News Reports

SMT circulation fiasco: Over to you now, SMT

I am glad that Minister of Communications and Information Josephine Teo told MPs yesterday that their specific questions on the circulation fiasco disclosed last month should be directed at the Singapore Media Trust. In fact, I had been getting annoyed at how MPs seem to think that the G should be speaking on behalf of the media, especially when they have talked in the past about media autonomy, if not independence. 

But this doesn’t mean I was happy with her replies. 

Teo was plainly sympathetic towards SMT, regurgitating its press statement and calling for patience as investigations were being carried out. She pointed out that the discrepancies were discovered as a result of an internal review “initiated by the SMT management in the first place’’. (In other words, we should give it some credit). Twice, she said that this should be “kept in mind’’. She even said that people should be “careful’’ about how they describe SMT, its management and its actions.

The minister wasn’t about to be drawn into pre-judging or speculating about what was going on beneath the water as the duck was paddling. A few times, she said “I don’t know’’ when MPs asked questions that would have required knowledge of specifics, such as how far back the inflation of circulation figures went.  

To recap, the issue  is about SMT’s disclosure that its internal review had found circulation numbers had been inflated, after an online news site’s expose on the departure of key staff members. This was for the period from September 2020 to March 2022 which therefore includes the time when the old Singapore Press Holdings entity still had the media business. 

SMT said later that it had asked its own audit and risk committee to probe the matter further. It did not give a deadline. 

One key question MPs had was whether circulation figures were a factor in the G’s calculation of the $180 million per year grant that was supposed to be disbursed from 2022 for the next five years. Other questions revolved on the manner in which the news was uncovered, which titles were most affected, the impact on past financial statements and the involvement of staff members who had been disciplined.  

Teo is right to confine her answers to questions about the grant. This is taxpayers’ money and the G has an obligation to make sure it is well spent. The relevant question before her ministry,  therefore, is whether or how news of the supposed faked circulation figures would affect that funding. She took a narrow approach: whether the reason for the funding still held and if so, whether the amount is still appropriate. The answer to both questions is yes. 

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 She repeated much of her previous speech in Parliament about the need for G intervention in the media to ensure that the people here would continue to have trusted sources of information. Usual phrases such as the changing media landscape, technological disruption and the proliferation of other (unreliable) sources of news were uttered. In other words, she divorced the issue of whether SMT as an entity was deserving of public money, from the greater imperative of ensuring its survival in the public interest. 

More importantly, she also said that circulation figures were “not a key consideration’’ when the ministry decided on the quantum. It focused on reach and readership figures which are calculated by independent surveyors.

I was surprised. Even in an era of declining circulation numbers, paid-for content is revenue and an indication of how much value subscribers place on the material. NCMP Leong Mun Wai asked if this might reflect a lack of due diligence on the part of the ministry. Her position was that the reasons for funding were still valid given that circulation wasn’t a big deal. 

I noted that no MP had  asked the G how it landed on the $900 million figure in the first place. This wasn’t addressed yesterday, nor in the previous speech. How can the quantum be reviewed if we weren’t even clear about the considerations that went into it? Now…we know it’s not circulation.

Teo made a point of saying that no money had yet been disbursed to SMT, even though the start point is from FY2022. Later, in reply to a question from PAP MP Jessica Tan, she said that the grant deal was being concluded and that the parties were in the process of “finalising’’ key performance indicators. I presume this would be about putting some hard numbers to factors she had cited such as the expected total reach of its products, especially digital reach and to vernacular groups. 

I don’t know how deals are done but it sounds very much like putting cart before horse, especially since there was supposed to be six-monthly reports from SMT on meeting the KPIs. Or maybe it demonstrates how difficult it is to get money out of the G. 

I thought she was too quick to say that nothing has changed as far as the G is concerned, since she had asked everybody to wait for the audit committee’s final report. Is this because the reasons would still be valid whatever the outcome? Would there really be no other wrinkle that would affect funding? 

But what I was most uncomfortable with was how Teo seemed more keen on defending or justifying the G funding, than addressing issues of trust in the media. As far as she was concerned, past surveys showed that readers trusted the media here. 

When Workers’ Party MP He Ting Rhu asked whether she thought this trust had been eroded by the disclosures,  her reply was to wait for the committee’s finding. There was no doubt that SMT took the issue seriously or it wouldn’t have convened another review by its audit committee, she said, making this point at least three times during the question-and-answer session. 

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I couldn’t believe my ears when she said that “SMT’s  internal review of circulation numbers reinforced our assessment that the media landscape had become highly unfavourable for news organisations, even if they had substantial reach and were trusted by the public.’’

“In particular, demand for print and digital subscriptions had weakened because news had become freely available. This is why circulation had come under pressure.” 

She followed up with this throwaway line: “I emphasise: This does not make it right for anyone to overstate circulation numbers.’’ 

Okay then. 

But then comes this line: “But it reaffirms the need for restructuring.’’ 

And this was part of her scripted speech… 

Some wags have described it as “gas-lighting’’ because she made a bad thing sound like a good thing. 

NCMP Hazel Poa  asked if she had sought an explanation from SMT about the way it handled its public communications, disclosing what happened on January 9, a day after an online news site’s expose. Very rightly, she replied that it was for the organisation to decide how to make its disclosures. 

Poa would be better off asking her if she was happy that her own ministry got the news on the same day as the public. 

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Everything has moved slowly since the news burst in 2021 about hiving off the news operations of SPHL to a company limited by guarantee. 

The board has been set up but beyond the names of board members, the public has no clue about how it will operate any differently from its previous entity. There is no public charter, no vision statement, no editorial policy, no KPIs for itself. It appears to be business as usual, despite being a public trust. In fact, The Straits Times has had only two names in its masthead for nearly three months now – which means you don’t know the composition of the editorial leadership. 

What’s the bet that SMT will share its audit findings with the public, in full? Or will the report only be shared with MCI and would require another parliament sitting to pry out some answers on the specifics? 

I can only repeat the most critical statement that Teo made in her speech: That SMT’s Board and management “must be mindful of their public duties, their responsibility to maintain the public’s trust in their newsrooms and journalists, and the need to discharge these responsibilities in a diligent and timely manner’’. 

PS. I wrote two commentaries on this issue earlier.

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