Thursday, March 27, 2008

Malaysian mainstream media - missing professionalism

Dean Johns, my favourite Malaysiakini columnist wrote an interesting article in Boycott the media, or buy them where he too lambasted the mainstream media (MSM). The MSM had earned the dubious reputation notoriety of being nothing more than mouthpieces of the Barisan Nasional (BN).

But this is not in itself unique to Malaysia, because in the Western democracies too, the media do have favourites, and have at times spinned furiously for their sides.

But what distinguishes the Malaysian MSM has been its (collective) ‘creativity’ in, just as a rotten example, reporting the Bersih rally was only 4000 strong - there was some serious basic counting problem there. I needn’t go into what it had reported on the other more significant rally by Hindraf. Where's the professionalism?

What do we do with the MSM then?

Johns said: “The first, easiest and most obvious, of course, is a massive boycott as advocated by Haris Ibrahim, Helen Ang and others, thus weakening and even ultimately destroying them commercially.”

But he added, obviously favouring his second suggestion: “A second alternative (Dean, ;-) would this be a tautology?), however fanciful it might seem at first glance, is to buy them. Star Publications and Media Prima, are, as they proudly boast, both listed on the KLSE.”

Johns suggested that opposition supporters (around five million of them) should consider throwing in around RM400 each, an amount they spent on newspapers annually anyway, to invest in MSM shares. Then the public could control these companies or own them outright. He termed such a move ‘shareholder activism’.

Would that guarantee an independent sector of the press? Who knows, but we may be sure of one thing, it’ll most likely be a lot better than what it is today, very unprofessional.

As another example of its non-professionalism, I found a Penang-originated paper not doing its public duty when it failed miserably to update the election results on that fateful Saturday, as the people's verdict became known. Thank goodness I was able to rely on Malaysiakini to find out what the heck was happening.

But like all surfers, I would have enjoyed a variety of feedback, and as a Penangite, I naturally turned towards an old (though no longer a) favourite.

Alas, that was not to be. God knows how many of its editors then went AWOL from their election night duties, probably clutching strips of panadol capsules as they bunkered down in shock, whilst their public audience wondered whether they had suffered a nuclear storm, knocking all electronic transmissions and receptions off. As they realized they couldn't spin anymore they must have abdicated that duty to the office spiders which then spun webs across their idle screens.

In a recent conversation with one of my uncles (yes, sweetie, I have many) he contrasted the newspaper’s performance with that of RTM in 1969. Uncle told me the following true story.

On the night of the 1969 general election, there was huge billboard at the Selangor Club padang (sports field), where election results throughout Malaysia were posted as they flowed in by phone calls. But notwithstanding the festive mood there that night, where the audience still sitting on their ubiquitious Honda Cups surrounded the padang, with each opposition party’s victory being greeted by loud roars of approval, and the teh tarik and sop kambing people doing a rip-roaring trade behind the General Post Office, the star of that night was RTM.

For the first time, RTM broadcasted beyond midnight and in fact (according to Unc’s recollection) into breakfast time.

The counting in those days were slower but by midnight, the Perikatan (Tunku’s Alliance) was already reeling as Gerakan, DAP, PPP and PAS made mincemeat out of the ruling party.

Unc remembered the RTM panel of announcers-analysers-guest speakers from all parties-etc, including an UMNO man on the panel who was very knowledgeable on political personalities, nature and composition of each constituencies (both Parliament and States) and political trivia etc.

He kept the broadcast really interesting but when he saw the Perikatan being chopped off at the knees, especially in Penang, Perak and Selangor, he became demoralised. He was more than ready to sign off by the scheduled time of midnight, when a man approached him from behind (seen on the screen), whispered in his ears, whence he turned to announced, words to the effect, “I have been instructed to continue broadcasting until further notice”.

That was the professionalism of the media in those days of Tunku. The audience was waiting, and the show must go on!

By contrast, that Saturday night of 08 March 2008, that particular newspaper virtually stopped updating its promised election results by around 9 pm (perhaps even earlier).

OK, so the BN lost badly, but where was the journalistic professionalism to keep the public informed?

Newspapers have a duty like the postman, where it must deliver come rain or shine. But one particular Malaysian MSM online news failed badly on the night of 08 March 2008.


  1. Why buy the newspaper's shares when you can buy the assets on a fire sale?

    Leave the newspapers alone to do their spinning. When BR takes over there will be a BR Home Minister. He can, as his first duty, call on the license holders and owners of these newspapers and tell them to write in a single sentence why they think they are a newspaper or a news broadcaster when in fact they were a propaganda machine.

    They will all not be able to of course. Then just forfeit the license according to the letter of the law that these people supported for so long. Then sell the license to others more worthy of the license for RM1.

    Leave it to these guys to negotiate to take over the assets of The STAR, NST, Utusan, Nanyang and so on and so forth.

    I'll bet you the assets will be going at fire sale prices!

  2. The Star was suspended from publication for several months (with great loss of income) by the Mamak Mahafiraun zalim regime at the time of the Operation Lallang.

    After playing the role of a vocal social commentator and getting thus hammered, the Star's head honchos probably decided to play it safe nowadays and just concentrate on making money. They have to make money now because they have shareholders who would definitely hammer them if they don't.

