The following commentary has been widely quoted – and misquoted. For those who lack the patience to read it closely – including, sadly, the international news agency Reuters – here is a summary of its key points. (1) The issue is not whether the national media answered key questions (it cannot force answers out of government, as Reuters itself discovered, although it buried this pertinent fact low down in its report), nor whether reporters pressed the government for answers (we can take it for granted that they did). The issue is instead why the national media's initial published reports did not even mention the key questions of public interest. (2) Since there is a standard journalistic way of handling instances when important questions are not answered by newsmakers, the media's failure to do so for such a big story can only be explained by political pressure, not by some lapse in professional judgment. (3) Political interference of this sort is extremely damaging to media credibility.
Anyone receiving the news last week that a dangerous JI detainee had escaped from custody would have had an immediate question: How in the world did he escape?
The question is so natural and so obvious that you’d think anyone barely paying attention would ask it. Unless, apparently, one worked for the national news media – in which case the question of how Mas Selamat Kastari escaped was immaterial.
At least, that’s how it seemed right up to Thursday morning last week. Channel News Asia did not raise the question in its online report, posted a few hours after the escape. The Straits Times went to town with the story the next morning, carrying dramatic details of the ongoing manhunt in a page one story deemed worthy of five bylines, with the news editor himself leading the charge. But, apparently, none of them considered the “how” question to be newsworthy.
ST’s competitor Today had a strikingly similar approach on day one, covering the story as if it was the National Day Parade: a big show, not requiring the activation of any grey cells. Today brands itself on reporting the meaning behind the news, because it believes that the mere facts of the news are commodities already circulating through electronic media. Today's attempt to show that it had something more current and value-added than ST – whose headline read, "Massive manhunt" – was the headline "Manhunt continues". Like ST, Today's page one story, appearing next to its slogan “we set you thinking”, neglected to ask – let alone answer – how Mas Selamat escaped.
Thus, following the mainstream media over the first 24 hours was frustrating and farcical. Not because the public must get answers instantly – I don’t believe that government or anyone else must serve the 24-hour news cycle at the expense of more urgent tasks – but because people deserve to know that questions of public interest are taken seriously by the journalists who serve them. Journalists can’t always find the answers, but they can at least anticipate readers’ questions.
You already know this instinctively if you are a professional journalist. There’s a standard way of handling unavoidable gaps in your story, such as when newsmakers are not ready to answer questions by press time: you simply raise the question in your story, and state that answers are not yet forthcoming.
This is exactly what other media did in its initial reports. The Associated Press news agency quoted the brief Ministry of Home Affairs statement about in the third paragraph of its report, adding immediately after, “It did not say how he escaped.”
Similarly, Canada’s CBC said in the third paragraph of its report, “The statement did not say how he escaped.” The International Herald Tribune said, “Singapore has one of the tightest security systems in the world, and the government gave no details on how he escaped.”
In Singapore, in the first 24 hours following the escape, it was left to the bizarre combination of independent bloggers and PAP MPs to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind. Singapore’s mainstream media acted as if they didn’t want to know. Only on day two of the coverage, after the obvious questions had surfaced in Parliament and blogs, did the media air them. In ST's case, an article at the bottom of an inside page reported public incredulity at the news. Today's single story the same day uncharacteristically led with a human interest angle – a father afraid for his school-going child's safety – and buried the tough questions.
When the national news media are so uniformly guilty of a lapse that puts them so clearly out of sync with other opinion shapers – in this case, the foreign media, local bloggers and even PAP backbenchers – there can be only one logical explanation: media management by the government. Editors must have been instructed not to raise the “how” question publicly.
Muffling the media in this way may not have much of an effect on the outcome of this particular case. The relevant questions will surface anyway, as they already have. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng has already promised an independent inquiry. Foreign Minister George Yeo has assured that "what can be made public, will be made public".
If other fiascos – ranging from the Nicoll Highway disaster to the NKF affair and SAF training mishaps – are any guide to how this one will play out, citizens will eventually get pretty detailed answers, and can then assess for themselves whether there’s been enough accountability, transparency and learning on the part of government.
So, the main impact of the national media’s failure will be felt by the media themselves. Every time officials use their political power to force the press to act in a way that’s plainly counter to public expectations, it will lose credibility – the resource that even ministers acknowledge is something the media cannot do without. And this at a time of proliferating choice, when the only sensible policy option is to invest in the credibility of the nation’s mainstream media, as I've tried to argue elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the die appears to have been cast: political control of the national press will be used to ensure that the tough questions about the great escape story are asked ever so gently, if at all. Journalists will instead give us blanket coverage of the manhunt, showing the impressive Singapore law and order system in action.
On Sunday, day four of ST's coverage, the national paper decided at last that it might be time to point fingers. Its editorial – unfortunately not the best read part of the paper – suggested that "complacency" may have set in. Opining that "the systems designed are solid", the editorial added, "But are security chiefs satisfied that rank and file personnel are discharging their duties with matching thoroughness?"
In the same day's edition, news editor Carl Skadian finally acknowledged, "To most people, the questions uppermost in their minds were 'how did he do it?' and 'how could something like this happen in Singapore?'" Not that this made a jot of difference to ST's coverage. This statement was buried in the 4th leg of an article on the last of six pages of a package otherwise devoted to such minutiae as the use of MMS to spread the Wanted man's picture and how Mas Selamat got his limp.
Treating citizens as if they were brain-dead will not make them so; they will simply migrate to other media that take them more seriously.
AcidFlask says that the above article is too charitable in letting government off the hook. Mr Brown adds: "Cherian George thinks the bunker mentality is not helping the government or the mainstream media's credibility. I think Cherian is being kind."
On day five of its coverage, Today finally runs a hard-hitting (by mainstream media standards) column by its chief P N Balji, criticising the government for its bunker mentality in releasing information.