berthahenson

Finally, the facts…

In News Reports, Politics, Writing on October 20, 2012 at 4:04 am

My ex-boss has written a tell-all book. I read it yesterday evening and closed the book with mixed feelings. Cheong Yip Seng was the man who brought me into journalism, and to this day, I have always considered him the top newsman in Singapore. Not by virtue of his position as editor-in-chief of the Singapore Press Holdings English and Malay language newspapers division, but as a consummate professional. That is, if politics didn’t get in the way.
I would ring him at home after office-hours when I find difficulty angling a story or was unclear about how to proceed with the reporting or writing. My colleagues were aghast that I would bother Cheong, as we all called him. But a short conversation answering a few sharp questions he posed would always set me right. I would hang up and start banging away at the keyboard. He missed news reporting and editing; that was clear to me. One weekend many moons ago when I was helming weekend coverage of the sinking of navy ship, RSS Courageous, he actually called me to ask if I needed him to come in to help. He was the only editor who offered to do so – and he was my top boss. I told him how much space I was giving to the story and he told me this: “Let it rip! Open more pages!’’ I was stunned. Anyway I doubled the coverage.
Cheong is the only journalist to have survived the bruising media environment and to retire gracefully. He did so by navigating the political environment skilfully. And because those who worked with him trusted that he would still do his utmost to ensure we practised good journalism, albeit within the OB markers. Of course, younger journalists wanted wider fairways and chafed when we thought them to narrow. Cheong would do his best to persuade us to his point of view, especially at his famous coffeebreak editors’ meetings. Sometimes we agreed with him, sometimes we did not. Sometimes we wished he would simply order us to toe his line. After all, he was editor-in-chief. But he never laid down the law. Always, in the end, we did as he wanted. He allowed feedback and dissent to surface and, in my case, I would do what he wanted because I appreciated his frankness and his earnest wish to get us over to his point of view. Also, I knew that Cheong was usually right. Butt heads with the G over one incident and risk the fairways becoming so narrow that we couldn’t do very much?
Cheong’s book, OB Markers, is remarkable for the revelations that senior editors had thought should be closely guarded secrets. The phone calls from ministers, slap on the wrists, face-to-face meetings were something that we do not talk about in public. Now here is Cheong telling all. It is a factual account and I myself was party to some of the discussions which took place. I wonder how the reading public will view the book. Here are some scenarios:
a) Ahah! I knew it!
Patrick Daniel, Cheong’s successor, had wondered if this would be the reaction. Will the book only confirm a perception/misperception that the ST is a “docile’’ press, one veteran had asked. Cheong replied that there wouldn’t have been so many run-ins if the ST was docile. Truth to tell, there have been occasions when I thought the ST reactions to G’s overtures (that’s the mildest term I can use) could be more vigorous. But you know something? If you are not in the business and not privy to some information, it is easier to shoot from the hip. I have always tried to take the view that Cheong was thinking for the long-term, hoping that time and technology and the unstoppable trend towards political openness would allow journalists to better practise their craft. Actually, journalists do have a lot of room to do good journalism which does not touch on the politics of the day. Over the years, there was less “interference’’ over non-political stories. On these stories, we “went’’ with the newspoint as well as with Cheong’s three principles firmly in mind – accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
b) Wow! The G really doesn’t trust the media
That’s true. Even to this day. The catchphrase civil servants threw at journalists when the reporting does not go their way is: You have an agenda. My usual response would be: “Where got so much time to come up with an agenda? What’s the agenda anyway? Bring down the G?’’ It’s laughable. Most times, the accusation comes from thin-skinned civil servants and politicians who want only favourable stories that put them in a good light. On several occasions, I have had to face newsmakers who do not “like’’ my questions, considering them too aggressive or do not “like’’ my writing because it was too racy. The flip side happens as well. They also “like’’ some of my stuff, which almost makes me wonder if they thought I was their PR machinery….I try to comfort myself when we get hit at by both the People’s Action Party and the opposition – if we are equally disliked, we must be doing something right!
c) The media people are really cowards….
Then there will be those who think the media should have “fought’’ back. That we should report “everything’’ and let the people decide how to view the articles. After all, as Cheong himself said, it is not likely that the Internal Security Act would be invoked against the media or that its publishing licence would not be renewed. True enough, but the G’s hold over the media is far more sophisticated. You should read Cherian George’s Freedom from the Press for indications. Editors have come and gone. But more importantly is what these people who advocate a “fight’’ really want? Too often, they are the first people who will say “don’t quote me’’ when asked to put their views in print. They expect others to lead while they watch on the sidelines. I always say “I am not going to be martyr for you’’ and will just do the best journalism I can. In any case, I will say that I don’t believe in full freedom of the press. On bilateral relations, for example, I will be guided by the G. When you do not have full possession of the facts, you put your country at risk by running uninformed accounts. I am not about to be responsible for Malaysia turning off the water supply!
d) The media here has such a tough job…
The thing about journalism is that we do not write about the difficulties of the craft. We just tell you about the information we have, not about how we got it or the hoops we have to go through, the telephone calls we have to field, the late night changes. It’s all part and parcel of reporting and writing. Cheong’s book gives a good insight into this. Sometimes the job is so tough that good people leave. Too narrow a fairway, too controlled an environment, too many considerations before even the writing starts, too many missed dinners PLUS the constant heckling that journalists have to endure, now tuned louder because of the Internet. I have on too many occasions had to console younger journalists upset at the jibes they receive – from both the G and the vociferous, nameless netizens – even as they try to do the best job they can under trying circumstances. I tell them to keep doing their job and trust that their bosses will take the flak and not deviate from ethical journalistic principles. As a senior editor, I try to convince them to “trust’’ us. That we do not roll over all the time. That we hold firm against the tide. But even I find it tough. Which was why I quit.
I am now waiting for public reaction to the book. Which scenario will pan out? Cheong said that if it resulted in some re-calibration of G-media relations, it would have done some good. Maybe it will realise that too controlling a hand will simply drive thinking people away from journalism. Maybe it will realise that this control, however subtle, puts ST’s credibility at risk especially with a better educated people with better access to information. The G should trust that journalists are not out to undermine Singapore. But it, too, should not undermine their editorial integrity.
Thank you, Cheong, for the book. It must have been tough for you to write it. The wonder is that you got Lee Kuan Yew to endorse it as “worth a read’’! Times, they are a-changing…

