Big elections test for media is coming

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By PN Balji

I am a sucker for simplicity. Short, sharp and crisp words fill me with joy. And when they make a point that takes many others to make with many more words, then I become overjoyed. Sitting in a café in Kerala, sipping a glass of hot Bru coffee, these words in an editorial in The New Indian Express struck me: “In Gujarat, the BJP won and the Congress did not lose.”

There was really nothing else to say about the mud-slinging and caste-controversial Gujarat state election which ended with a reduced number of seats for PM Narendra Modi’s party and an increased number for the opposition’s Congress Party. The news reports, editorial and commentaries were all written with the clarity that even made a foreigner understand the issues clearly. There was also a clear intention to walk the tight rope of fine balance, to not take sides and not show any favouritism to any political party or ideology. If it all an ideology could be detected it was about the necessity for India to keep its democratic credentials alive.

In a couple of years Singapore will go for a crucial general election when two questions will factor in voters’ calculations: Does Lee Hsien Loong deserve a hearty goodbye as this will be his last GE as PM?

What kind of reception does his successor deserve? The national media will also be on trial. The Straits Times has a new editorial management team in place since 2012 with nearly all the senior editors who were in charge of covering the much-talked-about GE 2011 out of the newsroom.

The new team knows what happened to the Editor at that time, Han Fook Kwan. The government was unhappy with a rare display of independence and fairness in how ST reported the election. In an unusual act of wanting to play fair, Han placed equal-sized photographs of DPM Teo Chee Hean and Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang on Page One. Soon after, he was relieved of his job as editor. The coverage returned to ST’s usual standards under its new editor, Warren Fernandez. The spring vanished as fast as it came.

With a new election looming and ST under revenue pressure, will the paper continue with its same-old approach? Will the government give it some leeway to report the election more independently? The choice is simple for the paper. Continue on the same path of an overtly pro-government approach and risk losing even more readers.

The pressure will also be on Channel News Asia to put more boots on the ground to give regular updates on how the candidates are performing. They did try to up the game in 2015 but the online media was faster on the draw by reflecting voting trends, even though some trends were off the mark. The biggest headache for TV is its live coverage where facts cannot be confirmed before a news item is put out. The online media, as it stands now, does not want to be chained by such a rule. TV will need to find that thin line between fact and fiction. News organizations like BBC uses phrases like “unconfirmed reports” and “there is no official confirmation” to signal to viewers that its report might not be totally accurate.

Whatever phraseology it comes up with, Singapore TV cannot wait for the official results to be announced as that will only further erode its credibility.

The editors of SPH and Mediacorp have a fight on their hands.