Government has right to terminate funding for SPH Media if wrongdoings are found: Josephine Teo
The Government will step in and has the right to terminate funding for SPH Media Trust (SMT) if misconduct or mismanagement of public funding and serious wrongdoings are found in the future.
Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo told Parliament on Thursday that the first tranche of funding to SMT was disbursed in March.
She pointed out that this was after the events in a report that found that Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) had overstated its circulation figures. There was no public funding involved then.
Mrs Teo was responding to six MPs and Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai who filed questions on SMT following a report by the organisation’s audit and risk committee published on June 21. It found that SPH had overstated its daily circulation numbers, among other findings.
Mrs Teo said the Government will intervene if there is misconduct or mismanagement of public funding. “In this regard, we have built in safeguards that allow the Government to conduct our own ad hoc audits. If serious wrongdoings are found, we have the right to terminate funding.”
The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) will also be reviewing the terms of the funding agreement, including the key performance indicators (KPIs) and the amount of funding at the mid-term juncture, she added.
The findings by SMT’s committee concluded that some of the matters could constitute offences. A police report has since been filed.
The committee’s report also listed ways SMT will improve its internal controls and enhance its risk management. This includes commissioning external parties to look at its governance, control and compliance.
Mrs Teo said on Thursday that MCI is committed to working with SMT to overcome the challenges of disruption caused by readership moving online and succeed in its transformation plans.
The Government will continue funding SMT at the amounts it has committed to, she added.
In February 2022, Mrs Teo told Parliament that SMT will get government funding of up to $180 million annually over the next five years.
She said on Thursday that even with dozens of news sources easily available, audiences in Singapore consistently turn to the mainstream media when they need something they can trust.
Citing the Digital News Report 2023 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Mrs Teo said that trust levels in all the SMT’s major titles remained much higher than the global average, with 73 per cent of respondents expressing trust in The Straits Times. This was up by three percentage points from 2022.
This is against the backdrop of the erosion of trust in news globally, from an already modest 42 per cent in 2022 to 40 per cent in 2023.
“Trusted news media made possible by quality journalism is a public good we cannot compromise on. It is more important than ever when the environment is full of disinformation and sensationalised news,” said Mrs Teo.
On the circulation report, she said the Government acknowledges SMT’s seriousness in investigating the concerns and making the findings public.
The matter is now before the police and the focus should be on ensuring that SMT discharges its public duties responsibly on an ongoing basis, she added.
This, however, does not mean that the Government has no additional expectations of SMT in light of the circulation incident.
Mrs Teo added that at the leadership level, the SMT management and board have demonstrated commitment to changing legacy practices. The Government expects SMT to persist in addressing internal weaknesses and systematically follow up on the required changes, she said.
Mrs Teo noted that the circulation data issue emerged because SMT was conducting its own review and due diligence following the transfer of the media business from SPH Limited in December 2021.
She said the Government welcomed the plans SMT has set in motion, including instituting internationally accepted benchmarks and extensively reviewing its governance and control measures.
“This is an ongoing process, and MCI will work closely with SMT to ensure these measures are implemented,” she added.