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‘Self censorship is a bigger sin than censorship’ – veteran Singapore print editor PN Balji

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, PN Balji - a veteran of Singapore print media and author of the recently launched book 'Reluctant Editor' - discusses journalism in the city state

While writing this book, did you consider the fact that there may be repercussions?

“I was very sure when I started on this project, that I would write in a very considered and responsible way. But it did not have to be pro-establishment.

“I wanted to represent both sides of the divide.

“One of the stories involved me saying ‘no’ to Lee Kuan Yew. But after I’d written it, I decided I should check the facts: my memory at 70 may not be that good.

“Four people knew of this incident: me, Lee Kuan Yew and his press secretary and my former editor- in-chief.

“I didn’t want to go to the press secretary since I would be alerting her, if I did. I couldn’t go to Lee Kuan Yew for obvious reasons. So I reached out to my editor. He responded saying he didn’t remember the incident and so I took it out.

“I think it was the right decision. If I’d been asked to account for it, what could I say? Especially if my former editor-in-chief was being quoted as saying he doesn’t remember.

“Some people may think it okay: publish and be damned.

“But I was judicious in making sure the facts were right. I was also judicious in giving context to events as much as I could. News is not as important as context and sometimes doesn’t make sense unless you contextualise it.”

There are several dramatic incidents you talk about, especially a fake news report that made its way into The New Paper (TNP) in 1996 involving the former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye. Did it ever occur to you that you’d put them in a book someday?

“I never thought about writing a book at that time.

“But I was very clear that this incident had to be written about. As I described in the book, this is the biggest sin that can happen in a paper.

“The second reason was because it happened at a time when there was no online media. There were a few things that I, as editor of The New Paper, wanted to say to the readers (about the aftermath of the incident) but I was stopped by the executive chairman.

“I wanted to let them know what had happened to the three people involved: two of the editors were demoted and the reporter was fired. Had it been any other company, we would have hounded them to get the details out.

“Because it happened to us, we kept quiet. So, there was no way I could do it at the time.

“I sent the first draft of the chapter to one of those involved: an editor who was demoted. He let fly: ‘Why raise this now? It is all dead and gone.’ I decided not to respond when someone was angry, but it made me reframe the chapter.

“I think the headline says it was a footloose newsroom culture that led to this happening. It would never have happened in The Straits Times which was very hierarchical. TNP was a little – for want of a better word – recalcitrant.

“For a product like this, you needed senior people whose political antenna was very sharp. The second point I wanted to make was the three people – the reporter and the editors – went on to do extremely well.”

What did you feel about Lee Kuan Yew’s critique of you practising ‘western style journalism’? Was western style journalism really an inspiration?

“That was his interpretation of it. I am not totally for western style journalism. Each country has its own risk factors and stages of development. I don’t think there is one model that fits media in all countries.

“Within that framework, that does not mean you should be totally subservient to a government. I was opting between these two. It is not a black and white affair. My favourite colour is grey and I operated in the grey areas.

“Lee Kuan Yew was a master tactician and used this (western style journalism) as a fear. I don’t know how that matter was resolved. My editor-in-chief took a lot of the pressure.

“But this is what I mean by writing in a considered way. After the incident, I felt I may lose my job, but I went on to edit two newspapers after that. There was something about Lee Kuan Yew. I don’t know why he didn’t insist I should be sent off to Siberia.”

The Indian politician LK Advani famously berated the Indian media after the national emergency of 1975 and said: ‘You were asked to bend, but you crawled.’ To what extent did that apply to journalism in Singapore?

“To a great extent. I am not sure it was published, but I did say a version of that statement.”

Which brings us to the issue of self censorship, a growing concern around Asia. Do you believe it is happening?

“I’ve restricted this book to my years in journalism. I was a front row witness to a lot of these examples I have given.

“In some of these, I was also a player. I have left the media and don’t have inside knowledge of what is happening in the media, but I can react as a reader.

“I think it has become a big issue – bigger than what it was before. Self censorship is a bigger sin than censorship.

“Sometimes the authorities don’t want you to, but you do it anyway. That sort of self censorship may not be useful to the government.

“If you are not sure if or how you should report, you are not serving society at all. The job of editors becomes even more critical in today’s environment, because of social media. Because of the untruths.

“A main theme of the book was that we had a band of editors who were pro Singapore in many ways.

“But there are certain things that the government or Lee Kuan Yew wanted them to do, which they felt would make the line between media and the government disappear. They would tell him: ‘This is not good for both of us.’

“In some cases, the government backed down; in others, the editor pushed back and didn’t listen. Those people who pushed back, paid a heavy price – losing their jobs or being moved to Siberia.”

What’s the Singapore equivalent of Siberia?

“In this case, it meant being sent to the marketing department. Or maybe being made a sub-editor. For a reporter to be moved to the sub desk is horrible. Sub-editors are behind the scenes and somewhat reticent.”

Did you anticipate the decline in print to the extent it happened in Singapore?

“No. I left in 2003 and then came back in 2008 – you could sense then that online media was getting a bit robust.

“I think the mainstream media has of late caught on to dealing with online. But they still have not taken the qualitative leap in trying to tackle it. That qualitative leap is reporting which is more objective: you cannot be seen as being partisan.

“I am not saying online media are angels. They have a lot of issues.

“I also didn’t expect it to reach a stage where everything the government does; the online media attacks and the mainstream media says it is the right thing to do.

