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Commentary: SPH Media Must Be Held Accountable To Keep Readers’ Trust

SPH Media Must Speak For Itself & Not Rely On The Government

There was a time in my past life when editors threatened to resign en masse because the management wanted to do some big advertisers a favour.

The proposal was that the whole stable of newspapers swears off reporting on bad news about their sector for a particular day of the week — in exchange for more advertising dollars.

I recall the consternation on the faces of all the editors around the table who couldn’t believe what was being asked of us — to act on advertisers’ behest and hold back stories.

Management, of course, saw it differently. There are, after all, six days in a week. And it wouldn’t apply to press statements about the sector from the Government, it added.

One editor spluttered about the integrity of journalism and led the charge to resign. When asked, I said I wouldn’t know what to say to smaller advertisers who wanted the same deal. We were not very articulate, so caught by surprise at what was to us an egregious and indecent proposal.

As usual, management described the editors as sitting on their “high horses’’ instead of helping with the company’s bottom line. By the way, the then Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) was still minting money at that time.

Source: SPH Media on Facebook

Playing down news stories for advertisers

There were other occasions when both sides did not see eye-to-eye, to put it mildly.

Management lauded an attempt to launch a project but wouldn’t agree on the staff numbers requested. This resulted in an angry showdown between editors who said the numbers were based on their “professional judgment’’ and managers who wanted to count beans.

A compromise was reached, with both sides not at all happy at having to give way to achieve it.

Another example: Reporting on the company’s annual report is an assignment that no journalist wants because top management will want its way with the angle. Editors have to decide if the preferred angle is also the most newsy – or fight it.

 

Sometimes, it saves emotional energy by simply taking the line of least resistance and reporting as suggested. The excuse: At least, the full annual report is available to anyone who wants the works.

Likewise, media report viewership and readership surveys that put them in the best light. Notice how each media focus on how well they are doing, even if it’s just a small development or in some unimportant aspect?

Again, at least, you can read all the outlets’ stories for a fuller picture, and come to your own conclusions. That is, caveat emptor.

The old SPH I knew, at least up to 2012, used to have a distinct line separating church and State. Staff from other departments were too terrified to ask favours of editorial, like playing down this or that story or covering non-newsworthy events for big advertisers.

But the line got muddied over the years, with journalists even given quotas on getting advertisements and sponsors for their own newspaper.

Editorial & management not always on the same page

It was difficult to stem the tide. So-called creative advertisements slowly made their way into editorial space, like a pizza stuck smack in the middle of a news article or bees floating in the text.

I tried hard to stop the covers of the Home section from being wrapped by an ad. Then I went on leave and a wraparound appeared.

But the truth was that if a project doesn’t succeed, journalists are the ones who pay the price. They are usually employed for the project and retrenched if they cannot be absorbed into other parts of the company.

The finger-pointing would be about whether editorial had good content or whether marketing had the ability to sell ads. Editorial, with its excess headcount, falls first.

In the end, editors had to face a new reality; they had to be marketing-savvy. Editorial drew up parameters, such as the size of “brought to you by…’’ statements, indicating that this was a sponsored space and not editorial content.

We stood firm on non-interference with the content of ‘sponsored’ articles. Some of us, including me, went out to meet advertisers in getting-to-know-you sessions. Being “advertiser-friendly’’ became as important as being “reader-friendly’’.

What editorial had always been clear about, however, was being tougher on ourselves than we were on others. We self-flagellate when any one of us in the company gets caught doing badly. We do so for reporters, photographers, and executives even if they were only tangentially involved.

Management cares about reputation – which means hiding bad news about ourselves. Editorial, however, wants to let it all hang out because, hey, that’s what we do unto others.

We did so with the old National Kidney Foundation in 2007. The charity took us to court for exposing its lavish spending, among other things. When the truth about its financial management filtered out during the defamation trial, unhappy donors pulled out. A charity relies on public trust to operate, and this hit rock bottom then. A new entity was put in place to restore confidence.

Because self-interest was involved, the editorial team decided that court transcripts should be published alongside the usual news reports for readers to judge for themselves. On this, editorial and management were of one mind.

But, as I said, it was not always the case.

SPH Media must be transparent to maintain public trust

One incident in which I got personally involved was when a senior executive was arrested for mismanaging funds – and which management wanted to play down as a small story with sparse details that were in its press statement.

