EARLIER this month, Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Ahmad Maslan instructed government-linked companies (GLCs) to increase their ad spend in Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian. Although the move is likely unprecedented in Malaysian history, we should not be surprised by the directive.
In mid-September, Ahmad Maslan’s boss, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, urged not just GLCs but also government agencies and bumiputera-owned companies to buy more ads in the Malay daily. That wasn’t the only thing Najib, who is also Umno president, did — he announced that Jalan Enam, where he had just opened Utusan’s new headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, would be renamed Jalan Utusan.
It’s irrefutable from these reports that the ethno-nationalistic Malay daily enjoys huge support from Umno despite the legitimate criticisms against the paper’s lack of journalistic ethics and professionalism. And while Umno would do anything to ensure the survivability of its media mouthpiece, there is a price to pay for bailing out Utusan.
Keeping the media dishonest
It is publicly known that Utusan Malaysia’s readership, just like the readership of other traditional print titles, has been sliding over the years. At one point, Utusan’s daily circulation was 350,000 copies. In the first half of last year, however, figures by the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that the ultra-nationalistic Malay paper averaged only 181,000 copies daily.
Utusan has also been suffering financial losses in the millions and is currently trying to raise approximately RM40 million through a rights issue to its shareholders. The rights issue will result in Umno increasing its stake in Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd, which owns the paper.
Much of Utusan’s decline has been attributed to the not-unfounded perception that the paper, like many other traditional media, has become a mere channel for government propaganda. If that was not bad enough, Utusan is notorious for publishing false, defamatory and racially divisive articles. Indeed, it must stand as the national newspaper with the most lawsuits — and successful ones at that — levelled against it. From October 2011 to February 2013 alone, Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd has had to apologise repeatedly for its reports and been made to pay damages amounting to hundreds of thousands of ringgit for its defamatory articles.
With all of that in mind, what exactly is the government saying when it instructs GLCs to increase its ad spend in Utusan and gives the paper the honour of having a road named after it? Clearly, the government is saying unethical journalism that serves the current ruling party’s interests will be rewarded. Indeed, even if unethical journalism puts the business at risk, the newsroom should rest assured that Umno and the Umno-led government will protect the paper and ensure its survivability.
What incentive, then, would a paper like Utusan have for becoming more responsible, professional and ethical in its reporting?
Apart from sanctioning and urging more unprofessional journalism, the Umno leadership is also aiming to negatively influence sound corporate decision-making. As the communication head of a large corporation remarked in a conversation: “Why would we associate our brand with a media that espouses myopic views and embarrasses the nation?”
And yet, that is exactly what the GLCs are being asked to do.
Additionally, for most well-run companies, the decision of where to place ads is based on data and driven purely by commercial sense. For example, a corporation would look at a particular media company’s audience figures and its audience’s demographics. This would ensure that the corporation’s ads reaches the right target audience and the highest number of their targeted audience, hence securing the highest return on ad spend.
Yet, because the government has written letters to GLC heads to advertise in Utusan, there will be corporations that will feel pressured to put aside best corporate practices in order to stay in the government’s good books.
It’s not just corporate practices Umno is trying to influence. The party has also applied to the Securities Commission (SC) to exempt it from conducting a mandatory general offer to buy out minority shareholders of Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd following its undertaking to subscribe to the rights offer.
Current regulations state that if a shareholder owns more than 33% but less than 50% of a listed company and it increases its shareholding beyond another 2%, it must make an offer to buy out other shareholders. Umno already owns 49.8% of Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd. Given its undertaking to subscribe to the rights offer, Umno will increase its stake to between 53.1% and 67.2%, and hence trigger the mandatory general offer.
And yet, Umno is asking for the SC to exempt the party from this regulation – a regulation that was put in place to protect the integrity of the financial markets and the rights of minority shareholders.
Party above government
What else is wrong about the government’s call to bail out Utusan from its poor performance as a newspaper and a media company? Umno politicians have demonstrated that as far as they are concerned, their government positions can be used for their party’s interest.
