us from making the right decision, in terms of the right person for the job to get it done,” he said.
In an interview with CNA on Monday, Mr Khaw said Ms Lim's concern is a "natural reaction".
"But we are not new to this. Dr Lee Boon Yang was from the PAP too, but I think the key point is, what is this project all about? It is about making sure that Singapore media will continue to be trustworthy, credible, and the newsroom must have the highest standard of integrity. So that is the key," said Mr Khaw.
"And if the Government or whoever is our sponsor decides to interfere in the newsroom, then what will they do? I think they would completely undermine the advantage of the existing newsroom, and that will completely defeat the whole purpose of the project. So that's something that obviously we won't do, and I have no plan to do so.
"The newsroom will always be the territory of the editor and his or her team."
OTHER MPs QUESTION EXPECTED OUTCOMES OF CLG
Other MPs in Parliament had also asked about the structure of the CLG and what outcomes would be expected of it.
In response to Liang Eng Hwa (PAP-Bukit Panjang), who asked why such an approach was chosen, Mr Iswaran said SPH’s board and management had assessed it as best achieving the objective of “ensuring the viability and success of the media business going forward”, free from the constraints of a listed company.
Mr Liang had also asked if privatising SPH, such that it was no longer subject to market pressure - as had been done with transport operator SMRT - had been considered, suggesting also that the Government could support the firm with public service grants, as is the case with Mediacorp.
Larger issues around the business and its viability ultimately have to be decided by the board and management of the organisation, said Mr Iswaran.
He pointed out that while funding could be directed to a listed company to support it through challenges, it would pose the question of whether taxpayers were subsidising returns to shareholders.
This would then require the introduction of other constructs to deal with the issue, he said, adding that such a solution would be “fraught in its own way”.
Mr Darryl David (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) asked whether any key performance indicators would be imposed on the new business, SPH Media, given it will receive public funding.
Noting the matter is still subject to approval from SPH’s shareholders, Mr Iswaran said that as with other news organisations, the new entity should strive to achieve sustaining and growing its audience.
“Because at the end of the day, if you do not have the eyeballs, the attention of people, then the effort, in a sense, will ring hollow,” he said.
Ms Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) asked what was being done to ensure SPH Media would be able to not only retain its pool of journalists but also attract new talent. In addition, Ms Nadia Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) asked if further layoffs were expected in the transition to the CLG, and if the Government would provide support to those affected.
READ: SPH records first net loss of S$83.7 million for FY2020 as COVID-19 'severely disrupts' all business segments
SPH has laid off about 400 staff across three rounds of retrenchments since 2017, as part of its organisation-wide restructuring efforts.
The current proposal is for the entire existing team to move over to the new entity, with no attrition intended, Mr Iswaran replied.
One cannot talk about quality journalism without talking about quality journalists, he said.
“When we talk about investing in the capability of our news media, this is one of the key attributes.
"The ability to attract, retain, and develop talent, journalistic talent, which can take our news media industry forward, both for the quality of its news reporting and also for its analysis of global events, local events,” he said, adding that journalists should be able to offer a “distinctly Singapore perspective” on the news.
This “human dimension” - which Mr Iswaran noted “sustains the news media” - is likely to be key to any strategic business review which the board and management of SPH Media undertakes, he said.
Additional reporting by Gwyneth Teo