Ms Teo Lay Lim, CEO of SPH Media Trust

SINGAPORE — Staff from selected departments at SPH Media were allegedly told to “let the matter rest” at a town hall meeting by the Chief Executive Officer of SPH Media Trust (SMT) over actions taken against executives who were said to be connected with the misrepresentation of the circulation figures for its publications.

This is according to a whistleblower who self-proclaims to be part of a group of individuals who have obtained the information from sources within the revenue and advertising arm of SMT and Straits Times (ST) who have attended the town hall meeting.

A scoop by Wake Up Singapore (WUSG) on 8 January shared allegations of the departures of three senior executives in SPH Media over alleged discrepancies relating to circulation and/or subscription numbers.

A day later, SPH Media, through a report by ST, acknowledged that 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 that continued to be counted into circulation data and also copies that were printed, counted for circulation and then destroyed, as well as the double-counting of subscriptions across multiple instances. There was also a project account which was injected with additional funding over a period of time to purchase fictitious circulation.

“Certain circulation numbers were arbitrarily derived,” noted the SPH Media spokesperson, which resulted in a discrepancy of between 85,000 and 95,000 daily average copies across all titles, which represents 10 to 12 per cent of the reported daily average circulation.

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 ST and The Business Times, as well as Lianhe Zaobao, Shin Min Daily News, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu.

“Let the matter rest at that”, asks SMT CEO

According to the whistleblower, the town hall meeting was held some days after several executives were “taken to task or left the company after an internal review”, and was hosted by the CEO of SPH Media Trust, Ms Teo Lay Lim.

No specific date was given by the whistleblower, and neither did SPH Media on when actions were taken against the executives.

In it, she informed the members who attended of the actions taken by the company and asked them to “let the matter rest at that” — referring to the departure of the executives.

The CEO was said to be concerned about the matter coming to the attention of the Ministry of Communications and Information and being debated and questioned in the Singapore Parliament.

It was highlighted that the town hall meeting was not attended by all members of the company but only staff from the marketing, advertising and circulation departments.

The whistleblower suggests this implies that the CEO and the top management did not want the entire staff strength to know about this matter.

It was also pointed out that no circular on the departure of these several executives and the reasons for their departures were made known — via an HR circular — to the staff.

The whistleblower also said that the group understood that the “fabricating of circulation numbers” was a common practice before the internal review, certainly before September 2020, which further suggests that members of the past management may have known about this practice, and shareholders of SPH were deliberately misled.

“It was very likely that the annual reports in the years when circulation began to fall had probably contained inflated figures.” wrote the whistleblower in the email.

Had it not been for the scoop by WUSG, it would be highly likely that SPH Media would have kept mum about the findings of its review.

Double counting, legitimate

This was, in a way, acknowledged by former ST editor and SPH marketing chief Leslie Fong said in a WhatsApp message that has been circulated that when a household pays for both a print copy and a digital subscription, the Audit Bureau of Circulation Singapore (ABC) allows that sale to be counted as two copies.

Mr Fong, who later confirmed with TODAY the veracity of the message, added: “In some other countries, if the digital subscription covers an e-paper or PDF (Portable Document Format) version, the publisher can and often does claim a count of three. SPH kept it as two.

So this is legitimate ‘double counting’, not cheating or inflating.”

Mr Fong, whose 46-year stint with SPH also included 15 years as editor of ST, as well as three years as editor of the Chinese-language Shin Min Daily News, said that since more than two decades ago, the ABC has accepted as legitimate that bulk sales to advertisers for free distribution can be counted in its circulation figures even if only half of the copies were picked up.

“That bulk sale of, say, 1,000 copies of the ST to, for example, a shopping mall for free distribution to its shoppers be counted as 1,000 circulated copies,” he said in his message that has been circulated.

This has been industry practice endorsed by every external auditor the company has used and every SPH main board led by the likes of former Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San or former president Tony Tan, Mr Fong said.

Copies that were sent free to advertising agencies for their principals’ reference are also included in circulation numbers, he added.

“Newspaper publishing is not a simple business,” he said.

It is said in SPH’s annual report that the total print and digital circulation numbers reported are in accordance with the rules set by ABC in 2016.

TOC wrote to ABC last week to ask if its rules have been violated by SPH Media and whether actions would be taken against it but has yet to receive a reply.

SMT funded up to S$180m per year

Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo confirmed in Parliament in February 2022 that the Government will fund SMT to the tune of up to S$180 million annually over the next five years for a total of S$900 million.

So far, no minister has issued any statement over the scandal. Mr Khaw Boon Wan, former People’s Action Party Minister and Chairman of SMT, is also missing in action.

Responding to media queries over the matter, a Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesperson said the ministry has asked SPH Media to share its full findings and has recently received SPH Media’s internal report on the matter.

“MCI will undertake our own review to determine if these inconsistencies in circulation data affect the decision to fund, and the amount the Government committed to fund SPH Media. MCI expects SPH Media to fully cooperate with our review,” said the spokesperson.

The whistleblower also wrote, “We don’t want our identities to be made known, so we are writing this to your organisation in confidence, and we hope our sharing will lead to greater transparency and accountability on the management of public monies and the upholding of public trust.

The email was sent to other publications in Singapore and has been circulated on private messaging.

TOC wrote to the senior management of SPH Media for clarifications last week, but no reply has been received as of the publication of this post. We will include SPH Media’s response in the post once it is provided.

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