09 September 2012

Book Review: Freedom from the Press by Cherian George

Part I: Cherian George doesn't want you to take him seriously as an academic

If you have a good impression so far of the career of Dr Cherian George as a serious political commentator on Singapore politics or as an academic, don't read his reply to Vernon Chan's review of Cherian's book, "Freedom From The Press" on The Online Citizen.

What are we to make of an academic who reacts in this fashion to an unknown complaining that his book isn't rigorous enough, doesn't follow normal academic writing and research standards? It's one thing to perhaps claim that Chan is a nobody making a mountain of a molehill, or that Chan is wrong about the standards required of academic publications. But it's a very different thing to say: "Fortunately for me, NUS Press – one of Asia’s top academic publishers – applied less lofty standards than Chan." or admit that most of the book is "the result of painstaking original research by my assistant."

We have read Cherian George's book following Chan's review in TOC and Cherian George's curious hissy fit, which is remarkably curious and unprofessional since it amounts to an academic telling a non-academic why he didn't have to declare his theoretical framework, and telling the non-academic why he's pretentious in trying to hold the academic to academic standards in his review.

Now we at Illusio have never shied away from being polysyllabic, hurling theoretical frameworks at readers as a preface before answering any question, or even teaching you all about the media theory of Roland Barthes. We can afford to be pretentious while taking down Dr Cherian George.

Pseudo-Intellectual Waffling

But let's give credit where credit is due. Where it comes to pretentiousness and putting on pretensions, no one outshines Cherian George. Let's take a look at the first two chapters of Freedom From the Press.

Geroge presents no theoretical framework, no consistent strategy of presenting an analysis of "journalism" and its relation to "state power in Singapore". What about the concept of "freedom" then? For some mystifying reason, George spends two entire chapters feeding us red herrings. In the bizarro universe of Cherian George the academic from NTU, there is a huge controversy over the concept of press freedom. He vacillates between acknowledging its existence, viability, and rightness as a concept and denouncing it, Kishore Mahubhani style, as a convenient western invention that isn't quite practised in the west.

Dispensing with references, sources, and resorting to misrepresentation and strawmen arguments

My issue with these two chapters is not the glibness of Cherian's argument but that it's part of his centrist for the sake of centrist schtick, which I've identified before in this blog. Yet what dismays me (and probably Chan) is Cherian's frequent resort to strawman arguments on both ends of the political divide. Sentences like these are littered throughout FOTP, so much so that Cherian should be hauled up for an Intellectual Public Work Order to clean up his tome.

"One favourite retort of defenders of authoritarian press systems is that there is, after all, no country with absolute freedom."

"Those at the opposition end of the political spectrum includes foreign critics with a barely concealed contempt for Singapore and its people..."

In FOTP, which Cherian George crows that NUS Press saw fit to publish, arguments (mostly against the Singapore press system) are attributed to faceless, nameless critics. And foreign academics, who are almost always faceless and nameless unless they happen to be Mary Turnbull, who wrote a coffee table book (commemorating 100 years of The Straits Times, no less!) commissioned by Cherian's former employer, SPH.

We kid you not. This is a sample paragraph in Cherian's book.

"By misidentifying the ways in which the government controls media and politics, analysts have arrived at erroenous conclusions. According to some, Singapore's unfree media system was supposedly incompatible with an open economy and First World standards of living... Most of these predictions have been based on crude misconceptions..."

Who are these analysts? What are the conclusions, however erroneous, they have made? What predictions did they make precisely? What misconceptions did they base all these on? Where are the flood of citations and footnotes that would normally accompany a paragraph like this?

Cherian George doesn't seem to want to be taken as an academic as long as there are mysterious, unnamed analysts whose studies and predictions he rubbishes without the courtesy of 1. naming them, 2. and their actual studies or articles. It's as good as misrepresenting his fellow academics in other parts of the world, who thankfully won't hear of his wretched excuse of a book since no serious journal will bother reviewing it.

