Five questions on SPH Media’s overstated circulation numbers
Several MPs raised questions in Parliament on Monday about SPH Media’s overstated circulation numbers that came to light in January. Here are five questions Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo was asked and her responses.
Why did SPH Media not break the news itself?
The news of SPH Media’s circulation issues was broken by an independent online publication rather than by the organisation itself, said Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
She asked Mrs Teo why this was the case, as one of the roles of a media organisation is to expose wrongdoing.
Mrs Teo said many things happen in an organisation each day, and it is up to the management to decide if and how an incident ought to be communicated, both within and outside of the organisation.
She noted that the review of circulation numbers was initiated by SPH Media, and that it was still under way when news of the overstated figures emerged. It had also convened a further review by its audit and risk committee to set things right, she added.
“Should the manner in which they communicated have been approached differently?” she asked. “I think that is a matter that SPH Media and the management and the board will have to consider.”
Has trust in SPH Media and its publications been broken?
Workers’ Party (WP) MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) asked if public trust in the company has been broken, and whether or not any steps will be taken in the interim to restore that trust.
She said: “If the organisation goes to such lengths to falsify circulation figures, even pulping newspapers, would we still be able to trust the content that’s delivered by (it)?”
In response, Mrs Teo reiterated that SPH Media is expected to share the findings of its audit and risk committee’s investigation with the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) once it is completed, and make the necessary rectification.
SPH Media has a responsibility to let the public know how it intends to proceed, and this responsibility is not lost on its management and board, she said.
“If there was any doubt that they did not take this matter seriously, I don’t see why they would have convened another review by their own audit and risk committee.”
Was there insufficient due diligence in deciding to provide SPH Media with public funding?
Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai of the PSP said circulation data should have been part of the Government’s due diligence before it committed in 2022 to fund SPH Media up to $900 million over five years.
He noted that while the Government’s metrics for accountability of public funding to SPH Media are readership and reach, circulation data is an important area, and he questioned if there was inadequate due diligence by MCI.
In response, Mrs Teo said MCI conducted a review in January for the reasons it had committed public funds to support SPH Media’s capability development.
These included the intense competition faced by professional newsrooms as news consumption shifts online, the long-term public interest of preserving local news media, and the need to support vernacular news outlets to reflect Singapore’s multiracial make-up.
She said the Government concluded that the reasons for public funding remain valid, as does the level of funding.
“Should these be affected by the findings of the audit and risk committee? At this stage, it is too early to say – I will not prejudge,” she said.
Will there be any legal action taken against its employees or management?
Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Choa Chu Kang GRC) and Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) asked if there could be criminal sanctions, civil liabilities or regulatory action taken against SPH Media’s employees or board.
Mrs Teo said that if there is any evidence that laws were broken, SPH Media Trust is obligated to inform the police. Until the audit and risk committee has completed its work, one should not prejudge the outcome, she added.
As for Mr Chua’s question on whether circulation revenues was impacted, that is the reason SPH Media has asked its committee to investigate the matter more fully, she said.
“Until they have completed their work and shared their findings, I think everything else that we say is speculative.”
Were earlier circulation figures also overstated?
Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) asked if circulation figures reported by SPH Media before the period that was reviewed were accurate, and if the overstatement of circulation figures was a longstanding practice.
Mrs Teo said these questions are better addressed after the audit and risk committee convened by SPH Media completes its investigations and shares its findings.
“Keep in mind that these discrepancies were uncovered as a result of an internal review that was initiated by the SPH Media management in the first place,” she said in response to another question on circulation figures by Mr Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC).
“So I think it is clear that the intent of the SPH Media board as well as its management (is) to put things on the right footing and we should support them in this process.”