    And having the Printing and Publications Act hanging over their heads like the Sword of Damocles probably has the effect of making them tread extra carefully.

  3. OK, though that wasn't the main criticism, which was that on election night, they seemed to have abandoned their professional duty

  4. A few days ago I needled hard a long-time "Bintang" friend on this issue. Yes, he admitted they failed to perform their duty as Press on that night. The older generation staff who were brought up on stricter reporting values didn't feel good about it - but what to do...the Top management are all made up of Spin Masters and Ball Carriers now. My friend is just doing his job as best he can, then he will retire in 2 years time..go fishing..

    To be fair, when the extent of BN's losses became clear, there was a worry about 1969 repeating itself. There was a line of thought maybe it was better to let the public go to sleep and digest the news in the morning.

  5. "in Western Democracies too, the media do have favourites, and have at times spinned furiously"
    Excuse me. You cannot compare the Malaysia MSM with the western media. In the West, you have a whole spectrum of media with opinions ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left. Things some of them say about their own government personalities would make you blanch. Yes, even the much vaunted BBC spins BUT you have other stations to turn to. They do not need annually renewable licences to operate. They do know that if they overly spin, they'll lose their audience or customers. In America, a media known to be a Republican mouthpiece will even slam a Republican leader if he does wrong. They feel that if they do not, they will become partly responsible for bringing the Party down. They realize that nothing is more dangerous than subscribing to one's own propaganda. That is why they (Western politicians) take the trouble to read and watch media opposed to their own ideology. You don't find that in our beloved country, and that is the tragedy.

  6. Seems Dean Johns yet to offer the 3rd options : enable another papers.

    Buying MSM stocks are stupendous way to control media, especially for Malaysia. Dean Johns must answer many questions before he bring out the idea :
    i. What happens to Print press act?

    ii. How many newspaper are running at HUGE LOSES? E.g. NSTP,Nanyang, Utusan actually depends on injection of funds to stay a float

    iii. The stock buying call will artificially increase the PRICE of the MSM stock.

    Why not BR allow alternate papers to be published in BR state? Print Act Press are weaken in State level. E.g. Harakah are openly available in Kelantan.

    In fact, newspaperman, magazine+news stands, they are welcome more medium enter the market. And business welcome it as it will give competitive advertisement price.

    I wonder why Dean Johns snipped the idea of having alternate newspaper?

  7. moo, Dean didn't. He merely put forth 2 possible proposals without rejecting or denying us further possibilities - it's after all up to us Malaysians - remember Dean is an Aussie (well, 50% Malaysian anyway) making a recommendation.

    Chin, I like your "They realize that nothing is more dangerous than subscribing to one's own propaganda." Guess that happened here ;-)

  8. On the night of 8 Mar, RTM & TV3 dragged their feet in announcing the results and we could sense that the BN was doing badly. The first indication of their prime time news was not the GE results, but the riot in Trengganu showing shots of police firing tear gas at demonstrators. This was unlike their coverage of earlier elections, where when BN won or performed well, they prominently splashed reports of BN successes complete with shots of supporters chairing victorious BN candidates. Even when results were released, RTM and TV3 came up with BN victories in Sarawak and Sabah to give the impression that the BN would win big. How misleading. By 9 pm when practically the whole country had already known through SMS and other devices that the BN had lost Penang, Kelantan, and on the verge of losing Selangor and Perak,RTM and TV3 still did not carry such reports. Later on in the night when results trickle in, the pro-BN TV stations reluctantly carried them. TV3 featured a panel discussion on the polls results using certain Malay academics and others who were sympathetic towards UMNO and could not hide their unhappiness that the opposition parties were winning in many areas. They also warned on the dangers of "communal voting". It made me want to throw my shoe at the TV screen when the very people who should be cheering the opposition of fighting UMNO's communal politics, were accusing them of being communal! What kind of warped logic. Here I am catching the thief red handed and he had the cheek to accuse me of being a thief myself!

    With the advent of the internet, the mainstream media is now exposed for their unprofessionalism and unreliability in serving the people. They should relabel themselves BN propagating machines!

  9. Apparently journalist (okay, some) are not the only one who are unprofessional. The Star reported on Mar 27 that teachers in Penang who do not attend official functions organised by State Government will not be reprimanded because Penang was no longer under BN rule and that headmaster who wish to invite MPs for their school function will have to have consent of the state education department. (

    I am surprise that civil servants should take sides openly. After all aren't civil servants work for the prevailing state government and serving the people (and not the politicians)? Is he just trying to 'repay' his gratitude to the BN government who puts him where he is now?

    I am happy that such a freak election result has occured. Truely this is a big experiment where everybody suddenly sit up and pay attention - Role of civil servants, relations between states and federal government, the running of state government, role of Sultans, the uneasy coalition bet DAP-PKR-PAS, relevance of Gerakan, and succession and the running of UMNO itself.

    Imagine how much would we have missed out if not for the fiasco created by the just ended election. We are given only 5 years to try out this big experiment. So for the sake of Malaysia, lets hope the experiment works