Mediacorp editor: ‘Fake news has been hijacked to undermine any journalism people disagree with’

One of Singapore’s most prominent media figures has attacked the “hijacking” of the term fake news as a means to “rubbish serious journalism”.

Mediacorp’s editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez warned a government committee that “many parties” were using the label to “undermine any journalism they disagree with” leading to an erosion of trust in the mainstream media.

Fernandez, was one of was one of several Singaporean media heavyweights issuing submissions at a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which could potentially lead to government legislation against the spread of fake news.

Weighing in during the hearing, the Mediacorp chief argued: “It’s quite clear that the threat of DOF and its association with the term fake news has been hijacked by many parties to undermine any journalism they disagree with. This fundamentally threatens what we do and how we intend to inform society accurately. It’s an excuse by many parties to rubbish serious journalism.”

He added:  “Before the social media advent, there were far fewer brands of news sources. These were larger, more dominant and enjoyed a higher degree of trust.

“The significant fragmentation of the audience has left them with a significantly wider choice … We are judged now quite differently by the expectations of an audience that has moved on significantly, and we have to fight to earn their trust on a daily basis now.”

Echoing his comments was Warren Fernandez, the editor of daily newspaper The Straits Times, who claimed Singapore’s media was under a “drip feed” of attacks from independent media rivals over their choice of coverage.

He said: “Trust levels of the media in Singapore have been consistently high. But it has been on a downward trend because of the conflation between mainstream and social media, and I think that’s what impacts on our credibility because people have this difficulty distinguishing between real and fake news.

“Online you do see a deliberate attempt and constant drip feed attacking the mainstream media and there is a clear commercial and political purpose in that. It diverts attention, and therefore audiences and revenue away from mainstream sources to their sites.

Warren Fernandez

“It’s an attempt to undermine trust. The drip feed comes in constant attacks on the mainstream media… Some of it comes down to what we consider credible and reliable news. We may not run something because we do not think it is credible, then aspersions may be made online as to why we did not run it when there is absolutely no intention to withhold that information.”

During the hour-long hearing, both Mediacorp and ST owner Singapore Press Holdings also each suggested their own criteria for authorities to take into account when assessing online falsehoods.

According to CNA’s submission, the content must be proven to be false and created and circulated deliberately, as opposed to a genuine inadvertent error.

SPH also argued that leniency needed to be shown in the case of genuine errors that are corrected, satire or parody and false information “innocently” – such as in the cases of wanting to help or warn loved ones.

“Our fear is that if you don’t make that distinction, you will cause the flow of information to seize up”, Warren Fernandez added.

“People who have a different interpretation of data or point of view may have a fear of offering that information up. That would make our jobs much much more  difficult.” managing director Lien We King also argued that there remained an existing “bias” against media outlets in Singapore that could be further hampered if legislation was introduced.

“It is our view there exists a perceived public bias against local mainstream media, that they are less able to operate independently due to their unique relationship with the government,” he said “If we are wrong, we stand corrected. But if that’s the case, we are concerned Singaporeans may lose even more trust in local media and publishers, if they assume operators like us are simply not as free due to more legislation.”

“In this case, what would stop them from turning to overseas media companies for information about Singapore?”

The next public hearings will take place between March 27 and 29.


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