Veteran journalist Bertha Henson has revealed that she is “still thinking” about writing a book of her own on journalism in Singapore, as she reviewed her ex-boss, PN Balji’s book, ‘The Reluctant Editor’.
Ms Henson is a heavyweight editor who spent 26 years at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), mainly working for SPH’s flagship English publication The Straits Times. She now serves as part-time lecturer at the Communications and New Media Department at the National University of Singapore.
In her review of Mr Balji’s book, Ms Henson recounted her experience working under Mr Balji’s leadership during the time he led The New Paper and shed light on some of the issues she encountered herself as a writer and editor at SPH.
SPH is known to have close ties with the Government and there have been accounts that the Government intervenes in the media company’s coverage of local news.
Mr Balji’s book exposed more details about the relationship between the Government and mainstream media and Ms Henson compared the book to Cheong Yip Seng’s OB marker, My Straits Times story – a book that seemed to rub the Government the wrong way due to the author’s retelling of tales that Ms Henson said she would have taken to her grave.
Mr Balji suggested that the Government uses “fear, intimidation and the force of law to get the media to tell every nuance of the Government’s side of the story and downplay dissenting views.” He also recalled incidents that irked the Government and described off-the-record briefings ministers and civil servants would have with senior editors.
Revealing that she had similar experiences during her time at SPH, Ms Henson recalled: “I have had the same experience too many times both as a reporter and an editor.” She shared:
“To be told that your scoop can’t be published because it had been discussed at a high-level briefing is the most demoralising thing to say to a reporter and the fastest way to blunt journalistic inquisitiveness. I remember asking my boss what else I should know so that I won’t go chasing them – it was a jibe that was not appreciated.
“As an editor, I have had to deliver the same message to go-getting reporters. And then I have had to pussyfoot my way around reporters’ copy to ensure that the “official line” was correctly reflected.
“Was journalistic independence compromised? Of course, unless editors had managed to get their way at the briefings on what they saw as important for readers. As Balji wrote in his book, there were editors who fought back or managed to navigate the terrain to reach their desired destination.”
Asserting that Mr Balji should write more books on The New Paper and TODAY and how the start-ups managed to achieve what they did despite the challenges they faced, Ms Henson said: “I know what Balji will say to me when he reads this column: Bertha, why don’t you write a book? I’m still thinking, Balji. Still thinking.”
In an interview Mr Balji conducted with Ms Henson, he noted that she has been called a “troublemaker” and that she calls herself “no stranger to controversy” who has ruffled some feathers.
The interview, which was published by RHT network in 2017, saw Ms Henson speaking candidly with Mr Balji. On why she left SPH after nearly three decades, she said: “I left the Straits Times because there was going to be a change in leadership and I wasn’t so sure I could work under the new leader. So I thought I should get out when the going is good and that’s what I did.”
When Mr Balji pressed her to identify the new leader, she responded: “It’s very obvious – it’s Mr Warren Fernadez.”
While Ms Henson declined to specify the issues she had with Mr Fernandez, she was more forthcoming when Mr Balji asked her whether she thinks that Mr Fernandez – who had been running the Straits Times for a few years at the time and had been promoted to chief editor – is the right editor for the paper.
Ms Henson candidly replied: “I think the proof of the pudding is always in eating. The proof is the quality of the Straits Times, which I’m not so sure has maintained its previous high standards. The quality is suffering from a dearth of experience, in terms of the kinds of answers that they are getting. You can sort of see some lack of depth.”
Asserting that ST needs to improve their quality control measures, Ms Henson pointed out issues in simple things like grammar, language and accuracy. She added: “The trouble is, I’m not inside. I cannot see if the processes have changed. I know that a lot of people have left and the people who have left are experienced people.” -/TISG