At the Parliamentary sitting on 15 February last year, the Minister for Communications and Information (MCI) Josephine Teo told Parliament that the government will fund the newly set-up not-for-profit media entity, SPH Media Trust (SMT), to the tune of up to S$180 million annually over the next five years.
“This will provide SMT with more capital to invest in the future while ensuring that they are able to sustain their current operations,” Ms Teo said.
“Preserving our local news media remains critical. Our local news media provide a vital Singaporean lens through which citizens can make sense of global events,” she explained the reasons for supporting SMT. “It is an essential public good in our multiracial, multi-religious society.”
The media publications of the former Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) were incorporated as SMT, a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG), on 19 July 2021 after being cut off from SPH due to its declining revenue. They include the Straits Times and The Business Times, as well as Lianhe Zaobao, Shin Min Daily News, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu. That is to say, MCI started funding SMT after July 2021.
To ensure accountability for using public funds, Ms Teo said that her ministry will monitor SMT’s performance closely through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that track the total reach and engagement of SMT’s products.
MCI will also monitor specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths and resilience of SMT’s flagship products to minimise downtime and disruption.
“SMT is required to provide progress update reports to MCI on a half-yearly basis,” she said. “This allows MCI to track their progress and for the Government to help achieve its desired outcomes when necessary.”
“If nobody is reading The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian or Tamil Murasu, if nobody is viewing Channel 8, Suria, Vasantham or CNA, there is no use in funding SMT or Mediacorp,” Ms Teo added.
“It is precisely because people are reading, viewing and hearing our mainstream media that they deserve to be supported. It is because the public see them as trusted sources of news that we must do all we can to keep them as viable propositions.”
Ms Teo further iterated, “As can be seen also through the KPIs set by MCI, the Government’s key interest is to ensure the reach of SMT’s products.”
“No one gains if these products lack credibility and are ignored by audiences. On the contrary, we are funding them precisely because they do have readers who trust them,” she said.
Faking data on circulation reach
Thanks to a scoop by alternative online media, Wake Up Singapore (WUSG), on Sunday (8 Jan), the public now knows that SMT had faked its data on circulation reach.
And since Ms Teo’s ministry is supposed to review SMT’s reports every six months, it can only be concluded that MCI simply swallowed SMT’s data hook, line, and sinker without much questioning.
It was WUSG which reported that three senior SMT employees had been taken to task or left the company due to issues linked to the circulation numbers of its publications. TOC noted that two of the said three senior executives still have their online profiles listed as being employed in SMT. Perhaps they have yet to update their profiles.
According to an ST report, some inconsistencies in the reporting of the data were discovered during a review of internal processes in March 2022, which looked at a period from September 2020 to March 2022.
This included the reporting of circulation data, lapsed contracts continued to be counted into circulation data and also copies that were printed, counted for circulation and then destroyed; as well as double-counting of subscriptions across multiple instances. A project account was also injected with additional funding over a period of time to purchase fictitious circulation.
“Certain circulation numbers were arbitrarily derived,” noted an insider, which resulted in a discrepancy of between 85,000 and 95,000 daily average copies across all titles amounting to 10-12 per cent of the reported daily average circulation.
One would wonder if WUSG’s report did not come out on Sunday, would SMT have come clean with the findings of the review that was conducted in March last year?
Given that SMT has presented some fictitious circulation reach data to MCI and therefore breaching its KPI, it remains to be seen if Ms Teo will continue funding SMT at S$180 million a year or if any police report would be filed over what some would consider fraud.