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Josephine Teo: SPH circulation issue won't affect funding, govt focuses on readership not circulation

Josephine Teo: SPH circulation issue won't affect funding, govt focuses on readership not circulation
The Minister for Communications and Information said no public monies have been lost due to the circulation data discrepancies.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – The recent discovery of overstated circulation data at SPH Media Trust (SMT) will not affect the Government’s decision to fund the media company, as the reasons to help develop local newsrooms remain valid, said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo.

She added that there is no change to the Government’s commitment to fund SMT by up to $900 million over five years.

The level of funding – to support SMT in digital transformation and capability development, and to sustain vernacular newsrooms – remains valid, she told the House, as there is a need to preserve local news media in the public interest amid severe disruption in the industry.

Mrs Teo also said circulation numbers of the company’s publications were not a key consideration in assessing the funding required for SMT’s transformation.

Her remarks in Parliament on Monday came in response to 26 questions filed by MPs. SMT, which publishes The Straits Times, among other publications, is facing public criticism after it emerged that an internal review found circulation figures for some of its publications had been overstated by about 85,000 to 95,000 daily average copies. The review covered data between September 2020 and March 2022.

Mrs Teo emphasised that no public money has been lost due to the discrepancies in circulation figures, as the Government had pledged to start funding SMT only in financial year 2022 – after the period covered in SMT’s internal review. The Government also had yet to disburse any funds to date, she said.

The reasons for funding SMT, aired and debated in Parliament in 2021 and 2022, remain as valid today, she said of the findings her ministry made after a review sparked by the circulation issue.

Local news outlets give voice to the Singapore identity and Singaporean perspectives, and also provide information people can trust to be accurate and objective, she said.

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.

“SMT’s internal review of circulation numbers reinforced our assessment that the media landscape had become highly unfavourable for news organisations, even if they had substantial reach and were trusted by the public,” said Mrs Teo. While this did not make it right for anyone to overstate circulation numbers, it reaffirmed the need for restructuring, she added.

But, she said, “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”.

SMT had said in a media statement on Jan 20 that it had tasked its audit and risk committee to further investigate the matter and to commission legal advisers to help. The committee will report its findings to SMT’s board.

Mrs Teo said the board will have to share these findings with her ministry.

She also said that SMT will be held to account when it receives government funding.

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 surveys.

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 (KPIs) 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.


Asked by Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) what the Government will do to ring-fence its funds if the company’s internal review finds criminal wrongdoing, Mrs Teo said safeguards have been built into the funding agreement and can be exercised if necessary.

Several MPs wanted to know the Government’s next steps. Mr Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked what the Government would do to ensure the overstatement does not happen again, while Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) asked how the Government would restore trust in SMT’s publications after the episode.

Said Ms He: “People might be thinking, if the organisation goes to such lengths to falsify circulation figures such as even pulping newspapers, would we still be able to trust the content that’s delivered by these organisations?”

Responding, Mrs Teo urged MPs to wait until the company’s audit and risk committee finishes its investigations, adding that she would not prejudge the outcome.

She said that while SMT’s board is accountable to the company’s members, it also has “a responsibility to let the public know how (it intends) to proceed”.

Mrs Teo also made a distinction between SMT and Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH), saying that the discrepancy in data was discovered by SMT’s own internal review.

In 2021, then mainboard-listed SPH spun off its media business, which was then incorporated as SMT, a company limited by guarantee, on Dec 1 that year.

Many MPs also had questions on the details of SMT’s internal review, including how long the practice of overstatement had been going on and the financial implications of the inaccurate circulation data.

Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa took issue with the manner in which SMT had handled the issue, and asked why the organisation had not broken the news of the discrepancies itself, given that the role of the news media is to “expose wrongdoing”.

Mrs Teo said their concerns are valid, and the questions should be addressed by SMT.

“The Government cannot speak on behalf of SMT, and it is premature for us to say more at this juncture,” she added, noting SMT’s ongoing investigations.

Acknowledging that the episode has affected SMT, including its newsrooms and journalists, she said SMT’s board will have to do what is necessary to rectify things if any problem is found and be transparent in how it will do so.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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