During a painful meeting with management about coverage, I had to squeeze out each detail (that I knew of already) for management consent.

But we can say this, right? And what about this? And we should put this in, okay?’

Management was flabbergasted when the editorial team decided to put the story on page one. As far as they saw it, it was like any run-of-the-mill story about an executive fiddling with funds. The company should be treated no differently from other companies, they argued.

Ah. But therein lies the rub. We didn’t belong to just any company. This is a publishing company which is supposed to report the news without fear or favour and insists that other agents be transparent and accountable.

Every article or commentary or column that touches on honesty can only hold up if the main body practises what it preaches. And that means making sure that readers know that we kept up our side of the bargain.

No matter how much flak the mainstream media has taken, fairly and unfairly, about being a Government mouthpiece or pandering to advertisers or just being professionally inept, few can say they didn’t hang out their dirty laundry to dry.

Error in circulation numbers & half-baked answers are red flags

This is why I do not understand why my calls for transparency and quick and clear answers from SPH Media are meeting with disagreement on social media.

I cannot fathom why readers do not understand that the very legitimacy of the media is at stake when it fudges circulation numbers and worse, gives half-baked answers to questions. It is too egregious a scandal and, in other jurisdictions, a crime as well.

A certain segment of the Internet crowd has suggested that more time be given for the company, as SPH Media said, to further probe or investigate “more fully’’ the circulation fiasco.

They point to how long it took for other reports on failures to be finalised. SPH Media has tasked its audit and risk committee to do the work. No time frame was given.

Time is just what the media doesn’t have. It is a 24/7 product. People read it all the time.

It cannot be subjected to a stop work order or a suspension while things are being righted. Every day that the media gets distributed is another day the readers’ trust in its content and integrity is being taken for granted.

Public trust hinges on SPH Media telling unfiltered truths

SPH Media said its committee will focus on the “preliminary findings’’, that is, on circulation data in the period between September 2020 and March 2022.

In other words, the committee will be reviewing the earlier internal review which exposed the numbers. It’s double-checking if there was double counting.

I have to assume that its remit is wider than what its press release stated because it would be natural to try and find out when this state of affairs began – and whether there were really only seven staff members, inexplicably more than the initial three it announced.

Others think that this scandal is a small matter and less important than bread and butter issues, like cost of living pressures. I disagree.

Media pervades every part of our lives. While we might experience rising prices on a personal level, we rely on the media to tell us of their bigger impact nationally, how other people are faring, and the whys and wherefores.

We have to trust that they are gathering facts, and not faking them. One ingredient of this trust is that they tell the truth about themselves.

I have also heard it said that it is natural, even if it is not honourable, that the professional instincts of journalists stop at the boundaries of self-interest. That they become employees first, and journalists, second. That this accounts for its minimal reporting, use of euphemisms and lack of clarity of news statements. Read this for how its two statements compare.

If this approach is okay for most citizens for whom SPH Media is staple reading, then we deserve the media we have. It is a reflection of how, as a society, we have become used to lower ethical and professional standards, that we can argue against the need for the media to come clean quickly.

SPH Media shouldn’t let the Government do the talking

So now we wait – not for a press conference, but a parliamentary sitting.

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo told reporters she would only answer questions in Parliament, the “appropriate place’’. I predict further silence until the parliamentary sitting on 6 Feb, close to a month after the news first broke.

Source: Josephine Teo on Facebook

It is sad to think that the media has been sucked into the way disclosure of information has become so orchestrated here in Singapore.

I am absolutely sure that journalists already chafe at having to wait for ministerial statements in Parliament to get a response to questions that the ordinary man in the street has over this or that issue. Parliament neither sits every day, nor every week or fortnight.

While I agree with MPs who want her to talk about the impact the news has, if any, on the size of the Government funding to the tune of $980 million over five years, I am appalled that they asked her to share more details on what happened. These are questions that should rightly be directed at SPH Media.

It’s embarrassing for a media company to be leaning on the Government to help it do its own business — public communication. What’s worse, it feeds the perception that there is no arms-length relationship between the media and the Government.

In fact, the Government, in answering questions on the media’s behalf, will cement this image, more than the other way around.

*Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times

Featured image adapted from Google Workspace.

Bertha Henson

Bertha.

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