The prime minister himself has demonstrated that he has no qualms using his public office to advance his party’s interest and that of a company his party owns. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a lower-ranking minister like Ahmad Maslan would follow in the party leader’s footsteps. And we shouldn’t also be too astonished when much lower-ranking Umno politicians begin to laud Ahmad Maslan’s directive to the GLCs.
MCA, however, has described Ahmad Maslan’s actions as an abuse of ministerial powers, pointing out that the government was ordering for public funds to be spent on bailing out a private company. Equally critical was PKR, which said that by confusing his roles as deputy minister and Umno publicity chief, Ahmad Maslan had “compromised public interest”.
Cost to the nation
It’s bad enough that Utusan has been allowed by the state to continue reporting in a way that is dishonest, racially polarising, defamatory and damaging to the nation. Umno is now asking the nation to pay an even more exacting price to ensure the survival of a paper that, to quote Najib, “has never backed down in defending our race”.
What is that price? That price is the continuation of an unprofessional and unethical Malay paper; the encouragement of poor corporate and financial governance to serve one’s private interests; and the practice of abusing one’s public office for the sole purpose of protecting and promoting a political party’s interests.
At this juncture, as cliché as it may be, I can’t help but ask: “Apa lagi Umno mahu?”
Jacqueline Ann Surin was thrilled to bits when The New Straits Times had to issue a page-three-lead apology to Bersih 2.0, Suaram, the Centre for Independent Journalism and Merdeka Centre for publishing a false and baseless article that defamed them. She wishes the Malaysian media would learn to be accountable and ethical without having to first be sued.
I have no issue with you criticising Utusan. But I have issues with your double standards. The reporting by TMI, Chronicle etc and other mouthpieces of PR have been simply unethical and unprofessional. TMI has for example apologised numerous times. They distort news. Mix facts and opinion. They are never objective. Never carry out good news for BN and always do PR damage control. The title headers and pictures are distorted. Worse, any contrarion views are always censored. Yet I find you and a number of editors support this organisation and censor my comments on them.
What you should do is explain the ethical standards of journalism. Explain the USJ ethical standards. Tell us the rubbish of all our media. Espouse a fair and open media. Not only criticise media which doesn’t support your ideas but support media which carries similar unethical and unprofessional standards. In other words, condemn Utusan’s reporting but practise the same style for your cause.
The impact has been a divided nation based on false news, if you care. But I think many don’t. And every time I read high-moral standing articles like this, I am amazed at how people can go to such an extent of being hypocritical without any semblance of guilt.
The only good thing is that you’re open to contrarion views at The Nut Graph though you never carry a contrarion article. Would you print my article if I posted it to you? I’ll take all criticism like in the past.
It is wrong to use tax payers’ money to bail out a party’s newspaper. Period.
Ellese […] says it all.
All the negative matters reflect clearly on Utusan. All of what you just said, it is about Utusan.
Hence, do we need these kind of […] paper in circulation? Using tax payers money to glorify it, that is a real insult.
What tax payers money? Utusan is a public listed company, a legitimate business.. where is the part utusan uses tax payers money? Everything is owned by UMNO. [Is Umno] owned by taxpayers???
Gopal Raj Kumar says
Government intervention into any industry especially the media is not unprecedented. Rupert Murdoch and the late Sir Peter Ables (TNT) were given a free hand: lower than market interest rate loans to enter the then failing US media market in a depressed US economy when Ronald Reagan took office in early 1980. It had a specific design and purpose to it.
There was no domestic market capable of saving the US print media in the wake of an assault by cable TV. It was about 5 years since the end of the Vietnam war and the “cupboard was bare”.
Murdoch and Ables came to the US to order large fleets of Boeing aircraft for their newly acquired Ansett Airlines, an Australian domestic carrier at the time. There was a clause in the domestic aviation act that compelled both the government-owned TAA and Ansett to have similar aircraft, similar capacity and similar timetables and routes.
By Murdoch purchasing Boeing instead of Airbus, they doubled the order (as TAA had to follow). It was the largest aircraft order at the time and a boost to the US economy. Reagan had to throw in a sweetener or the Europeans and Airbus would have countered. Reagan gave the Australians an open cheque book and Rupert went on a binge having already dominated Australia’s media landscape. He was then compelled to adopt US citizenship. Thatcher funded his takeover of the Wapping printing presses and enter Britain destroying the unions. That’s just one example of government intervention.
If one reads the history of the late Maxwell in Britain, he too was a beneficiary of massive government funding. Government turned a blind eye to his compliance failures under the noses of the “city of London” bankers whilst he raped the community and ran roughshod over the press.
Lee Kuan Yew did the same to the New Straits Times with preferential treatment and threats. History is replete with examples of the point you struggle to make. There is no government that will not save an asset that serves its constituency.
“There is no government that will not save an asset that serves its constituency.”
With tax payer money, and in breach of minority shareholder rights?
No, not every government, just ours.
Worse, the instruction to CEOs of GLCs to advertise in a dying paper. What is the business ethics of that, exactly?
Gopal Raj Kumar says
Tax payers money is what the government has. Not private money. Where and what authority do you cite for breaches of minority shareholders rights? Where is the breach you speak of?
As to the “business ethics” you appear offended about in its so-called breach, what ethics do you suggest ought to exist in place of a situation you say exists where a board or major shareholder of a corporation directs its subsidiaries and minions to act as they direct them to?
This is competition and it is cut-throat.
Gopal Raj Kumar says
As to the racism aspect in your criticism and unbalanced beat-up of Utusan, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Your publication engages in one-sided Malay, Muslim baiting as if there are no other issues in Malaysia that need attention.
You approach and speak of the current government, UMNO and anyone who does not fit into your idea of what’s right or wrong in the pejorative. There is no balance but that’s not so bad after all because your support of the opposition makes you and the opposition a target of criticism fair or foul. And that’s not such a bad thing after all.
The word opposition I have to qualify. It is not simply The Nut Graph, the DAP, foreign-funded NGOs and PKR that constitute the opposition. They simply form a group that claims an absolute right to represent any opposition to government without any mandate to do so as one.
As usual, everything becomes reduced to one-sided Malay, Muslim baiting, even though there wasn’t any.
You want real racism, read the paper you’re seeking to defend (and doing a very poor job of it, to boot.)
“The word opposition I have to qualify. It is not simply The Nut Graph, the DAP, foreign-funded NGOs and PKR that constitute the opposition. They simply form a group that claims an absolute right to represent any opposition to government without any mandate to do so as one.”
I read that 3 times and it made less sense every time.
Sorry, what “mandate” is required? By what statute?
Or are you just padding out with fluff?
Yeah, you’re padding.
Gopal Raj Kumar says
[…] Where is any article about the hundreds of Chinese businesses which were acquired through government patronage? […]
Define racism first before you ask anyone to read Utusan. It is state policy in Singapore — a Chinese enclave and role model for the rest of you parked in the federation.
The mandate to rule the country is required by the Constitution and by convention. Statute?
“I am amazed at how people can go to such an extent of being hypocritical without any semblance of guilt”… this sounds like a perfect description of Malaysian politicians. I haven’t been following The Nut Graph or The Malaysian Insider much. Maybe you can educate us on the amount of times they have been sued and issued apologies. Then we can start an independent tabs counter.
Gopal Raj Kumar says
Perhaps that’s because The Nut Graph has some salvation in it. It is either incapable of inflicting any damage to the reputations of others or is not as important as it would like to think it is for others to notice what’s written and published by it enough to sue them.
Perhaps even more true, their articles do not make enough sense for anyone to find something offensive enough to take them to court.
The Nut Graph is a bit like playing poker on a free website which pays nothing and costs the player nothing. Instead it gives the player the sensation and opportunity to play, to write and let off steam without any real impact to anyone. A rag by any other name.
The point is this. Not having been sued is no measure of the truth or falsehoods you publish.
Gopal Raj Kumar says
Magic ink? My comments have disappeared into thin air? Well I suppose that’s part of the democracy we can expect in a Nut Graph-led government.
The shape of things to come.