You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

The G’s resistance to the “live” coverage of Parliament is perplexing

The Middle Ground logo The Middle Ground 14/11/2017 Bertha Henson

a sign in front of a building: Photo By Shawn Danker © Provided by The Middle Ground Photo By Shawn Danker

by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been watching the Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MP) try myriad ways over the past few months to get the G to telecast or stream Parliament proceedings live. The answer has been a consistent no.

WP MPs went through various contortions to NOT say that edited footage or media coverage has been less than neutral. Questions ranged from whether there was enough of an array of videos on Mediacorp’s website, how long they would stay on the site and even copyright issues.

In answer, the G keeps reiterating that there is enough material for anyone who is interested in parliamentary proceedings to peruse, including full transcripts on Hansard.

But the key reason voiced is lack of demand.

In March this year, Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat said: “Based on data collected, the viewership of ‘live’ broadcasts remains low. Even for a major speech like the Budget Statement, the number of people who watched it ‘live’ is less than 10 per cent of those who watched the parliamentary highlights on the news that evening. And less than 1 per cent of all viewers watched the Budget Statement ‘live’ using web-streaming; and this is the Budget Statement – it is a major speech.”

You would think that we’re talking about a brand of detergent that wouldn’t make it into the market because it would not be popular. Hence, you would only be spending money and not earning any. But this is not a commercial product we’re talking about; it is a public good.

It behoves the G, the state broadcaster, or Parliament to ensure that the public good is provided, as a public service, especially at a time when the cost of internet live streaming would not be as prohibitive as in the past. This is not as though live streaming is anything new since mainstream newsrooms have had live telecast feeds for decades.

So what is telecast or streamed live now? The yearly Budget statement and the Opening of Parliament once every four or five years, or in-between if Parliament is prorogued. No major legislation or debate have been beamed live to homes and offices, not even constitutional amendments or the debate on the famiLEE saga, which was a delayed telecast.

Go back into Singapore’s parliamentary history and you will find that having live telecast is no new initiative. As early as 1992, the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) decided to broadcast the Budget Debate scheduled for the next month, live. SBC said it was a trial to see if they can continue doing live telecasts. SBC was already showing the Today in Parliament segmentwhich just had highlights of Parliament.

MPs across political parties supported the move at the time. People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Loh Meng See commented that it would be better for the people because they would be able to see their MPs speaking up and assess their performance. His beef was the disproportionate amount of attention paid to ministers compared to backbenchers.

Opposition MP Cheo Chai Chen took the view that the telecast would “improve debates in the House as the speakers will have to prepare well” while his party boss said: “The problem with ‘Today in Parliament’ is that it is an edited version. So it could be edited to make the Opposition look bad and the PAP good.” But fewer than 4,000 people on average tuned in to watch the three-week debate. So SBC pulled the plug and decided to do live telecasts selectively.

This did not, however, prevent those who caught the coverage from questioning the SBC move. One commentator in The Straits Times asked if “viewership figures should be the main criterion for judging the success, or even the necessity, of public service broadcast”.

Another commentator put the case more dramatically: “The most important issue at stake here, however, is the political education of citizens. Live coverage of Parliament is a step towards making the political process more transparent. People get to see how their Members of Parliament are performing, or not performing. Parliamentary debates literally come ‘alive’.

“Indeed, in this sense, live telecasts avoid some of the pitfalls associated with edited versions of proceedings. Television, as a medium which depends on the shock of fleeting images, is notoriously vulnerable to the distorted and sensationalist portrayal of reality – bad journalism. Edited versions of parliamentary debates carry the danger of producers focusing on dramatic highlights, on speakers playing to the gallery, to the detriment of those who, though they may not be brilliant orators, might be trying to make very good points.”

Those comments made way back in 1992 are still relevant today. In fact, there is greater urgency for wider access to parliamentary proceedings today. As WP MP Pritam Singh said in March: “At the time when poor information, misunderstanding, and even misinformation and fake news are becoming increasingly prevalent, efforts that assist and allow the public access to primary sources of information so as to have an informed, fact-based public debate are especially needed.

“This allows a discerning, active citizenry to participate in governance and have a direct stake in policy-based discussions with fact and reasoned opinion the order of the day as opposed to wild diatribe and unsubstantiated exaggerations.”

The G’s resistance is incomprehensible.

Consider these examples of countries in Asia that have live broadcasts of all regular parliamentary sessions either online or through television, which are later made available on their parliament website: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and Malaysia. Did their respective governments or parliaments consider viewership figures when they decided to do this?

Over the past decade, the sovereignty of Parliament has been impressed on its citizenry, who are already befuddled by the range of people who sit in the house, like Nominated MPs and Non-constituency MPs and their right to speak or vote.

The courts frequently refer to debates in Parliament when contentious points of legislation are contested, to divine its intentions. Note, for example, how the issue of the timing of the holding of a reserved elected presidency was put on the shoulders of elected representatives. Or how there was a difference in interpretation among the judges themselves about whether the Protection of Harassment Act covers G agencies.

There are other reasons for live-streaming or telecast. Citizens here are un-schooled in the role of MPs as parliamentarians, which is why they treat MPs more like “contractors” to fix their surroundings or as the last avenue of appeal to G agencies. Schoolchildren, accompanied by their teachers, make their way to the gallery and fall asleep because no one wants to disturb the silence to explain the proceedings before them.

For the better-informed, there is also a sense of helplessness and inevitability in the way legislation is so easily dispatched through the House. The dominance of PAP MPs adds to this sense of helplessness. Has there really been enough scrutiny and debate on legislation? Were the PAP MPs rigorous enough in their scrutiny given that they belong to the ruling party? While it can be argued that MPs are not delegates of their constituencies, but their representatives, have they articulated the public view clearly enough for the G to hear?

Will these questions be addressed with live-streaming/telecast?

In some ways, yes. Teachers can explain the process to school children in the classroom. Those who want to see their MPs in action over a legislation they are particularly interested can tune in/log on. If debates go on for longer than a day, they can contact their MPs to relay their views and ask that they be reflected the next day. MPs will be forced to, first, turn up in Parliament including for the boring bits of legislation and, two, realise that maintaining a functioning town council is only part of the job. How they ask a question, whether they are awed or cowed by frontbenchers, and whether they are too quick to accept answers will be on full display.

While the media are still needed as a filter, citizens now have the added option of judging parliamentary performance for themselves. How can that be bad?

What is interesting is that the new Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin is thinking of ways to help the public understand what goes on in Parliament. “Being aware of the debates is one thing … reading about them, watching, thinking about them”, he said. “But understanding the process is also important, this is really about the democracy at work.” He talked about starting a blog and using social media platforms to explain concepts, but did not touch on how live telecast or streaming of proceedings would help as well.

This is just too odd.

It is better that he suggest that Parliament, as an institution, take over the process of publicising its work and handling all outreach, including “live” reports, than leave it to the G, ministry, or MediaCorp. This would secure Parliament’s position as an independent, sovereign entity that is beholden and answerable to voters.

No money? The IMDA and Mediacorp have just launched a $3million content development fund to “reinvigorate, refresh and raise the quality, innovativeness and creativity of public service broadcast content on Mediacorp’s platforms”, as the broadcaster reported last month.

Shouldn’t they put horse before cart and put in place something as basic as “live” reports of Parliament first?

Featured image from TMG File.

If you like this article, likeThe Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us viaemail.

The post The G’s resistance to the “live” coverage of Parliament is perplexing appeared first on The Middle Ground.

More from The Middle Ground

The Middle Ground
The Middle Ground
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon