berthahenson

The Reluctant Editor pulls no punches

In News Reports on June 28, 2019 at 4:39 am

Of course, the first thing I did when I got hold of P N Balji’s book, The Reluctant Editor, was to see what my ex-boss said about me. Balji had asked me some questions about my two-year stint in The New Paper newsroom where I was seconded to in the wake of the Toh Chin Chye affair in 1996.

What he wrote:

The tension, uncertainty and fear in the newsroom were made worse after it was announced that Bertha Henson, then a senior editor with The Straits Times, would shore up the editing process. She was a tough taskmaster not known to mince her words when presented with shoddy work. In characteristic Bertha fashion, she pronounced in an interview: 

The New Paper was a chaotic place with not enough disciplined editorial procedures. The front-end editors were not setting enough standards. The newsroom was as apprehensive to receive me as I was to go there. There was a sense that I was there to crack the whip, so to speak. And that I would bring ST’s conservative and strait-laced values into the newsroom. 

Urgh. My fearsome reputation!

In any case, I wouldn’t take back a word I said to Balji, but I would like to add that the newsroom picked itself up very quickly and took to the organisational changes, some of which survived for a very long time, very well.

The above, in journalistic language, is a just a side-bar.

The book itself is a racy read. It’s a collection of anecdotes grouped under various themes, with his run-ins with the G as well as with the corporate men being a dominant thread. I don’t think there is any living journalist in Singapore who can cast such a wide net of anecdotes; Balji has chalked up nearly 40 years of journalism in five different newspaper newsrooms, including the now defunct New Nation. He also had the privilege of being involved in the establishment of two titles, The New Paper for the Singapore Press Holdings group, and TODAY for Mediacorp.

Balji said in his author’s note that the book doesn’t pretend to be a memoir. It definitely doesn’t read like one. Nor does it offer an examination of the nature of journalism in Singapore, crowded by sophisticated official and unofficial controls. So no reader should expect the book to be anything like Cheong Yip Seng’s OB marker, My Straits Times story, which was published in October 2012.

Cheong, the ex-editor-in-chief of SPH English and Malay language newspapers, sought to give a chronological account of trials and travails of print journalism through the Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong years and to set them in the larger national, regional and even international geo-political context. Where Cheong tries to explain, Balji merely reports. Where Cheong offers hypotheses, Balji just recounts. It is straight-forward, no-frills writing focused on controversies he had faced, supplemented by some fresh interviews with journalists past and present.

When Cheong published his book, I was totally taken aback because he told tales which I thought I would take to my grave. Balji gave more tales, including a few which were before my time, like how the Prime Minister’s Office was incensed when the New Nation broke what is known as an embargo on the Chinese New Year message and published the speech before it was supposed to.

The book contained his account of the TNP newsroom’s biggest screw-up, naming ex-Cabinet minister Toh Chin Chye as a drunk driver charged in court. He reveals the inner workings of the disciplinary committee convened to investigate the error and the culpability of the journalists involved, and how $300,000 was paid to Dr Toh as compensation.

He also had some interesting throwaway lines that have been circulating on the grapevine but never, I believe, put starkly in black-and-white

On the G’s reception of Cheong’s book :

‘The Government’s reaction to the book came surreptitiously and without any public statement. Cheong’s appointment as non-resident ambassador to Chile in 2010 was not renewed when it ended three years later; more tellingly, when OB Markers was reprinted, Lee Kuan Yew’s endorsement disappeared from the book. The government was unhappy that one of its most trusted journalists had embarrassed it so publicly.”

This unhappiness about the book came out into the open in a tussle between the G and Dr Lee Wei Ling in 2016 but nothing has been said about the consequences for the author, who has maintained a studious silence

On the removal of Han Fook Kwang as ST editor, in the aftermath of the 2011 General Election:

”Every political journalist and editor becomes hypersensitive when it comes to election reporting, with editors scrutinising reporters’ copy with an eagle eye. Those who have tried to demonstrate some form of independence and fairness in their reporting and editing have paid a high price. The Straits Times editor, Han Fook Kwang, was sidelined and made managing editor after a rare display of fairness in political journalism when he gave the Opposition, especially the Workers’ Party, more editorial space than what was allocated previously.” 

