Don’t take sweets from Kuan Yew

Mark Disney
19 Oct 07

Congratulations to Malaysiakini on being mentioned approvingly by Singapore’s Senior Mentor/Brother No 1, Lee Kuan Yew. But beware the kiss of death.

Soliciting advice from Mr Lee on the topic of media credibility is like asking Genghis Khan for his guidance on diplomacy. It’s like being praised by Donald Trump for good taste and modesty.

Lee’s sheer chutzpah in thinking that he has anything meaningful to offer on the subject (and I say this as one of his admirers) is stunning. His grudging approval of Net-based news, however welcome, is undermined when he claims that the standards of journalistic propriety are set by the big boys in the United States: “But if you say, this is the New York Times, this is the Washington Post or the LA Times, then you say, well, that is the standard.” If that’s the standard, then God help us all.

Can he really be unaware that the big media networks in the US are owned and controlled by huge corporations, many of them, like Westinghouse and General Electric, arms manufacturers that are to all intents and purposes the private arms (pun intended) of government?

Does he think that western journalists really report in an independent and honest fashion? Is he really in the dark about how these media businesses served as cheerleaders for an invasion of Iraq based on excuses that would have shamed a child? Has he never heard of Jason Blair, Judith Miller, Armstrong Williams or Maggie Gallagher, to name but a tiny fraction of what passes for honest reporting in the US over the past two or three years?

I appreciate that Lee is a fan of the US – given Singapore’s unspoken status as the Israel of Southeast Asia, this is hardly surprising – but these newspapers have about as much credibility as his own Straits Times when it comes to promoting a non-government approved view of the world. If it were not the case that the media performs a significant propaganda function, how does one explain the huge percentages of US citizens who still believe, as one of many possible examples, that Saddam ordered 9/11?

Of course, one of the more enduring conspiracies, particularly strong in America, is the notion that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. This only makes sense if we assume that the honest, authoritative and objective norm lies somewhere on the political spectrum between Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch. If everyone to the left of these gentlemen is ‘liberal’ then 95% of the world’s population must be card-carrying ‘lefties’.

It was interesting that Lee repeated the idea that ‘filtering’ news is important to weed out the rubbish. Perhaps he’s been reading Chomsky and Hermann, although I doubt it. As many of your readers will be aware, this model postulates five general classes of “filters” that determine the type of news deemed officially acceptable. These are: (1) ownership of the medium, (2) funding sources, (3) sourcing of information, (4) flak, and (5) an anti-communist ideology. The model obviously fits Singapore and Malaysia but it is equally applicable, though slightly less glaringly, to the US or the UK.

None of us is wholly innocent. To cover myself from (legitimate) accusations of hypocrisy, I ought to declare that I’m in the business of publishing magazines, which depend on advertising revenue. Would I go out of my way to bite the hands that feed? Obviously not. And nor would any mainstream media anywhere in the world.

Lee goes on to say that for the print media to stay in the contest with online news, they should not aim “to be the first with the news because that’s not possible, but to be the first with the background and the analysis and the ones with the high credibility will stay in business.” This again is nonsense. One reads the mainstream papers or watches the 24-hour channels to get the latest news (breaking stories, football scores, weather, share market updates).

If it’s honest, intelligent or independent analysis you’re after, you have no option but to reach for the mouse. Obviously, a certain amount of intelligence, knowledge and discretion is required to sift the wheat from the chaff but the Internet is swarming with informed debate – unlike mainstream journalism.

Malaysians and Singaporeans know this, and it is the real reason for the success of independent online news portals and blogs.

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