“There is a gap that is yet to be filled.

“The reason the gap exists is because you need talented journalists. It is easy to say: ‘this is bad’ or ‘this is good’. But how do you do that in a considered way? How do you say, ‘It is good, but there are these issues’?

“For that to happen, you need institutional knowledge, judgment and good language skills to weave your way through.

“Unfortunately in Singapore, the journalism industry has been dominated by just two players: SPH and Mediacorp. So, the real journalists have not been trained in a different form of journalism. I think there’s great scope for the centre.

“I would say that this was Lee Kuan Yew’s genius – to make sure there were only two media houses, one broadcasting and the other publishing. He made sure he got their support.

“He could have got it via strong will but he wanted it – in a way – from the heart. He did that by making sure there was no competition. No foreigner wanted to start a media business here with such stringent libel laws.

“This benefited the media a lot. SPH is a $1 billion turnover company. But as a result, you also had media that became very dull and boring.

“Where I think the tide has turned, is people are becoming more and more dejected.

“It may come as a surprise to people like you from India who feel this is a godsend place – and I can understand that. The grass is greener on the other side.

“But for the people here, things are becoming more difficult. It is overcrowded and the cost of living is high. They think – I feel wrongly – that foreigners are taking away their jobs and girlfriends. This is where the tide is changing.

“So, now they are becoming angry and they find a great source in the online media. They either don’t trust The Straits Times or find it a laborious read.”

SPH recently introduced AI in its newsrooms to sharpen the headlines. What repercussions is it likely to have?

“Using technology and AI is something that has to be done. It may work up to a point, but after that when I read the story, what if it does not deliver what the headline promised?

“After a while people say, ‘I don’t want to read this since I am not being told the full story.’

It’s like a teaser and I was a great believer in them in the TNP but the content must deliver.

“There’s a chapter I’ve written on my time with Today called ‘Today bets on Goh Chok Tong’. And we won.

“When we were starting in 2000 and deciding how to conceptualise the product, we decided ‘let us be a bold newspaper’. Not in the traditional sense, but in being a bit more adventurous.

We did not write typical news stories like ‘this happened yesterday’. We would put some context and analysis, knowing that the government didn’t like that.

“When I was asked by one of the editors, do you think the government will come after us, I said ‘It is possible, but I have confidence in Goh Chok Tong.’ In the three years I was there, not once did I get a call asking why I am introducing analysis into the story.

Why was analysis and context frowned on?

“That was very simply because the government believed – rightly or wrongly – that a news report should be just that and you cannot put your so-called commentary in. Any analysis should be left to the op-ed page.

“I can see a reason for that, but as the media scene was changing so dramatically, I felt that by giving just the news, you were going to lose the reader.

“As an example, two million people showed up on the streets of Hong Kong. If you run with ‘Two million people on the streets of Hong Kong’ as a headline, I won’t read that story since I’ve already seen it on TV.

“I would like to know more. Why are they there, why are they pushing limits and things like that. You inject the analysis into news report and for that you need a lot of judgment and language skills.”

The New Paper sent its reporters into some of hotspots of the world where crises were brewing. Was there any restriction on what you could write about what was happening elsewhere?

“TNP was a completely different product. If you were there at the time, you wouldn’t believe Singapore could have a paper like that with bold headlines and sexy pictures.

“We took advantage of that presentation and decided we would go overseas to cover the hotspots. We didn’t have the burden that The Straits Times had.

“It was seen as an official mouthpiece of the government by our neighbours. When it did something, it was read as the official position. We were regarded as a naughty child and took advantage of that.”

It has been a week since the launch of the book. How has it been received by your colleagues in journalism and the public at large?

“The official launch was somewhat chaotic. I never expected such a turnout. I personally invited 60 to 70 people. I had designed it to be a meeting point for journalists who have not met for a while. But then I have very good friends who, without informing me, invited their friends and family members. And my family called their friends…

“There was no room and it became somewhat unbearable. Having said that, nobody complained. Maybe it is because Singaporeans are too nice.

“We had around 200 copies at the store and they sold out.

“I’ve not reached out to people because I didn’t feel it was the right way to go, but I have got quite a few WhatsApp messages.

“They use adjectives to describe the book that I don’t want to mention because it would be self praise.

“I sent a book to a good friend – a Malaysian journalist – who is helping me organise a talk in Kuala Lumpur. He said it was a great read and that he saw himself in parts of the book. Both of us came from very blue collared families. And my experiences in The New Paper mirrored his experiences as editor of Yahoo.”

Have you heard about it from any of the people you used to know in the political establishment?

“I am not in touch with anyone from the political establishment.”

Finally, what did you make of the debate around the fake news laws in Singapore?

“The laws did not change one bit, despite the criticism. 

“I would summarise my views as: the law is necessary. But the devil is in the detail. By giving any minister the power to rule that ‘this is fake news’ is a bit overdone. No minister can be taken to court, for example, for spreading fake news. 

“The significant thing for me as an observer of the political scene, was these were not just online activists taking a position against the government’s law on fake news. There were very responsible lawyers, at least two senior counsel; nominated MPs and some very respected lecturers and academics. Which I had not seen in Singapore in recent times. 

“That must say something. Nothing has changed though and they stuck to their guns and so we have the fake news laws.”

The Reluctant Editor by PN Balji can be purchased here 

 

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