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More polite words on the unpolitable nation-building' press

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  • Robert HO
    Monday, July 31, 2006 Who Shut The Dogs Up? *posted by ringisei at 10:02
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2006
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      Monday, July 31, 2006

      Who Shut The Dogs Up?

      categories: media

      One way to read the Straits Times article, " Did the Govt really shut down a bak chor mee stall?" (2006-07-22) is that the newspapers and broadcast media are nervous with a regulatory regime that puts them on a tight leash while giving much more leeway to independent online media. Dr Gan Su-lin and my Singapore Angle colleague Dr Bernard Leong have expressed their respective views on the MICA Doctrine of "Regulate the Newspapers and Broadcast Media, Ignore the Internet".

      This overdue and longwinded post attempts look at this debate from another perspective by asking: "What is the role of the mass media?" Picking up on on Dr Gan's point that "both mainstream and on-line media are mass media", newspaper, broadcast and online media will be considered as part of a continuous spectrum of mass media outlets. This discussion is largely based by the theoretical model in Suan J. Pharr's "Media as Trickster in Japan: A Comparative Perspective" in Susan J. Pharr and Ellis S. Krauss (eds), Media and Politics in Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996) which examines media as spectator, watchdog, servant or trickster.

      Bloggers tend to portray the MSM as slavishly serving the servant role. The normative position of most bloggers is that the mass media should serve the watchdog role; some bloggers are attempting to remedy the perceived deficiencies of the mass media in Singapore through blogging. This post will argue that while the party-state's normative position is that the media should be servants of the state, its leadership remains intensely distrustful of the mass media's trickster tendencies and concludes that the party-state will continue to maintain control using means in accordance with the minimax principle.

      The spectator role sees the mass media as "more or less passive transmitters of information among the various 'real' players in politics, and thus serving no particular interests at all" (p.20) although they are an important resource, the media is seen to be essentially neutral. Quite popular among first generation media studies literature, nobody really buys this anymore as the mass media can exercise its power through various forms of selection (what is reported, headlined, followed thus setting the agenda) and editorial lines (report favourably, unfavourably etc). However this "sleeping dog" concept has been used by the mass media in authoritarian party-states like the PRC to defend against censorship and clampdowns: "I'm just stating the facts."

      The watchdog role sees the mass media as an "independent, critical force on behalf of the public" (ibid) i.e. Thomas Carlyle's Fourth Estate and "typically the one adopted by the media themselves in explaining their role." (ibid) This probably reached its height in the US during the Watergate scandal but has receded somewhat in the face of neo-leftist criticism of the media (especially Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) as representing specific capitalist interests. However it remains an ideal that many journalists continue to aspire to and which a not inconsiderable number of media consumers continue to expect.

      The servant interpretation sees the mass media as "instruments of the state for forging a consensus on social values and for generating support for prevailing political arrangements" (p.21). In addition, it plays an important role in "denying legitimacy to, or trivializing, issues that fall outside a domain of concern that is set by the state and maintained and regulated by it, partly through the state's influence over the process of information dissemination." (ibid) This might be known, derisively as the "running dog" interpretation (though this blogger's cartoon mixes metaphors with the previous watchdog concept) or non-derisively as the "nation-building press". This is the image employed when bloggers variously describe the MSM as a puppet or being state-controlled, state-guided and so on. There is, of course, disagreement over whether the party-state's control has become less tight or not. There is also controversy over whether or not MSM editors and journalists happily accept this role.

      The trickster role sees the mass media as being unpredictable and "persistently shaking and subtly undermining authorities' basis for legitimacy and even contributing of public cynicism... the media are revolutionary without any conscious plan or strategy." (p.33) The negative interpretation of this image sees the mass media as, in the words of the Bhavani Commandments (for a critical and insightful analysis of how the Bhavani Commandments exceed and contradict the nation-building remit, see this post by Akikonomu), being unconstructive as it "offers no alternatives or solutions" and calculates "to encourage cynicism and despondency". It is the mad dog that wags its tail and then snarls, bringing back a gold bar one day and a dead rat the next, sleeping peacefully at one's feet before running out to howl at the moon; an unelected, unaccountable mass media driven only by the desire for the story, the scoop, the news cycle.

      Even as bloggers relentlessly make fun of the "running dog" newspapers and broadcast media, MM Lee Kuan Yew recently reiterated his longstanding disdain and distrust of the supposedly pliant mass media. This attitude is operationalized in how the local MSM is ringfenced by an authoritarian interpretation of laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (ownership), Official Secrets Act (investigative reporting into the civil service), Sedition Act ("3 (1) A seditious tendency is a tendency - (a) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government"), Defamation Act and, of course, the catch-all .

      Bloggers may delight in how Dr Lee Boon Yang's comments about the two-pronged approach towards regulating mainstream vs independent online media will result in the mainstream media losing all credibility among thinking Singaporeans. This is hubris. MICA is not going to go after blogs at this time simply because it is not worth the effort.

      Another way to look at this situation is that the former's reputation for accurate, objective and responsible reporting is maintained via Government Guarantee while online blogs are collectively tarred as the works of the anonymous coward, conspiracy theorist and armchair critic who are preaching to the choir anyway. Although mrbrown's tur kwa podcast and Yawning Bread's WP Hougang rally photo were, for me, the main highlights of media coverage during the 2006 General Election, the ability of blogs to set the agenda or seize the moment tends to be the exception rather than the rule. While the MSM have suffered a few recent cracks, one does not foresee the entire edifice crashing down - they have the human and financial resources to adapt and the first mover advantage. Many more Singaporean households have a subscription to a SPH-controlled newspaper and tune in to a Mediacorp / Channel News Asia news programme than those who have a bookmark or RSS subscription to a so-called "serious" blog. Even on the blogosphere, probably the only Singapore current affairs blog that comes close to matching Xiaxue's number of unique daily visitors is the inimitable Mr Wang. It will be a pretty big piece of humble pie for bloggers to swallow if the much bally-hoed STOMP manages to maintain a higher viewership than the majority of the "serious" current affair blogs.

      There was plenty of fuss about how soc.culture.singapore and Sintercom would reshape the political consciousness of Singaporeans but their impact has been fairly limited. I think that the supposedly "infantile" mrbrown with his tur kwa podcast and Ms Bhavani's reaction against his Today column has had a more widespread effect on the Singaporean consciousness than the rest of the so-called "non-infantile" blogosphere put together.

      The podcast made any continued effort to demonize the hapless and form-handling-impaired James Gomez look out of touch and ridiculous; we know that at least one Cabinet Minister had heard it - how many podcasters, nay citizens among us, can claim have sullied ministerial ear drums? The suspension of the Today column probably had a similar impact to the Catherine Lim affair - just as how the reaction to the "Great Affective Divide" shattered the illusion that then-PM Goh Chok Tong's leadership would usher in a kinder, friendlier PAP, the reaction to "Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!" may have convinced some that PM Lee Hsien Loong is a true believer in his father's political philosophy and that the only path to liberalization is not to convince the PAP to change its mind but to change the party in government. The persistently political pines and bamboos may stay green in the winter of the Patriach but the season of the Younger is not spring. (Apologies to dansong for the play on the tagline.)
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