Singaporeans have been implored by media regulators to “read the rights thing”, but that didn’t seem to prevent the government controlled Straits Times from writing a spectacularly wrong story about how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supposedly executed his own uncle by feeding him alive to starving dogs. The Straits Times’ prevaricating response to criticism of its decision to run a story pegged on an unverified event eloquently reminded readers that the truth can often be subjective and elusive. Yet the subjective reality which hinders the reporting of absolute truth brings many Singaporeans full circle, raising questions about the Media Development Authority’s apparent desire to regulate news websites for the accuracy of their reporting.
The ‘right thing’ and the truth
Government minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim’s notorious statement that Singaporeans should read the “right thing” (which he was kind enough to put into scare quotes for an interview with the BBC) shocked many observers. His “right thing” ultimately turned out to be a pursuit of accurate reporting – we know this because he went on to say so – “insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately”. The MDA helpfully clarified that a pursuit of accuracy was at least part of the motivation for last year’s muddled efforts to regulate news websites by stating that while criticism is allowed, articles must be “well-intentioned” and not “based on factual inaccuracies”. Reconciling the MDA’s aversion to factual inaccuracies with the Straits Times regurgitation of the lurid yet almost certainly false details of a politically motivated canine devourment is hard enough. But the Straits Times went on to justify their publication of that story in terms that will only have heads spinning at the MDA as well as at Dr Yaacob’s Ministry of Communications and Information.
Bertha Henson dissected the Straits Times justification of their story in some detail. A central theme was their reliance on the “fact” that the truth is not some objective verifiable reality (which can be legislated for), but is in fact a much more elusive concept. They wrote,
But the truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact. […] truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey.
The truth can be opaque in nations with an open media as well. Otherwise, the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy should no longer be a story that remains muddled and addled by the lack of “truth”, 50 years on. The only certifiable truth is that he was shot dead. The rest remains, well, opinion.
Straits Times. Fact, opinion and fifty shades of truth in the media. 13 January 2014.
If the United States media cannot separate fact from opinion in the assassination of a US president, then what hope is there for the Straits Times to accurately report on events in North Korea? But then what hope further for under-resourced entities like The Online Citizen or TRE, or even a blogger like Alex Au to avoid “factual inaccuracies” when reporting on local events? It would seem that local commentators face a Herculean task by comparison – a task which the ST seems to think will be impossible – and we should therefore be concerned that the MDA believes it reasonable to legislate for their success.
Can the government define the truth?
The Straits Times are certainly not wrong to describe the truth as “nuanced”, and this is precisely why we should be so skeptical of government attempts to legislate and sue over “facts” which are not black and white, but often come – as the ST says – in “fifty shades of grey”. Years ago the Economist wrote an article implying that Ho Ching’s appointment at Temasek Holdings was corrupt and had a “whiff of nepotism” about it. The government says she is “the best person for the job”. But which of these statements is actually true, and which are just shades of grey? Taking our lead from the government controlled Straits Times, the only facts are her marriage to the Prime Minister, and that she was ultimately hired. “The rest remains, well, opinion”. Which is why it is so worrying that the government sued the Economist over that article for hundreds of thousands of dollars – and won. Did the government case succeed on its merits, or because the rule of law in Singapore has been decimated to support the political interests of the ruling party? Again, shades of grey.
Similar arguments can be made about practically any contentious event. Did Woffles Wu get preferential treatment from Singapore’s judicial system because he was well connected? Was it alcohol or exploitation fueling the Little India riots? Did the town councils’ decision to sell their software to a two dollar shell company make good business sense? Some may be closer to white, some closer to black, but all of these are really shades of grey.
Getting to the truth may be difficult, if not impossible, but we should be free to try to get as close as possible, no matter how dark a shade of grey is the territory we need to explore. A government that shuts down inconvenient debates through the courts or the enumeration of OB markers does the intellectual progress of Singapore a great disservice. The government should step back from trying to regulate news websites for factual accuracy, not least because the government has a long track record of enforcing dubious and politically motivated definitions of the truth whenever that has been deemed necessary. Attempts to enforce versions of the truth which do not resonate with common sense only undermine the ruling party’s credibility, and when such efforts are deployed against foreign media, they only harm Singapore’s international reputation.