berthahenson

CNA and ST episodes: About trust and transparency in the media

In News Reports on October 12, 2018 at 2:16 am

I have been waiting to see if MediaCorp would do an ST, that is, be compelled to reveal more details of what looks like a scandal which had erupted in its organisation. But it seems that MCS has decided to hold its tongue. I am talking about online reports which have surfaced regarding the termination/sacking/resignation of senior journalist Bharati Jagdish.

I am not in the habit of sharing posts from online news sites, but I gather that The Online Citizen’s post on her departure was, in the main, accurate: That she had left the company in the wake of a parliamentary exchange that had mentioned her reporting.

If you haven’t been following the debate on ministerial salaries and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s defence of the salary framework in Parliament on Oct 1, here’s a run-down.

DPM Teo referred to a reported published on Channel NewsAsia’s website on an interview with Banyan Tree Holdings chairman Ho Kwon Ping. Among other things, Mr Ho talked about ministerial salaries.

This is the part which DPM Teo referred to, when the report appeared on Sept 30:

At one point during our interview, he includes Singapore ministers in this group. 

“My salary is decided by the board and my salary is lower than the ministers so I probably belong to the group of people who might be considered mediocre, unfortunately.”

His salary, including benefits and a bonus, according to Banyan Tree Holdings’ 2017 Annual Report was over S$2.5 million, so it’s certainly not lower than ministers’ salaries.

“Lower than ministers? Really? I’m shocked,” I say.

“Well, but I don’t know about everything. All I can say is that we are still every year winning corporate awards for transparency and disclosure, so whatever those  guidelines are, we are definitely one of the best. I try, But that doesn’t mean you may find me in every way, walking the talk.

This is what DPM Teo said in Parliament about how well-meaning people with a deep interest in politics have misconceptions about ministerial salaries.

I read Mr Ho Kwon Ping’s extensive interview with CNA, which was published yesterday.

Among other things, he suggested pegging Ministerial salaries to the median salary of Singaporeans. He also suggested an independent Commission to decide the actual quantum. And Mr Louis Ng, in an earlier similar interview, also suggested that there should be public consultations…

…But even Mr Ho, who is well-informed and has a deep interest in politics, has some serious misconceptions. He claimed, for example, that his salary is lower than the Ministers.

Sir, fortunately, the interviewer had checked, done the homework, and pointed out to Mr Ho that his salary, including benefits and bonus – I would not mention the figure, but it is significantly higher than that of Ministers and certainly not lower than Minister’s salaries.

Sir, otherwise the misrepresentation could have been carried widely and spread more disinformation.

The only news media which contacted Mr Ho for a response to DPM Teo’s remarks was TODAY. :

Mr Ho said it was unfortunate that the Channel NewsAsia interview had given an impression “which not only made me seem quite ignorant or untruthful about my own remuneration, but also critical of the amount of ministerial salaries”. 

“I was not ‘corrected’ by the interviewer — I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different,” he explained.

Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.

“I have reservations about how they are computed and pegged,” he said.

In an interview with news site Mothership a few days later, he reiterated his position:

 “I have absolutely no reservations about their absolute amount, which I have always publicly argued is more than justified not only because of their contributions, but in order to ensure that the entire public sector… will never need to succumb to the open or hidden corruption in both developing or even very developed countries.”Ho said that he could imagine that the way the interview was structured, “it would seem as if that actually I was not entirely truthful, that I was trying to make a dig at ministerial pay”.

That’s far from the truth, he said emphatically.

Ho clarified that he was in fact referring to the process of basic remuneration rather than the absolute amounts, adding that he was not “corrected” by the interviewer.

He was referring to basic salaries and she used his total compensation instead, before concluding that “anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different”.

This is all so intriguing.

So what did he say and what did the reporter do? At this point, editors would have to get into the picture to find out if the reporter made an error, misinterpreted comments and, worse, fabricated quotes. If editors stood by the story, they would have not amended the report – but they did.

Mr Ho’s answer on how his company won corporate awards for transparency was deleted. Instead, the new quote is this: “Well, but I don’t do much you know, ministers care for the country and I belong to the mediocre class.”

Then there was this paragraph inserted, as well as an Editor’s note.

