Reincarnated Straits Times unlikely to see government grip easing

The Straits Times has retained its top spot as the most-read English title in Singapore. (ST FILE)

The Straits Times (ST FILE)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: A government-backed rescue exercise was mounted recently to save Singapore’s flagship English newspaper, The Straits Times, from possible demise as it found itself unable to reverse advertising revenue losses and a decline in readership subscription.

And fortuitously, it took the unseen hand of the year-and –a- half- long-Covid-19 pandemic to push things to a head.

With the city-state’s economy in the doldrums and hitting bottom lines, Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes the English-language broadsheet daily as well as Chinese-and Malay newspapers, called a time-out.

As signs of any significant turnaround were missing from ST’s digitalisation efforts- a paltry 9.4 per cent growth was recorded in circulation numbers last year, credited to its News Tablet digital product – the SPH top management moved to hive off the media core as a separate business.

The shockannouncement came at a press conference on May 6 when the media’s weak finances were laid bare. The media business took a pre-tax loss of S$11.4 million for the financial year ending Aug 31, 2020.

If not for government aid under the Jobs Support Scheme, the loss would have been S$39.5 million, it said.

SPH has seen its operating revenue halving over the past five years, as print advertising and print subscription tumbled. This decline follows world-wide trends as advertisers migrate  in droves from print to online platforms such as  Facebook and Google.

It makes business sense for loss-making ventures to be allowed to fall by the wayside. But in the case of a venerable entity like 176-year-old The Straits Times, it is too sensitive for the government to let it fail..

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) under the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had invested much time and effort over the decades to tame an independent Press. In 1974, the Newspapers & Printing Presses Act was enacted to regulate and control the print media, which soon fall in line with the government’s objectives.

The NPPA paved the way for a succession of heavyweight ministers and civil servants to helm the SPH, including past Presidents Dr Tony Tan and the late Mr S.R.Nathan. The current SPH chairman is Dr Lee Boon Yang,74, whose ministerial portfolios included defence, manpower, information, communications and arts.

On its part, The Straits Times has proven to be so reliable—come rain or shine the paper would be delivered to households without fail –- and essential — the first thing readers, such as the Prime Minister, turn to it for news in the morning –that it is difficult to find an alternative to take its place.

Hence, there was no question of the SPH selling off The Straits Times. Instead, the government gave its blessings for the SPH to palm off its stable of newspapers,including The Straits Times, LianheZaobao and BeritaHarian, into a separate entitycalled SPH Media Holdings Pte Ltd.
It will be a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG),backed by an injection of S$80 million in cash plus S$30 million in SPH shares and SPH Reit units. This is to ensure the new venture starts out on a sound financial footing.

Analysts noted that the SPH Media Holdings is akin to non-profit organizations, such as National University of Singapore, but its corporate status enables it borrow money aswell as buy or sell property. Its management shareholders – OCBC, UOB, DBS (banks), Singtel, Temasek via Fullerton Pte Ltd, NTUC Income (insurance) and NUS and NTU (universities) will become members and act as guarantors with limited liability such as paying a nominal sum, even just a dollar.

Business-wise, it will also no longer be under pressure from shareholders to turn in good returns in annual dividends. The new media will focus on improving the quality of journalism and enhance its digital capabilities.

In openly backing the SPH revamp, the government is keen to keep the media playing the development-oriented and consensus-building roles that have been carved out for it since the 70s.

“Our local media are keenly attuned to our unique circumstances as a small city-state, an open economy and a multi-racial society,” said the Minister for Communications and Information, Mr S. Iswaran.

In particular, he highlighted the Press’s unifying role.

“Domestically, the local media… publish a balanced range of views, to inform the national debate and help foster a national consensus, not allowing disagreements to deepen into divisions in our society.

“They help to sustain the common ground in our multi-racial and multi-religious society, whilst preserving the voice of each of our communities through the vernacular media.”

Will the switch to a self-sustaining operating model bring the media out of the political shadows and allow journalists to do their job professionally.

Alas, the signs show that little is going to change as far as the orientation of the Press is concerned. The news entities under the SPH Media Holdings will still come under the NPPA ambit. This, and the funds the government will pump in,underline what is being said that ‘the pipercalls the tune’

In a further move to steer the new SPH media outfit in its year-end launch, the government has appointed retired senior minister Khaw Boon Wan,69, as chairman. “I am out of my depths (in journalism) but I can value-add’’ to the new SPH media venture, he said during a press conference.

Consequently, media commentators have expressed dim views on the prospects for a professional Press in the city-state.

“Will The Straits Times, the SPH media flagship, be allowed to practice journalism that its readers will be proud of ?” was a question posed by veteran journalist-editor, P.N.Balji, in commenting on the SPH revamp.

“And will editors allow more space for contrarian views on government policies?”

The media consultant added: “For that to happen, the government, the biggest stakeholder in the media business, needs to relax its vice-like grip on the paper.

“Analysis of daily news events is the name of the game, but ST doesn’t seem to want to go there, as the government is against mixing news and analysis.As things stand, it is difficult to see  journalists in SPH striking out on their own.’’

Former Straits Times journalist Cherian George concurred.

“Even if the government were ready to ease some of the curbs on media, I doubt if the current editors would know how to take advantage of the new-found freedom, he said.

Unless there is a “firewall” to separate the funders and the newsroom, the professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University added.

In the unfolding media scenario, both past and present Straits Times journalists must be reminiscing of better days in the newsroom.

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