Stomp as well as its print affiliate the Straits Times have since apologised to SMRT and the public, in addition to sacking the offending employee, who was a “content producer” for Stomp. Despite both divisions being keen to downplay the incident as an isolated one, it still raises the worrying question of whether the practice is widespread within the organisation. Might this incident not have come to light if the target of the offending article had not been SMRT, a powerful entity currently under intense public scrutiny and therefore alert to defusing any public complaints about the safety of its trains? That beggars the questions of whether there are other instances that have gone unnoticed and whether Stomp employees sought to increase readership by spinning off controversial content taken from elsewhere as contributions from site readers.
The problem is that Stomp is a curious creature: an online offshoot of the Straits Times meant to engage the fast growing population of fixed and mobile Internet users by keeping them corralled inside the SPH stable. It is largely driven by contributions from users rather than its own content, offering a less restrictive forum than would be allowed in its print affiliate.
But while in theory this should allow the Straits Times to dissociate itself from the oft-times less than quality ramble and drivel on Stomp – content that it would scarcely see fit to print in its paper – in practice the two divisions may not be easily distinguished by the general online reader. That the Straits Times has stepped in to apologise indicates that it feels it has to take responsibility for the conduct of Stomp.
The Straits Times has a strong interest in taking Stomp in hand, and more importantly, to be seen as taking it in hand. Yet there seems to be little chance that answers will be forthcoming. It is unlikely that any internal inquiries – if any – by the Straits Times and Stomp will be made public. Nor does the government seem keen to press for one.
That is not reassuring. The focus of the government as well as society at large when it comes to regulating the media and the (planned) regulation of discourse on the Internet has so far been on a narrow measure of harm done in terms of aggravating statements about politics or race. The Stomp incident, while relatively contained, has suggested that one blindside is the lack of oversight of journalistic practices.
The ongoing Leveson inquiry in Britain into the practices and ethics of the press (largely triggered by scandalous revelations of phone hacking by tabloids) is a reminder of the necessity of keeping an eye on the media for violations of its self-proclaimed creed of ethics before they get out of hand. The problem in Singapore is how to do so without the heavy hand of the government – which is not exactly known for being enthusiastic about press freedoms – and without relying wholly on the industry to regulate itself, since the latter approach does not seem to have worked in the UK. It is an issue that deserves serious and urgent consideration.
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