Government-linked Singapore Press Holdings has apologised to government-linked SMRT Corporation for an instance of libellous fabrication. There goes SPH’s vainglorious claim to “fair, objective” journalism.
The government has tried for over a decade (over a decade!) to paint bloggers et al of being beneath the standards they have set for themselves and their coterie of fawning media. Time and again, they have resorted to innuendo and outright accusations both, saying that blogs, online forums and social media are full of distortions and half-truths. Now, who has been shown to be engaging in total untruth?
Last week, SPH’s “citizen journalism” portal Stomp posted a photograph (above) said to show a moving train with its doors open. I had my suspicions the moment I saw it. Firstly, if the train had been moving, why was the railing beyond the open door not blurred? Secondly, the right foreground had a bit of a sticker which is typically found on the platform safety doors, indicating that the picture was shot by someone standing on the platform. Thirdly, there was a streak of light over the open door which looked to be a reflection of overhead lights somewhere, once again suggesting that the picture had been taken through glass from the platform.
According to The Online Citizen, the caption that went with the picture on Stomp said:
“I was on my way home from Boon Lay MRT to City Hall MRT last night. At Lakeside station at 10.15pm, one of the doors started making noises during ’Doors Closing’ and remained stuck open even while the train started moving.”
The posting was attributed to wasabi.
SMRT promptly challenged the veracity of the photograph, maintaining that its trains had safety features that would prevent them moving if the doors remained open. Interestingly though, in the story about SMRT’s response, the Straits Times revealed that the picture had been taken by a certain Samantha Francis, who stepped forward to assist SMRT in its investigations. So, she was wasabi.
It also said that Ms Samantha Francis, 23, who claimed to have taken the picture at Lakeside MRT station on Tuesday night, was not actually at the MRT station that day. This assertion is based on CCTV footage and Ms Francis’ ez-link card details, it added.
In the statement, an SMRT spokesman also said that the railings of the train tracks visible in the picture do not match those at Lakeside MRT.
Ms Francis, who is a content producer at citizen journalism website Stomp, took the picture and posted it on Stomp on Wednesday morning. She said she had boarded a train at Lakeside MRT at 10.15pm the night before.
She told The Straits Times that after the train pulled into the station, the doors on the opposite side to the platform swung open first. Finding this strange, she took a picture through the closed doors in front of her. Then, when the doors in front of her opened, she entered the train and took another picture of the opposite doors, one of which remained open until the train pulled into Chinese Garden, the next stop.
She added that two other people were in the same carriage as her: a Chinese man in T-shirt and bermudas, and an Indian man.
Yesterday, Ms Francis met SMRT staff at Lakeside MRT to assist in their investigations. She showed them where she was standing when she snapped the picture, and described what she was wearing that night to help them spot her in CCTV footage.
SMRT staff asked if the ez-link card she gave them to check was her only one, and if she had used it to enter Lakeside MRT on the night in question. She said yes.
— Straits Times, 22 June 2012, So, was door of moving MRT train open?, by Rachel Chang
What I failed to notice in that story was the newspaper’s mention of Samantha Francis as a “content producer”. Actually, even if I had noticed it, I probably wouldn’t have attached much significance to it. Like many others, I thought Stomp operated on the basis of ordinary people out there sending pictures and newsy bits to the Stomp office, where a small staff might sift through them and choose which to upload onto the site. Certainly, that was the impression that I had of it, and I think SPH wanted people to see it that way. Why else would they call Stomp their citizen journalism portal?
That said, Stomp had never acquired any reputation for important breaking news, let along anything resembling the concept of journalism. My brief forays into the site often led to me fleeing from so many pictures of car wrecks, cats in trees and migrant workers on their day off.
Now, it turns out that Samantha Francis/wasabi was no ordinary outsider submitting stuff gratis to Stomp. She was on their paid staff!
On discovering this, Mr Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English and Malay Newspapers Division, sent a letter on Sunday to Mr Tan Ek Kia, the interim chief executive of rail operator SMRT, apologising for the incident.
The content producer, Ms Samantha Francis, was also sacked by SPH, which owns Stomp, on the same day.
The 23-year-old had initially claimed that she took the photograph at Lakeside MRT station last Tuesday night. But following investigations by SPH, she eventually admitted that she had taken the image from a post on social networking site Twitter. The original tweet has since been removed.
— Straits Times, 25 June 2012, Editor-in-chief apologises to SMRT over Stomp picture, by Amelia Tan
So another falsehood is exposed. Apparently not everything on Stomp had been submitted voluntarily; they had staffers whose job was to take other people’s twitter images etc and put them up under anonymous names as if those other people had submitted them! Not only were the “news” being faked, the whole process was being faked and the public misled.
Meanwhile however, you’re going to see blame being focussed on Francis, deflecting responsibility from the higher-ups at SPH. In fact, if you read the above quote carefully, you’d notice that SPH is claiming credit for unveiling the truth (“following investigations by SPH, she eventually admitted . . .”). Eh? Wasn’t it SMRT that investigated and proved the picture to be a fake?
Nor is anyone within official circles going to revisit their claims that only SPH (and its twin, government-linked Mediacorp) stands for responsible journalism. But the damage has been done. From now on, anytime the government tries to paint new media as untrustworthy, they’re going to have this incident thrown back at them like so many cream pies. Pflaphtt.
Oh, and by the way, why aren’t we hearing anything about damages? If a blogger had tried to pull the same stunt, would SMRT or any government-linked body not have been quick to send lawyer’s letters and so forth?