Forefront by TSMP: Is News Dead (or Have Reports of Its Demise Been Greatly Exaggerated)?

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Forefront by TSMP

1 October 2018

Is News Dead (or Have Reports of Its Demise Been Greatly Exaggerated)?

Traditional news organisations are facing a battle for survival but will they find a new mission in the battle against Fake News? Stefanie Yuen Thio shared her views in an article published by the Business Times on September 15, 2018.

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

On September 5, the New York Times (NYT) published an anonymous op-ed essay by a “senior official in the Trump administration”, claiming that White House staffers are “working diligently from within to frustrate” parts of the US President’s agenda. The explosive article labels Trump amoral, his impulses “anti-democratic” and his leadership style “petty and ineffective”. The NYT explained that it had taken the extraordinary step of withholding the writer’s identity so as to protect his or her job, and that this “is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers”.

President Trump called the action “gutless”.

The moral hazard of publishing the damning expose without naming the writer is clear: how do we judge its authenticity if we didn’t know who wrote it? The anonymity feeds Trump’s claims that his detractors in the media are creating “fake news”. But this is the NYT, whose journalistic integrity is widely acknowledged, and so the piece retains credibility.

The resuscitation of news organisations

This journalistic credibility, possessed by the NYT and a few other international papers, is the envy of many others. It is what makes their commentary so damaging to world leaders and corporate bigwigs found in their crosshairs. So it is interesting that over the last five years, a number of well-respected news publications have been acquired by those who inhabit their front pages.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the ailing Washington Post in 2013 for US$250 million and has expanded the news and tech teams, returning the 140-year-old paper back to profitability. In 2015, Japan’s Nikkei acquired the Financial Times (FT). More recently Alibaba Group purchased South China Morning Post (SCMP) and has since gone on a hiring spree, with the Chinese tech giant said to be willing to lose money on the unprofitable but influential Hong Kong newspaper.

Bezos has reportedly not tried to influence his new publication, but the reality is that a tech giant now controls one of the US’s most reputable news outlets. The FT’s continued journalistic independence was also questioned, its new owner being what one commentator calls the “corporate voicepiece of Japan”. The SCMP has been accused of “pioneering a new form of propaganda” under Jack Ma’s leadership, because it is seen to be shying away from investigative reporting on Communist Party leaders and hot potato topics like human rights.

While corporate investments by white knight investors may be what news outlets, facing the existential threat posed by the Internet, need to fight declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues, recall that the Fourth Estate – an independent and responsible press – arose as a check and balance on unbridled power.

The provision of responsibly sourced news and honest commentary without fear and without favour – coincidentally, one of the FT’s taglines – is necessary for efficient operation of democracies and markets. If news outlets are influenced by organisations with their own business and political agendas, whether this influence is in fact exercised, public trust will be eroded.

The scourge of fake news

Into this disrupted newsroom walks Fake News.

The Internet provides a protective cloak of anonymity. Damaging and inflammatory views can circumnavigate the globe before they are fact checked, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Russian elements are said to have influenced the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential elections, which saw Trump installed in the White House, through illegal information warfare. Facebook admits that its platform had disseminated posts created by Russian-linked fake accounts to more than 126 million Americans.

Singapore is understandably anxious about the impact of foreign influence and fabricated news on our shores. Earlier this year, Parliament established a Select Committee to look into the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, and is expected to adopt laws to combat this[*]. The problem is, any such laws could be double-edged swords – they can maintain the integrity of the news or, in the wrong hands, be used to quash dissenting opinions.

Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who was spectacularly unseated in a shock election defeat and is currently facing charges of money laundering, passed controversial anti-fake news laws that many felt were aimed at stifling dissent. These have since been repealed by his successor, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, one of the first people investigated under the statute. Similar laws have been deployed in Egypt, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, none known for their democratic freedoms.  

This begs the question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”)

An objective and independent press – a public good

The battle against fake news needs to be fought on two fronts.

First, we should certainly toughen our legislation against those who spread it. The dissemination of misleading information in stock markets is already a securities offence. Purveyors of fake news with even more potentially adverse consequences – whether relating to the outcome of elections, public order or even defamation of a private person – should be punished. But to dispel the fear of such laws being used to further partisan objectives, enforcement could be put in the hands in an independent body, made up of individuals of international repute and integrity, rather than pure government appointees.

More importantly, we need to re-arm our news media.

Our national newssheets battle with a failing business model. They are further handicapped by the impression of government influence or a suspicion of self-censorship. The less we trust our local newspapers, the less we rely on them, which exacerbates the vicious circle of declining circulation and insufficient resources to produce in-depth commentary. This serves no one, including the government, especially if Singaporeans start turning to foreign press and dubious blogs for news and commentary.

To be a developed democracy and a mature financial centre, Singapore needs responsible publications to be honest brokers of news and intelligent providers of commentary.

Perhaps it is time to restructure ownership of our national newspapers, currently owned by a listed company and subject to the demands of shareholder returns. Newspaper ownership could be privatised into an independent foundation and funded by public money. If independent news reporting and, more importantly, intelligent commentary, are seen as a public good, we should pay for that, much like we pay for well-maintained public highways and street lights, even on roads we never travel.

That will make each Singaporean a real stakeholder in real news.


[*] This article was first published in The Business Times on September 15, 2018 under the headline “Are creditable newspapers a public good?”. Since then, in a 176-page report on September 19, the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods made a total of 22 recommendations, including enacting legislation, urging technology companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content on their platforms and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods. The committee did not go into the specifics of what form the new laws would take. Rather, it set out the principles that any new legislation should follow.