On one hand, George wants to be taken seriously eventually as an academic who writes on the media and state control of the media; on the other hand, George also wants to be taken seriously as a serious academic who isn't like the "western critics" and "anonymous critics" whose criticisms of the Singapore press system he denounces - probably because they're not Singaporean, they're Singaporean but anonymous, and they're more truthful about the state of Singapore's press than he allows himself, as a serious and credible commentator within the Establishment on Singapore politics.

Now here's your moment of zen

What gets Cherian George's goat apparently are the Reporters San Frontieres's Press Freedom Index, which places Singapore near the bottom. He seems to be mightily offended, dismisses the entire enterprise of press freedom indices with just one line: "RSF's methodology is dubious, resulting in the Republic being grouped with regimes where journalists lose not just their liberty but even their lives." And just to show what a good little academic he is, Cherian George provides a CITATION and reference for this judgement call. Namely, his own blog post.

No, I guess there haven't been any serious academics publishing articles in peer-reviewed international journals where they try to analyse the methodology, consistency, validity, and coherence of the Press Freedom Index and others.

In the bizarro universe of Cherian George, Google Scholar shows Zero Results for this because Harvard's Ronald Inglehart hasn't bothered to test the RFI, and SAGE isn't interested in academics trying to take apart surveys and indicators to see if they're worth anything. In the bizarro universe of Cherian George, the academics Harvard and SAGE, amongst others, can't really find a way to discredit the methodology or theoretical basis or validity of the various press freedom indices they've looked at.

In the universe we live in though, a simple Google Scholar search reveals all the western academics (amongst others) who have audited the RSF and Freedom House indices for decades and given them a clean bill of health, as well as explain what these surveys are really telling us (and consistently) over time.

I mention Ronald Inglehart because he's a big hitter in the world of political science. His World Values Survey finally made its way to Singapore earlier this decade. The NUS researchers co-conducting the Singapore leg of his survey spent about 6 months of preliminary research to critique or validate the concept, methodology, and validity of the WVS and found it acceptable. Now when Ronald Inglehart spends time doing the same to the Press Freedom Index and finds it passes muster and publishes a paper on it, you'd trust him. Not this Cherian George clown with his glib 'refutation' of the PFI on his 'journalism' blog.

Gee, so much fail just in the first 2 chapters of his book already? We advise "Dr" Cherian George to be a better academic or just stop pretending to be one.

And maybe If you have a good impression so far of the career of Dr Cherian George as a serious political commentator on Singapore politics or as an academic, you should skip the introduction and the first 2 chapters of his book, Freedom From the Press.

07 September 2012

Book review and Cherian George smackdown to come!

We have never been fans of Cherian George and his attempts to be a political commentator and commentary moderator of the blogosphere.

It has come to our notice that following our criticism of Cherian's writing and our unmasking of his political agenda, the NTU pseudo-academic-on-a-political-sinecure has changed the URL of his online essay twice in the past year and very conveniently made his entire website unavailable for most of this year, until the last fortnight. We have of course updated the broken links once again, and will continue doing so each time Cherian George shifts his URLs around. And if Dr Cherian George takes his site or essays offline ever again, I have screenshots of his essays primed and ready.

Even though we are an old fashioned and unpopular site that no one really reads, Cherian George seems to be taking extraordinary measures to hide his embarrassment from our criticisms. We would like to think that Cherian George is doing this to protect what little academic credibility he has left. Then again, it seems Cherian George has all but given up pretense to academic credibility, at least if you read his startlingly embarrassing reply to a review of his recent book.

Now. We do have a copy of Freedom From the Press, and we are more than happy to review his book right here. After all for an academic, Cherian George must publish or perish - and then he must be reviewed as well, or perish. Illusio is not an international, peer-reviewed political science or media studies journal, but then neither are The Online Citizen or The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong - which, 6 months after the book's publication, are the only establishments in the world interested in reviewing his book. Of course, we are honoured to increase the reviews of Cherian's book by 50%.

Look for our review this weekend!