Forget Code of Ethics,
Free Up Mainstream Media

 

First published on publichouse.sg in April 2012

There are many good journalists, writers, reporters and editors in Singapore. Yes, there are. More than it appears – both in mainstream as well as new media. Who try their very best every single day to find the good stories, to tackle the issues that concern Singaporeans and to give voice to what needs to be said. 

 

MICA Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim’s recent remarks over the need for a code of ethics for online media and how the media’s job is to “forge consensus and facilitate nation-building, in which social cohesion is preserved while empowering people to make informed decisions as a society” show that this archaic attitude looks set to hold us back for even longer.

 

He pointed out the “possible downsides” of the Internet, citing examples where false rumours were spread online about a child being kidnapped and a boy being wrongly accused of annoying his neighbours, using them as justification for introducing a code of ethics.

 

He did not mention the stories that have been embarrassing to the government—like that alleging that President Tony Tan’s son got special treatment during his National Service, to name just one example—but one would have to be extremely naïve to not have those spring to mind, and count government self-protection as a root motivation for this push for a code of ethics. And that this code of ethics really targets ‘new media’ or ‘alternative online media’—those websites that openly criticize the government—rather than online versions of mainstream media, although should this code come to pass, all of Singapore’s Internet will of course fall under it.

 

 

The reasons for that have already been well covered by others, so I’ll only briefly sum them up here. Trying to implement any form of regulation over the Internet will be like using a sieve to hold water. And if the regulation stems from the government, even if it bears a ‘light touch,’ as Dr Jaacob suggests, it will be rejected and ridiculed by netizens so out rightly it will just become another hot button topic that further inflames our comment boxes.

 

What we need instead is a new journalistic environment, where the mainstream media are as free to tackle issues and make opinions as new media. Mainstream media needs to be allowed to move with the times, and be released from its public relations role of helping with nation building and social cohesion, which should never have been its job in the first place. Even if MICA stubbornly clings to this top down media model it doesn’t mean readers will, and unless mainstream media is opened up, new media will always have the edge.

 

This means both allowing existing mainstream media to cover things more openly and critically as well as allowing more mainstream media to emerge that represent different points of view. So we end up with a media landscape where there is space for, say, a range of newspapers that represent a spectrum of views, from conservative to liberal, each one forging their voice.

 

If mainstream media is allowed to up its game, then ‘the wheat,’ as Dr Jaacob says, ‘will be separated from the chaff.’ The different media can then engage each other meaningfully on views and issues, and there will be greater onus on all to make sure what they report is justifiable or true and worth reporting.

 

We dare say this even as one of new media ourselves. Because we want to see the level of the conversation rise for all. So Dr Jaacob, help your good journalists do their job, forget the code of ethics, recognize that the Internet will always be free, and free up mainstream media too.

 

 

In light of that, when Dr Jaacob then went on to comment on the press’ coverage of the sex scandal involving an underaged sex worker, saying that the press were rightfully ‘doing their job’ when they mercilessly dragged the names of the sex worker’s clients through the mud repeatedly, and then says that mainstream media can help ‘separate the wheat from the chaff,’ you begin to question our minister’s understanding of how people view media in Singapore today.

 

And you start to think that he is seriously underestimating the ability of even the average reader to see through hidden agendas and double standards. People don’t want—and won’t accept—their media being one long PAP morality tale.

 

He did get one thing right though. Which is to point out that people are increasingly turning to online sources. Apart from simply being the way the world is going, it is also, in the Singapore context, where people find varied, interesting and important information and points of view that will never emerge in the public arena monopolized by a overly cautious mainstream media.

 

It’s also true and of no surprise to say that after years of the mainstream media representing the government’s point of view, readers doubt its credibility and almost implicitly trust non-mainstream sources, the underlying belief being ‘if you are bold enough to speak up and speak out in conservative Singapore you must be right.’

 

In fact, new media now enjoys so much credibility that almost anything it says is accepted by readers who feel ill served by their mainstream counterparts. And while this blanket trust invested in new media makes it more conducive for people to come forward and join the space, it also means that when less than reliable and ethical new media sources or content creep in—and they have—they stand a good chance of going undetected, riding on the overall crest of credibility the whole genre enjoys right now.

 

But the answer to this is not a code of ethics.