Commentary Politics

Umno started politicising the press in 1961 & Pakatan seems happy with it

In these days of the Internet and thus availability of an alternative press, any newspaper that indulges in one-sided, biased reporting is only committing suicide.

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Written by Aziz Hassan

November 26, 2019.

Recollections & Reflections

IN the most recent days a few bloggers have raised the point alleging misreporting and spinning by the mainstream press that was deemed unfair to two former top leaders facing multiple charges in court.

The mainstream press in this context means newspapers and other news outlets linked to the current Pakatan Harapan federal administration but apart from the government-owned RTM and national news agency Bernama, there are not many left in this category that are politically owned or owned by individuals known to be supportive of the government.

The Media Prima group, under which there’s TV3, the New Straits Times and Berita Harian, immediately comes to mind. There’s Astro, in which the government has a stake and although this could be the second biggest block after controlling owner Ananda Krishnan, not many may be aware of this. Astro’s main round-the-clock news and current affairs channel is Awani, which in the run-up to last year’s general elections and subsequent months leaned towards Pakatan.

There is also the Malaysian Reserve business newspaper controlled by tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary who’s known to be close to the centre but beyond the ones mentioned, there isn’t anything else that’s obvious in its backing for Pakatan.

The current situation is markedly different from it was before the late 90s, not just in the number of MSM news outlets but more significantly in terms of sales, thus readership or viewership.

A look into history may help explain the situation better.

Political ownership of local newspapers came about because politicians realised the obvious advantages of having one that will do their bidding. National interest had nothing to do with it. While having an independent, vibrant press is what helps move a country forward, with the fourth estate playing a crucial role to check and balance to ensure that the government doesn’t misbehave, local politicians don’t subscribe to this thinking.

In this country, the first drastic and most unfortunate change happened in 1961, four years after independence, when Tunku Abdul Rahman was the Umno president and prime minister. Mind you, the Tunku was generally regarded as a liberal politician who was very tolerant of dissent. Yet he went on with the plan to buy the then Utusan Melayu newspaper which led to a strike by employees but which the government eventually crushed through the sacking of its leaders who were mainly senior journalists.

More political ownership was to follow, with again Umno in 1972 buying over the New Straits Times Press that was owned by the British. The year before that the MCA, a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, started The Star and in 1984, the NSTP added another medium when it launched TV3. Many newspapers in Sabah and Sarawak too have had political ownership while the MIC, another main partner in BN, also had its Tamil language newspaper.

The main issue with political ownership, at least in Malaysia, is the press is not allowed to venture out of the territory decided by the politicians, with editors appointed from among those known to be in the good books of political leaders. The editors in turn appoint senior executives based on known political or personal allegiance.

By and large the politically owned press did reasonably well as a business for many years because the people simply had no choice but by the late 90s the situation took a drastic shift, thanks to the Internet, and the availability of the alternative press and social media. The circulation of newspapers began to see a slide which until today they haven’t recovered from. In fact a few, like the Utusan Melayu Group, have ceased operating while the New Straits Times is said to be selling at best only about 10 per cent of what it was 30 years ago. If the NST goes the same way as Utusan, this is not going to surprise many media watchers.

There have been not too loud calls for political parties or politicians from being allowed to be media owners but it looks like Pakatan too has a similar position adopted by Umno and BN those days, which may ultimately cause whatever media it now owns to suffer the same fate as Utusan.

And if the stance by the Pakatan-owned press is not to the liking of the country’s political opposition, notably Umno and BN, it is simply a case of the latter having a bitter taste of its own medicine.

No judge is going to be influenced by any spinning, bias or misreporting because it’s all about firm evidence

Oh, this issue about the so-called bias, spinning of facts and non-disclosure in court cases….

Court reporting is absolute privilege, which means that a reporter is not restrained or constrained in what can be reported. The other significant point is that any grievous error or misreporting that affects the position of either party is something that can and most likely will be brought to the bench’s attention by the lawyers or prosecutors.

A properly trained journalist is never asked by any editor worth his salt to purposely distort a news report, certainly not on a court case because it doesn’t bring the newspaper any good – MSM or alternative. On the contrary it only damages the reputation and credibility of the reporter, editor and newspaper.

It is also impossible for any newspaper to include every word that is uttered in court, for to do that would take maybe at least a full tabloid page. No one is going to have the stamina and patience to read this much text everyday from  just one news item.

But the most crucial factor that everyone should know is that no matter what you and I have to say or how much a newspaper thinks its spin is going to help the prosecution or the defence, every case is decided solely by the judge based on firm evidence, not on hearsay, gossips, rumours or what a newspaper says.

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About the author

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Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.