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  1. Thanks for the review Bertha… and your final comment plain made my day. Here’s hoping that you’ll someday share your own experiences in a book too!

  2. Nice piece Bertha. I’m going to get the book today! 🙂

    (Is there any reason you don’t put spacing between paragraphs? Just wondering coz personally find it easier to read with spacing).

    • Err. No reason. I do the blog on word and then just cut and paste. Somehow it turns out like that. But you’re not the first person
      who’s said this. Will do the spacing from now…Just lazy lah

  3. What you and Cheong don’t address is this: why not just walk away from this tightly controlled environment? What’s the point of sticking to this industry and then having to deal with this monumental headache? OB Markers, by the way, is a delightful name for a headache.

    I have (a little bit) of sympathy for the ST’s young journalists, but the thing is this – they’re young, and they could switch careers. Why struggle with your ethics and feelings for 40 years, hanker for a posting at the overseas bureaus so you don’t have to spar with the “G”, and all that… and before you know it, you’re in your mid forties with your principles thoroughly compromised, and with little prospect for a career change? (Unless one is in a high place, such as yourself.)

    It just seems to me like a very pain free arrangement if both the writers and readers just walked away – and then the OB Markers would be redundant. In the age of the internet I’m pretty sure we’d still be just as well informed. Thanks for all the fish, Cheong, but I’m still not convinced that we ever have to read the Straits Times – I haven’t in about 10 years or so.

    • I suppose we can walk away. I wasn’t a bonded scholar so I could have walked away much earlier. Except that the SPH stable is the
      only game in town where you can do proper journalism even if you have to struggle within the OB markers. There is a discipline and rigour
      applied to news reporting and writing. It has the people who can coach, tell you what is news and how to tell it. Frankly, more than 90
      per cent of the time, young journalists don’t have to “struggle” with principles because quite a lot of stories they do don’t touch on politically
      sensitive stuff. The struggle is more for the people at the top end. In any case, I have always been thankful for my journalism training. It’s taught
      me how to ask good questions, cut to the chase and how to write clearly. Good skills which I am hoping to pass on

    • I suppose we can walk away. I wasn’t a bonded scholar so I could have walked away much earlier. Except that the SPH stable is the
      only game in town where you can do proper journalism even if you have to struggle within the OB markers. There is a discipline and rigour
      applied to news reporting and writing. It has the people who can coach, tell you what is news and how to tell it. Frankly, more than 90
      per cent of the time, young journalists don’t have to “struggle” with principles because quite a lot of stories they do don’t touch on politically
      sensitive stuff. The struggle is more for the people at the top end. In any case, I have always been thankful for my journalism training. It’s taught
      me how to ask good questions, cut to the chase and how to write clearly. Good skills which I am hoping to pass on

  4. Great review. Gotta read the book now!

  5. […] The more interesting news the past few days was the launch of the book OB Markers: The Straits Times Story by former SPH Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng. I haven’t read the book, but it should prove very juicy going by what Ms Bertha Henson, a former editor herself, wrote on her blog: […]

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