Neither men were interviewed for the book. Or maybe they were asked, but declined. That was one failing of the book. Some sections were supplemented by interviews; some weren’t. You have to wonder why.

But you can’t fault Balji for sugar-coating G intervention in the media – he doesn’t. He spoke directly of  “officialdom’s media policy of using fear, intimidation and the force of law to get the media to tell every nuance of the Government’s side of the story and downplay dissenting views”.

Did he give evidence? Yes. He wrote of several incidents which got the G riled up, like TNP’s factually accurate reporting of the downing of a Super Puma helicopter in 1991 which the G said was a contravention of the Defence Act and how that same reporter was detained overnight by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau which wanted to know if he bribed narcotics officers for stories.

The G’s tactics were not always so blunt. Balji referred to the frequent off-the-record briefings that ministers and senior civil servant held, and still hold, with senior editors which “hung like an albatross among many editor’s necks”.

Why?

 When reporters uncovered stories on which editors have already been briefed, such stories had to be held back until the official announcements are made. Editors also found themselves hemmed in when they evaluated stories, because they always had to bear in mind what had been discussed with the ministers.’

I have had the same experience too many times both as a reporter and an editor. To be told that your scoop can’t be published because it had been discussed at  a high-level briefing is the most demoralising thing to say to a reporter and the fastest way to blunt journalistic inquisitiveness. I remember asking my boss what else I should know so that I won’t go chasing them – it was a jibe that was not appreciated.

As an editor, I have had to deliver the same message to go-getting reporters. And then I have had to pussyfoot my way around reporters’ copy to ensure that the “official line” was correctly reflected. Was journalistic independence compromised? Of course, unless editors had managed to get their way at the briefings on what they saw as important for readers. As Balji wrote in his book, there were editors who fought back or managed to navigate the terrain to reach their desired destination.

Balji wrote, of course, about his experience running TNP and TODAY, but they were scattered through different chapters. Tantalising bits and pieces surface like the pressure from the late SPH chairman Lim Kim San for TNP to turn in a profit or else. He describes his 10 years as editor as his university of life and mentions the people who were in the newsroom liberally, citing their go-getting instincts and creativity.

The TNP of old that was in Times House at Kim Seng Road is the most amazing little paper I know. I agree with Balji that its reporters are among the toughest, and its artists among the best that can be found in Singapore. You will never see the likes of the old TNP again, with its big, bold and confrontational headlines. It was balance of sex, crime and sport but with enough explanatory journalism to keep the G off its back. Now, it’s just a free mini-ST.

Methinks Balji should write a full book on TNP, its rise and hey days and how it had to conceptualise and re-conceptualise its editorial formula to gain more advertising and greater readership. He should document its rocky start, when he was deputy to Peter who was editor of the new product. They would be good pointers for anyone who wants to create a start-up. He could give more examples of how TNP covered stories that the big aircraft carrier, ST, also did. This is important as people tend to forget that there are many ways to tell a story, and from different perspectives.

Then he should follow up with another book on starting up TODAY for the rival Mediacorp. I recall the consternation among SPH senior editors when told that one of their number had gone to the other side and will be taking them on.

Balji writes matter-of-factly that he was restless after being at the helm of TNP for so long and had asked a foreign posting, which was rejected.  So when a head-hunter called to ask if he would like to start a newspaper, he took the job. I have often wondered how Balji felt about his former colleagues who thought he had “sold out” to the competition. I recall the disdain some people felt about a tabloid editor taking on the mighty ST.

In his book, he talked about heart-stopping moments on launch day because the printing company, which had never taken on an order for 300,000 copies a day, was having trouble getting the presses to operate smoothly. He didn’t pull back his punches when he talked about how the SPH marketing tried to scare away advertising by rubbishing the upstart and how its circulation department staff followed the trucks that were delivering the newspaper so that they would have an idea of its distribution strategy.

It’s time to record this piece of media history for posterity. I only hope that if Balji does take this on, the two companies would co-operate with information and documents.

As Balji himself said in his author’s note:

Both newspapers broke new ground in Singapore media history: The New Paper as the only afternoon newspaper ever to top 50,000 in daily sales; and TODAY for unlocking The Straits Times stranglehold on the morning newspaper market. 

I know what Balji will say to me when he reads this column: Bertha, why don’t you write a book? I’m still thinking, Balji. Still thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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