Striving for credibility and trust - Jun 26, 2007 (ST)

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The Straits Times / The Business Times News On SPH

Striving for credibility and trust

Remarks by Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of SPH's English and Malay Newspapers Division, at the 16th annual conference of the Asia Media and Information Centre (Amic) and 1st World Journalism Education Congress

Jun 26, 2007
The Straits Times

I WOULD like to start in a roundabout way, and make reference to a wonderful book I read some years ago. It's called The Passions And The Interests, by Albert O. Hirshman, the noted Princeton economist. He sub-titled it Political Arguments For Capitalism Before Its Triumph. This volume is an excellent summary of the little-known history of Western capitalism as we know it today. Most of us know the history of communism better than we know the history of capitalism.

The background to the book's curious title is that with the decline of the religious order in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the big question for moral thinkers was: How do you control the passions of man? To cut a long story short, they came up with the novel idea that rather than repress passions such as avarice, it was better to harness these passions into something constructive that can contribute to the general welfare. So money-making became seen as no longer an unruly passion and was taken instead to be a calm 'interest'.

To quote Hirshman: 'One set of passions, hitherto known as greed, avarice or lust of lucre, could be usefully employed to oppose and bridle such other passions as ambition, lust for power or sexual lust.'

Note that this 'greed is good' foreshadowed Adam Smith's idea of the Invisible Hand, which made his 1776 book, The Wealth Of Nations, such an epochal one.

I cite this because it is relevant to our topic today.

According to Hirshman, the idea of countervailing passions travelled to America where it was used by the founding fathers in drafting the US Constitution. For instance, in Federalist 51, the division of powers among the branches of government was justified on the grounds that 'ambition must be made to counteract ambition'.

Marketplace of ideas

YOU can guess from this where the notion of the Fourth Estate emerged, along with the First Amendment prohibition of any law that abridges the freedom of the press.

This is also the source of the so-called 'marketplace of ideas'. Hirshman attributes this notion to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said in a 1919 judgment: '(T)he best test of truth is the power of (a) thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.' He added: 'That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.'

It is of course arguable whether this theory of the US Constitution leads to the truth. One clear danger is that it leads to increasingly partisan views, where the twain never meet and consensus is well-nigh impossible.

Whatever the case, my key point is that the First Amendment rights and the 'marketplace of ideas' are not part of the intellectual or cultural heritage of other societies, especially here in the East.

A further point is that while Western societies have moved on to other issues - civil rights, for example - other parts of the world are still grappling with the unruly passions of its citizens. Promoting a harmonious order is still a challenge, and they have to do it in their own way.

Of course, this varies from country to country and I can't speak for all of Asia. But I can say that each of us is entitled to fashion our own approach, taking into account our heritage, culture and history. For instance, it is axiomatic to those in multiracial and multi-religious societies that we have to exercise freedom with a large dose of responsibility.

Let me speak specifically about Singapore Press Holdings and its newspapers. Our flagship English daily, The Straits Times, has a 162-year history. We were first run by the British and, then after independence, became Singapore-owned and managed. We have grown and prospered along with this city- state. So we make no apologies for being pro-Singapore.

Our history has been that we willingly play a strong nation-building role. With independence from the British and then separation from Malaysia, the future then was precarious and we strived to help build a successful Singapore.

Wide fairways

WE have been fortunate in Singapore to have a Government that is focused on effective, far-sighted governance, and on providing jobs and a good livelihood for its citizens. We in the SPH media will continue playing a useful role in taking our communities further forward.

The question is: How do we play this role? One starting point is the laws of the land. There is no US-style constitutional provision protecting press freedom. On the contrary, there are laws that proscribe the power of the media - everything from the Official Secrets Acts to defamation laws. We take these as a given and respect the laws we have to abide by.

To use a golf analogy, we have a good sense of where the out-of-bounds markers are, or what we call the 'OB markers'. But the key thing is, the fairways are wide enough for us to produce credible, good-quality papers, with accurate news and well-argued, intelligent and balanced commentaries and analyses.

Credibility is a key word here. Freedom with responsibility doesn't have to mean we settle for third-rate products. We in SPH are happy that our readership surveys show most of our readers believe what they read in our papers and give us higher marks for credibility than readers in other countries.

Credibility and trust are also important for another reason - we need to continue to attract good journalists and editors if we are to produce quality newspapers. If we do a poor job, we will soon lose our talent. Decline will then become inevitable. In a thriving city and in a flourishing media scene - where just about every international newspaper is available and where online news and information can be accessed freely - talent will flow to where it is most valued.

We in SPH are determined to ensure we get more than our fair share of talent. This is the surest way of ensuring that we continue to thrive for many more decades to come.

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