SPH Media's editorial integrity questioned in SG parliament debate

Singapore's communications and information minister S. Iswaran and leader of the opposition Pritam Singh crossed swords in parliament yesterday over funding and editorial independence of Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) new media entity. Last week, SPH said it is transferring its media business to a newly-formed public company limited by guarantee (CLG). Iswaran said in a ministerial statement yesterday that SPH Media must chart its own course to revise - and if necessary, reinvent - its business model for the digital age. He added that the government is committed to supporting the media business as it builds capabilities and adapts for a digital future.

He also cited several media companies that have resorted to cost-cutting, received funding from non-profit organisations, and been acquired by billionaires. These include News Corp, The Washington Post, South China Morning Post, The Guardian. Iswaran added that papers that are profitable, such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times, are under continuing pressure. In response to his ministerial statement, Singh posed questions on topics such as the size of the funding the government has pencilled yearly to support the SPH CLG.

On the amount of government funding to be provided, Iswaran said it is "premature" to specify the exact numbers as the restructuring plan will need to be approved by the SPH shareholders. Thereafter, the new entity will also need to formulate its plans and share what it sees as its strategic business direction going forward. "And in that matrix, the different sources of revenues that it expects or anticipates, and what role the government funding (will) play in that matrix," he said.

Iswaran added that not-for-profit does not mean that the entity does not pursue business on a commercial basis. "We fully expect the entity to seek out ad revenue, circulation, or subscription revenue and other sources of funding. But we fully expect government funding will be the component of the funding matrix for the CLG," he explained. 

SPH previously said it will provide the initial resources and funding by capitalising SPH Media with a cash injection of SG$80 million, SG$30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH REIT units, as well as SPH’s stakes in four of its digital media investments.

"I can say that the medium to long-term outlook remains challenging and that is why we need to be clear that the government will be prepared to come in to give support. But on how much, these are the things that will need to be worked out in due course after the CLG has had a chance, subject to shareholder approval to develop a business plan and put the proposal to us," Iswaran said.

Singh also asked about the structures the government will put in place to foster editorial independence, and the possibility of the formation of a select committee for members of the public to express their views on the editorial standards they expect. To that, Iswaran said the culture of editorial independence already exists in Singapore in the news media and we are doing "a disservice to journalists and editors" to suggest anything to the contrary. 

Likewise, he said Singaporeans have already expressed their views because Singapore scores highly in trust surveys. "Singaporeans have been quick to point out that they trust our news media, both print and broadcast," Iswaran said citing examples such as the Edelman Trust Barometer Report. He added that even local surveys such as the one done by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) also validates this point, stating that seven out of 10 Singaporeans trust local media. "This is a higher level than the trust they accord to international media," Iswaran added.

He also stressed that the SPH news organisation, in aggregate, has not just maintained but grown its reach and readership across print and digital. "That would not be the case if Singaporeans did not feel that they could trust a news organisation. So, I think the people have spoken and I think it is our job now to make sure that object of their trust continues to succeed," Iswaran said.

Retired former minister Khaw Boon Wan was recently named chairman of the not-for-profit entity to oversee the SPH media business. The decision was made to ensure that local news media will remain in the hands of trusted institutions with a long-term stake in Singapore, Iswaran said. He added that no attritions are intended and the terms of the proposal, as of now, is to have the entire SPH team move over to the new CLG. This was in response to a question from another member of parliament on whether the restructuring plan will result in further downsizing.

"The desire is more to build on the capabilities we have and see how we can attribute new talent to augment what is already there. It's not just about the business and financial aspect but also about the people aspect. This must be given importance and this is something that we, from the government's perspective, think is critical," he explained.

SPH recorded its first-ever loss of SG$11.4 million for the financial year ended 31 August 2020. If not for the Jobs Support Scheme, SPH said the loss would have been a deeper SG$39.5 million. That said, it has increased its spending in technology, product development and data analytics talent by 48%, to more than SG$20 million a year over thie past five years, and invested SG$35 million in digital content and audience development talent in the newsrooms. Beyond manpower, SPH also increased spending on new consumer-facing digital platforms and products, averaging more than SG$20 million a year over the past five years.

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