(When asked for his comments by TODAY a day after this interview was published, Mr Ho said that “I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different. In his clarification, Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article suggested that the interviewer had highlighted Mr Ho’s total compensation during the interview. This point was in fact not made during the interview. We apologise for the error.

The next thing we know, the reporter in question was no longer in the organization. I have no idea what happened in the interim, but I can see several issues worth examining, especially in this era when so much is said about “trust’’ in media.

First, you don’t need to put out fake news to stir the pot. You can put out the facts – but in the wrong places.

Second, DPM Teo trusted the mainstream media so much that he actually commended the reporter for doing her homework in “correcting’’ Mr Ho. Mr Ho contests this point. If you have been in the business long enough, (and DPM Teo is not a journalist) you will see that the paragraph on Mr Ho’s total salary look like it had been inserted into the story and he looks like an idiot who tried to rescue himself by saying he doesn’t know everything including, presumably, his salary. A tenacious reporter, as  Ms Bharati is known to be, wouldn’t have let something go like that in the course of the interview.

Third, it could be that Ms Bharati found out later, after the interview, that Mr Ho isn’t a “mediocre’’ salaryman and thought it was  important to make the point to provide “balance’’. If so, she should have contacted Mr Ho with the information during which he would probably have corrected her assumptions about total compensation package or basic pay.

Fourth,  did Mr Ho say those things about his company being among the best or not? Is this a fabrication or just an editor exercising judgment that the point was not worth the space used? Deleting a quote and replacing it with another is easy to do in the online space. But it’s not professional unless an explanation was provided to those who had noticed the change.

Fifth, I can’t imagine how a senior journalist like Ms Bharati could even think that it was right to insert that paragraph on his pay and make it look like she had tackled him on it. A rookie reporter could have made the mistake, because he or she doesn’t have the skills to navigate a difficult story. Even so, it would have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor who would have asked: “Wow. Ho Kwon Ping doesn’t know how much he’s paid? Really?’’

Some people have asked whether Ms Bharati deserved the sack or whatever euphemism that MCS wants to come up with. My position is yes. And this is despite knowing that Ms Bharati is a far better interviewer than most in the profession. Why? I am going to get up on a high horse now and say “journalistic ethics”. Her report had led to a misconception about Mr Ho being raised in no less august a place than Parliament, and by a personage no less than the DPM. It casts a pall over her previous work, as legitimate questions will be raised about whether due diligence was exercised over her past reports. DPM Teo actually owes Mr Ho an apology for, ironically, relying on his faith in MSM. That seems to me grounds enough for a dismissal.

I suppose I will be criticized for being harsh. But severe disciplinary action is the standard editorial policy for mistakes that don’t seem to be a result of carelessness, bad language use or lack of expertise. I don’t know if MCS did so, but it should have a disciplinary inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter, at least as a cautionary tale to its own staff on what not to do.

What is troubling is how readers are more interested in the scandal that engulfed The Straits Times earlier this month, rather than this more pertinent lapse in professional ethical standards. Most people are (still) all agog about who did what when TOC broke the story on the demotion and deployment of two editors over their respective relationship with a subordinate. Sex sells, I suppose.

For readers, what should matter is whether these illegitimate relationships affected the quality of ST, and therefore, the readers’ interest. It doesn’t seem to have had that effect.  What’s worse is ST’s response, It was paltry and unsatisfactory to say the least.  If it had decided to take the heat, then it should have reported the case like it would any scandal.

In the case of CNA, however, there is no excuse for silence given the very public nature of the issue: DPM, ministerial salaries, Parliament and a prominent Singaporean. It is interesting that rival MCS didn’t touch the ST scandal, nor did the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newsrooms report on Ms Bharati’s departure. I hope MSM realises that this omission merely confirms the need for media that is outside the duopoly.

What the ST and CNA episodes also show is how the two media organisations have very different standards when it comes to reporting their own shortcomings, compared to other people’s shortcomings.  It used to be that news media come down much harder on their own than on others, because it must have the credibility to demand transparency and openness. This is how trust is built up, when the public knows that the media holds itself to higher standards than the rest.

Because what can a journalist say to a newsmaker who responds with: “Why should I tell you anything when you don’t tell me everything?’’

 

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