SPH has just published its latest annual report for the financial year ending August 2019. It its report, SPH revealed that the total print and digital circulation of its flagship newspaper Straits Times (ST) increased 4.2% from 370,000 to 386,100.
This total increase of 4.2% reversed the trend of its last three years’ figures of -18.4% (2016), -2.5% (2017) and -3.4% (2018).
Since 2012, ST print circulation number has been diminishing every year, dropping some 43% from 355,700 to 203,900 in 2019.
The only bright spark is that its digital circulation has been trending upwards. It jumped 32% from 138,200 last year to 182,200 this year.
Overall, however, the trend from 2012 till present still shows that ST combined circulation for both print and digital is trending downwards.
Former ST Editor-in-Chief reveals non-independence of ST
In 2012, retired SPH Chief Editor Cheong Yip Seng published his memoir, “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story”, acknowledging publicly that the People’s Action Party government has the habit of “manipulating” public opinions through Straits Times.
In his book, Mr Cheong talked about how the PAP government would systematically controlled and meddled with the press.
One of the episodes was when Peter Lim, Mr Cheong’s predecessor, resisted then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s pressure to print the full ‘O’ level results of opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election. Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP. Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the newspaper.
Mr Cheong also related how Peter Lim, then his boss, had tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price by having to resign in 1987. Mr Cheong himself was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate. He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is — when the “notorious phone calls” came.
And among the many “notorious phone calls” Mr Cheong had to deal with, he revealed one call he got during the 1988 GE when former Solicitor General Francis Seow was contesting as an opposition candidate under Workers’ Party banner in Eunos GRC. With that one phone call, ST immediately stopped covering the election campaign of Francis Seow overnight.
In other words, SPH’s “balanced” reporting suddenly disappeared overnight after one “notorious phone call”. In other first world countries, the newspaper editors, of course, do not have to “take orders” from their government but not in Singapore.
Mr Cheong’s memoir also described the many interventions in Singapore’s media by the government – from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG, which the government deemed important for the citizens to know.
Mr Cheong’s memoir is a laudable effort to put on record the astonishing government meddling that editors like Mr Cheong had to deal with regularly.
In any case, according to the latest World Press Freedom Index 2019, Singapore is currently ranked 151st out of 180 countries, behind Russia (149th) and Bangladesh (150th).
It’s no wonder the ST total circulation number is going down with more Singaporeans ditching ST.