SINGAPORE — Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo has reaffirmed the Singapore Government’s commitment to fund SPH Media Trust (SMT) to develop local newsrooms despite the revelation that circulation data for its publications have been inflated, at least for the period between September 2020 and March 2022.
This was said by Mrs Teo in her speech responding to questions filed by Members of Parliament who were concerned over the scandal faced by SMT after Wake Up Singapore (WUSG) exposed firings and penalties imposed on staff over the misrepresentation of circulation figures on 8 January.
SPH Media, through a report by the Straits Times, 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 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.
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.
Mrs Teo said there is no change to the Government’s commitment to fund SMT up to S$900 million over five years. But she noted that the Government has yet to make payments pending agreement over the Key Performance Index used to assess SMT for the purpose of the funding.
She told the Parliament that there is a need to preserve local news in the public interest amid severe disruption in the media industry and that circulation numbers of the SMT’s publications were not a key consideration in assessing the funding required for SMT’s transformation.
It has become even more important to ensure their survival at a time when the Internet has made it exceedingly easy for all kinds of information to reach and influence domestic audiences, Mrs Teo said.
She said, “Our mainstream media, including SMT, played crucial roles, conveying accurate information in a timely fashion. Based on an MCI survey. More than 70% of respondents accessed SMT digital content. At least a few times a week. In 2021, a jump of almost 30% since 2018. The Reuters Institute Digital news report indicated that 77% of respondents expressed trust in the Straits Times in 2021, up from 70% in 2018.”
Mrs Teo, however, notes that “SMT’s Board and management must also 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.”
In this regard, the Government’s focus is on readership and reach, which measure how many people read the publications, and not circulation, which measures how many copies are sold or distributed.
Mrs Teo noted that readership and reach are measured through surveys done by third parties, such as research agencies like GfK, external sources such as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, and the Government’s own news consumption service.
She added that there are safeguards in place in the Government’s agreement with SMT to ensure public funding is used in an accountable and responsible manner.
The key performance indicators the Government will look at to assess SMT’s performance include the total reach and engagement of the company’s products, especially on digital platforms, and also specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and young people, she said, noting that the indicators will determine the amount of funding.
These indicators and the company’s financial statements must be audited by independent external auditors before they are submitted to the Government, which can also conduct its own audits, she added.
SMT will also have to provide progress updates to the Ministry of Communications and Information on a half-yearly basis.
“Funding will be disbursed only if SMT provides satisfactory regular updates on where and how funding has been utilised, and future business plans. The Government will also review the funding quantum during the midterm and adjust KPIs and funding where necessary,” Mrs Teo said.
When asked by Workers’ Party MP Gerald Giam if the circulation figures cited by Minister S Iswaran in Parliament were correct, Mrs Teo said that the questions by Mr Giam would be better answered when the Audit and Risk Committee of SMT completes its investigation and shares its findings with the Government.
When asked by WP MP He Ting Ru whether the public will still be able to trust the content that’s delivered by these organizations, given the extent of falsification of circulation data, Mrs Teo said she would not prejudge the outcome.
“Earlier in my reply to the PQs, the board will have to share these findings with MCI after it has completed its investigation and rectify what needs to be rectified. What needs to be rectified? That is still not known yet. The board is accountable to the members of the clergy, but they also have a responsibility to let the public know how they intend to proceed.”
She added, “I think this responsibility is not lost on them. If it was any if there was any doubt that they did not take this matter seriously, I don’t see why they would have convened another review by their own audit and risk committee”.
Josephine Teo disagrees that SMT would have been given more compensation if circulation data was lower
Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai asks Mrs Teo if the Singapore Government would pursue the management of the former Singapore Press Holdings over the falsification of circulation data as it would have some bearing on the compensation that the former listed company would have to give.
In response, Mrs Teo said that if the circulation data was, in fact, lower than what has been reported, then the compensation would have been lower than what was received by SPH Media Trust when the transfer took over.
Mr Leong disagreed, saying that the Minister’s answer defies financial logic.
He said that if, from the beginning, the circulation numbers were lower than expected, the Government would have asked for more compensation. That is a logical way of looking at financial dealings between the two entities.
Mrs Teo said she could not agree with Mr Leong.
“If something is worthless and I have to take over something that is worthless, surely I cannot be expected to be provided more compensation. ”
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.
SPH provided the initial resources and funding by capitalising SPH Media with a cash injection of S$80 million, S$30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH Reit units, and SPH’s stakes in four of its digital media investments.
SPH was subsequently delisted after a takeover by Cuscaden Peak, buying over the shares of the company at S$2.40 per share, or S$3.9 billion.
SMT handed over internal review only on 9 January
It was also revealed by Mrs Teo that SMT handed over details of its internal review on 9 January.
While Mrs Teo painted a rosy picture of SMT of them being upfront with the review results, it would appear that had it not been for WUSG’s report on 8 January, SMT might not have shared the info with the Government.
This is somewhat supported by whistleblowers who shared that 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 SMT.
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.
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.